Ahead of his talk at Shed Day on South Bank, Dr Ross Wilson reveal how the humble York allotment helps to explain our social history
Allotment gardens in the city can be all too easily ignored. That patchwork quilt of land is perhaps frequently glimpsed out of the corner of the eye but quite quickly forgotten.
This stands in contrast to the deep affection, and occasional frustration, that those who work their allotment garden have towards these quirky aspects of the urban landscape. We would be right to share this enthusiasm; the allotment gardens of York are a vital part of the city’s recent past, present and, potentially, its future.
The allotment gardens of York should be read as a historic document, as they detail the changes in politics, society and economics in the 20th century. Written into the 17 allotment sites in the city is a story of how York’s citizens campaigned for access to land, secured their rights, aided the war effort in World War I and World War II, combated poverty and unemployment and today aid the environment and the wider community through their work.
Urban allotment gardens in the 19th century were largely the gift of an employer. If you were fortunate enough to work for a company or businessman with land available, you might be able to secure a plot to provide fresh vegetables for your family.
The ability of allotment gardens to promote a healthier lifestyle, and perhaps ward off the less helpful vices of drink and gambling, attracted the city’s great reforming family to the cause. Rowntree’s rented out allotment gardens to their factory workers to encourage a sober workforce who strove to improve their condition. Such a resource was vital, as Seebohm Rowntree (1871-1954) revealed in his study of York in 1901, a third of the city lived in a condition of abject poverty.
By the beginning of the 20th century, the interest in developing allotments for the citizens of the city was encouraged by politicians of all parties within York. Socialist politicians viewed it as a means to disrupt traditional patterns of land holding and to counter the processes of industrial capital; Liberal politicians considered allotments a means to improve and “cultivate” society; Tory politicians promoted allotments as a means to counter working class dissent and to improve the health of the populace.
However, it was the citizens of York themselves that campaigned for and succeeded in acquiring allotments. The residents of Holgate, mostly connected to the railway industry, began petitioning the local authority in 1904 to provide allotments under the provision of the 1887 Allotment Act.
This little-used act required councils to provide allotments where there was a demand for them. Through the work of Holgate residents, the council was obliged to begin searching for land for the first council-owned and operated allotment garden.
After a lengthy period of negotiation for the sale of the property, the site of Holgate Allotments was set out in 1905 and local residents overwhelmed the Town Clerk with applications to rent a plot of land. Strict rules were set in place, forbidding tenants to make a profit from their produce, to keep livestock and to keep to the tenancy agreements which were copied from the Rowntree allotment gardens.
However, a precedent had been set. The local authority was now obliged to find allotment sites for other residents of the city whose employers did not provide this important resource. As such, citizens in the South Bank area began writing to the council, asking for a council-owned allotment site in their area.
After a struggle to find someone to sell land, the council eventually purchased an area of land in what was known as Bustardthorpe. Allotments were set out in 1909 and tenants soon organised themselves into an Allotment Association, campaigning for better access to the site, improved provision of water taps and the freedom to construct their own sheds on the rented plots.
The success of local residents should not be ignored; they forced an occasionally unwilling council to become a landlord for the betterment of working peoples’ lives in the city. The significance of allotment sites was demonstrated in the popularity of this resource as the council began receiving petitions from across the city for allotment gardens.
However, it was the conditions brought about by World War I (1914-1918) that changed allotment gardening in York. To ensure self-sufficiency, as part of a larger campaign the council gave permission for the purchase and renting of land in the city to provide allotments for citizens.
By 1917, the council managed over 1,000 individual allotment plots in the city. Nearly a tenth of the current area of the city of York was given over to allotment gardens. Indeed, the majority of the city’s allotment gardens today were laid out during the conflict – making them true veterans of war.
This experience developed a taste for allotment gardens and in the 1920s and 1930s allotment gardening flourished with societies, competitions and associations encouraging this popular pursuit. However, the importance of allotments was still noticeable as when the economic depression hit York in the 1930s, it was allotment gardens that were offered to unemployed men at a discount price to alleviate their circumstances.
York’s allotment gardens were once again called up for service during World War II, when the city was encouraged to “Dig for Victory”. New allotment sites were developed as over 73 acres of land in and around the city were used for this vital resource as Britain’s imported food supply was placed under attack by the enemy.
The association between World War II and York’s allotments can still be seen today in the Anderson air-raid shelters that were recycled after the war to be used as convenient allotment sheds. This is also characteristic of the make-do and mend attitude that characterised York’s allotments in the 1950s. Despite their popularity they were also under threat as a developing economy and society required land for housing, schools and infrastructure.
The appearance of allotment gardens began to change too. By the 1960s and 1970s, what was once a male, working class pursuit had become one which was shared by increasing numbers of women and middle class families. Allotment gardening also attracted support from the growing environmental movement, which saw home-grown produce as an ideal means to cut pollution and avoid potentially damaging pesticides.
After a period of decline in the 1980s, when changes in society saw allotment gardening fall from favour, York’s allotments have been thriving from the early 1990s. Today, allotment gardeners from all walks of life take their place in the history of one of York’s great unsung institutions. As concerns for organic food, environmental change and access to resources for exercise, leisure and enjoyment are current issues, allotments will continue their important role for York’s citizens.
Allotments have been at the forefront of the city’s experience of social change, global conflict, economic downturns and political representation. Allotment gardens are significant; they provide a fantastic resource to understand York’s history in the twentieth century and to consider the city’s place in the twenty first century.
- Dr Wilson is senior lecturer in modern history and public heritage at the University of Chichester
- His talk on the history of York’s allotments is part of Shed Day and takes place at Bustardthorpe Allotments, Bishopthorpe Road, on Saturday, May 18 at 10am
- To find out more, go to the Plotting The Past website