Victorian philanthropy created them; market forces are destroying them. For the old gardeners of one London suburb, factories are a poor substitute for allotments
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The Independent Culture
Cycling last summer along the tow path of the Grand Union Canal at Harlesden in north-west London, the photographer Max Jourdan came across the vestiges of a very English tragedy. He discovered a crazy, unkempt landscape, where flowers and vegetables ran amok around the ruins of garden sheds and glasshouses. In the sheds were armchairs, kettles, mugs and newspapers, along with garden implements and clothes, as if ready for instant use. A little hut that had served as a shop still had its display trays marked up with bargain prices for seed and fertiliser. It was as if an archaeologist, quite by chance, had come across the remnants of a lost civilisation. Everything suggested a sudden abandonment, the occupants forced to down tools and flee in the face of some unforeseen and overwhelming menace.

And that, in essence, is what had happened. At the Lower Place allotments in the district of Harlesden known as Park Royal, the close-knit, unglamorous world of the weekend gardener clashed with the brave new creed of urban regeneration - its apostles the smart young men and women whose mobile phones quiver with buzzwords such as "partnership" and "city challenge". From the start, it was an unequal contest.

When Max Jourdan came across his vision of the Marie Celeste beached in the Garden of Eden, it was already more than a year since the last sod had been turned on the 21 acres of Lower Place, one of the largest allotment sites in the London area. But its loss is still passionately felt by the 198 gardeners who cultivated one or more of the 297 plots. Some had been nurturing the fertile soil for most of their lives.

In 1994 they were driven off by the landowner, the Central Middlesex Hospital, egged on by the Park Royal Partnership, a consortium of businesses and local council formed to bring investment and jobs into a declining area of London. They are not isolated victims: all across the country such grace-and-favour vegetable gardens, established more than a century ago on spare public land, are succumbing to the remorseless pressure of market forces.

For decades the allotment has symbolised innocently pleasurable toil and social stability. Those who work the plots are the suburban yeomen of England. In the recent BBC serial Our Friends in the North, a young lad's destruction of an old man's allotment served as a metaphor for his rebellion against the established order.

The patrician practice of allowing poor town-dwellers to rent a small patch of land at a giveaway price, for growing nutritious vegetables and taking healthy exercise, was introduced in the early 19th century. In Victorian times rapid urbanisation, combined with the development of a philanthropic public conscience, led to an increase in allotments. The number of individual lots peaked during the Second World War and the "Dig for Victory" campaign, at 1.5 million. With the arrival of peace they dwindled rapidly and, despite a brief resurgence in the Seventies when they became symbols of trendy middle-class homesteading, the number today is estimated at 400,000 and falling.

Geoff Stokes, Secretary of the National Society of Allotment and Leisure Gardeners, says: "There is always going to be pressure on allotment land for development simply because of the location. Allotments were originally on the edges of towns and villages, but now the houses have spread to these areas. Where the councils own the land, as they usually do, they can pass it on at nil cost to housing associations. There was a lot of pressure on them about seven years ago but as the boom collapsed it eased off. Inner London boroughs don't have a statutory duty to provide allotments, as other authorities do. The holders aren't entitled to compensation."

Soon after these pictures were taken, most of the sheds at Lower Place were bulldozed and the fertile topsoil, lovingly tended since the plots opened in 1914, was carted away. A few weeks ago three of the stalwarts who tilled them went back for the first time, to press their faces against the high wire fence by the towpath. They gazed through the drizzle at the few sheds that remained on the far side of what is now an expanse of barren scrub, with four modern factories in the distance.

Raymond Thornby, a 73-year-old former policeman who had his first plot here 39 years ago, was secretary of the allotment society when the blow fell. "I had four and a half allotments," he said. "I was here all the time. It was my life. A lot of pensioners used to come here every day and used it as a meeting place."

Another stalwart is Jim Greenwood, 64, a retired local government officer who spent 25 years gardening here. "I used to come down in summer every night after work and all day on Sunday, when my wife and children would sometimes come with me," he said. "When they finally told us we had to go I felt so demoralised I didn't feel like taking on another one."

Henry Brosnan, a 59-year-old builder, now has an allotment in Ealing, six miles away. "I don't spend as much time there as I used to here," he said. "I would come down here at six in the morning and work for an hour before work, then come back in the evening. We had many a good drink together here, especially on Christmas Day. I remember very clearly the last day. We shook hands, then we walked away."

Surveying the desolate prospect, Thornby observed bitterly: "They've built on about a third. There's two-thirds where nothing's been done and they could still have allotments. I could still have had two of mine, Jim and Henry could have had theirs. It's just greed, isn't it?"

That is not how the hospital and the Park Royal Partnership see it. Trudy Price, spokeswoman for the Partnership, said that developing the site was "crucial to getting regeneration and job creation up and running" in the area. In the Fifties, she said, there were some 75,000 jobs in Park Royal factories. By the beginning of the Nineties the number had fallen to 25,000.

The four industrial units so far built on the site are a continental bakery, a Japanese firm of specialist fine-art shippers, a foam manufacturer and an American precision engineer. They have produced nearly 200 jobs. Contracts are being exchanged for two more factories, and by the time the site is filled it should be providing more than 800 jobs, with six acres left free for playing fields and sports facilities.

"That was the only available site which we could develop to produce a large number of jobs quickly," Ms Price insisted. As for the hospital, it is using the money from its sale of the land to fund a pounds 10m ambulatory care centre for out-patients. Hospital and planning officials cannot understand the fuss. What, they ask, are a few allotments and their faintly obsessive minders in comparison with these admirable objectives?

The official notice to quit was a blow, but the plot-holders admit that they might have seen it coming. When the land - the grounds of a former workhouse - was first given over to allotments in 1914, it extended to 25 acres. It remained intact until the late Seventies; in 1977, the hospital built a laboratory on part of the site, and in the mid-Eighties a mental health unit.

The final act of this drama began in May 1992, when Raymond Thornby received a letter from Brent Council instructing the allotment society to vacate the site and asking him to give notice to the holders. He and his fellow committee members did not surrender without a fight. They took advice from a solicitor and went to Somerset House to trace the deeds of the land from the time before it came into public hands. "One story was that it belonged to two old ladies who gave it to the hospital on the understanding it should always be kept for allotments, but we couldn't prove anything," Thornby concedes.

The battle to save the site lost, the committee engaged in a rearguard action over compensation. Its members had invested considerable sums in the site, not just for sheds and equipment but for fences, water tanks, locks and keys. The hospital was not willing to pay anything and the council at first offered pounds 350, less than pounds 2 for each plot-holder. After several meetings this was increased to pounds 7,000, or pounds 35 each.

Thornby tried to launch a last-minute campaign of passive resistance, but failed. "They all packed it in and I had to leave quickly. The buildings and the furniture were left where they were because most of it had no value."

It was an undignified end to the history of an institution that had helped shape the character of this part of London and given it continuity. The plots at Lower Place were always full; the site had a reputation for being on very fertile ground. When they closed there was still a waiting list of 12. One of the oldest gardeners claims that he had been working there for 67 years, since he came as a six-year-old with his father, one of the original First World War plot-holders.

Most of the victims of the dispersal are men in old or middle age. Of the 297 plot-holders at the end, only four were women. "We have had young people but they've always dropped out," explained Jim Greenwood. "A couple of young females came and started very keen but they didn't realise the amount of work involved."

The old gardeners' horticultural paradise was not free from inner-city afflictions, such as theft and vandalism. Henry Brosnan will never forget the day he lost his potatoes. "It was in 1981. I came down here one Sunday morning and all my potatoes had been dug up. I collected all the stalks and put them in the compost bin because I didn't want anybody to know. Then I went to my local pub and got as drunk as drunk could be. I've never felt so bad in my life."

Raymond Thornby remembers staying all day and night once to catch a thief. "He'd been taking the flowers I was growing for a show. Eventually at 10.50pm on a Sunday I caught him. He was a member. I took his key away there and then and said: 'That's it!' "

Several of the gardeners used to enter flower shows: Thornby's specialities were asters, dahlias and chrysanthemums. He fears for this tradition, as well: "A lot of the local shows will die because very few young people are going in for them. And in a few years nearly all the allotment sites in this country will go, too."

Regeneration marches on, with few pausing to notice the desolation it leaves in its wake. As we trudged back along the tow path and out into Acton Lane, Jim Greenwood explained why he and the others feel so devastated by their loss: "I don't feel involved in anything any more. It's not growing the vegetables that I miss; it's the involvement."

"Parking Lot", an exhibition of Max Jourdan's pictures of the Lower Place allotments, is at the Blue Gallery, Walton St, London SW3 until 25 May