The Great British rake off - the new reality show where allotments are the focus

But for centuries, they were essential to survival for thousands of working-class people

As gladiatorial arenas go, a walled garden in Nottinghamshire doesn't immediately conjure up images of bitter rivalry and struggles to survive. But BBC2's new series, The Big Allotment Challenge, contains these high passions in spades. For not only will contestants be fighting it out to see their patch be crowned top of the plots, they will be doing so on land that has been a political battleground for centuries, and in a place where a good crop could once have been the difference between life and death.

Allotments, you see, have recently become a source of fascination to the British. When I was researching my book on working-class gardeners, I was often asked, 'Do you mean allotments?' Well, I did, but more besides, for there were cottage gardens and potato grounds, urban back yards and detached grounds, window boxes and roof gardens. Yet, allotments are what spring to many minds when the subject of working-class gardens is brought up. It was the allotment that took centre stage with the people I spoke to. The makers of the Big Allotment Challenge obviously know their onions. However, our allotment-tending ancestors would have been astonished by this interest.

Allotments have for centuries played a vital role in working-class gardening in Britain – as well as, in some cases, keeping the working-classes alive. The term first appears in the 1790s in enclosure acts, making land provisions for the poor. The catalyst for allotments was the enclosures, the process that ended traditional rights such as grazing livestock on common land, or cultivating arable crops on strips in open fields. Once enclosed, the use of the land was restricted to the owner, depriving some rural families of their means of survival. Enclosures began in the Tudor period, often to make sheep farming more profitable at a time when wool represented the wealth of the nation. It is no coincidence that the earliest allotment-type awards date from the 16th century. Thus, at Haddiscoe in Norfolk, the will of Thomas Strange in 1556 left some of his estate, 12 acres of land in 20 pieces, for the relief of the poor and needy. While it's impossible to know exactly what these proto-allotments contained, it's likely they were used to grow cereals and vegetables. It's not the place to raise a pig.

Arthur Young, agricultural reformer and writer, was an enthusiast for agricultural improvements, and when he saw some of the misery caused by the impoverishment of the most vulnerable rural families, he became convinced that it was right to provide allotments. In 1796, he wrote of how "in the parishes of Ashley and Newton, in the country of Wilts, and Shipton Moyne in Gloucestershire, the landlord gave every cottager 15 perches [approx. one tenth of an acre] of ground, enclosed in one large piece, containing acres sufficient in that proportion for every cottage; thus thrown together in one piece to save the expense of separate enclosures". This signals the birth of the modern idea of the allotment in Britain.

The idea was taken forward, not by government legislation, but by philanthropic landowners, who nevertheless had an eye on the rising costs of the poor rates to which they had to contribute. By providing plots on which the labourers could grow food, they would not be a burden to the parish. However, many farmers found this independence irksome, often opposing the idea of allotments, claiming they provided a distraction from their workers' day jobs, and sometimes accusing them of stealing seed and tools. This battle was to rage through the 19th century, exacerbated by the depression, which hit British agriculture from the 1870s.

With the Franchise Act of 1884, when Gladstone extended the vote to the rural male population, agricultural labourers suddenly became far more interesting to politicians. Increasingly, county council elections in some areas were fought on the "allotment ticket".

The importance of the allotment for keeping a family alive comes over clearly in a study made by the social reformer Benjamin Seebohm Rowntree and his assistant, May Kendall. Concentrating on agricultural labourers in the midland counties of England, they published their findings in 1913 as How the Labourer Lives. The Leigh family from Oxfordshire consisted of the father, a general labourer, his wife, three sons aged five-and-a-half, three and 15 months, and a daughter aged eight. The father's wage was 13s per week, supplemented over the year by extra earnings of £2 12s. The rent for their cottage was 1s 3d per week, while the allotment cost 4s per annum. By the end of November, the family had only three or four boilings of greens, a few turnips and parsnips, and a bushel of potatoes. Rowntree and Kendall noted grimly that: "The Leighs seem to be facing the darkness with no immediate hope of dawn." Little wonder recruiting officers were horrified by the medical condition of labouring men signing up in the First World War. Without allotments and gardens, these families would have starved.

Although allotments were largely a rural phenomenon, then, like now, they could be found on the outskirts of cities and towns. Two examples come from the then impoverished area of East London. The Leyes Road Allotments, which are still cultivated, were first set aside for dockworkers following the completion of the Victoria Dock in 1854. The area between Bromley-by-Bow and Stratford was known by 1908 as Allotment Town, with 290 plots. According to the local newspaper, the whole community on Saturdays ventured out to their sheds, which were furnished with "gables, porches, dormer windows and curtains".

It was during the First World War, however, that urban allotments really came into their own. Although Britain declared war on Germany at the beginning of August 1914, more than two years passed before serious concerns were openly expressed about the supply of food, and no rationing was imposed.

At Christmas 1916, the Government issued a draconian statute of land reform through a regulation of the Defence of the Realm Act, and land was appropriated for smallholdings, market gardens and allotments. A few months later, the Kaiser threatened that German U-boats would "frighten the British flag off the face of the waters and starve the British people until they, who have refused peace, will kneel and plead for it". The working classes were joined by every level of society in cultivating allotments: even King George V and Queen Mary took to the task, recruiting their lunch guests to help them. What the King and Queen actually grew isn't known, but George ordered that the royal parks should grow potatoes, cabbages and other vegetables. Public parks were commandeered, along with commons, golf courses and tennis courts, as allotments.

With the Armistice in 1918, the demand for allotments fell away, and returned to being mainly a working-class occupation, although another social revolution had occurred, for it was now considered acceptable for women to be allotmenteers. The pattern was repeated in the Second World War with the famous Dig for Victory campaign, followed by a decline in demand with the coming of peace.

In the 1960s, Harold Wilson's government commissioned a report on allotments in England and Wales, chaired by Harry Thorpe, professor of geography at the University of Birmingham. Thorpe delivered a weighty report in 1969, providing 44 major recommendations, none of which was acted upon.

He painted a grim picture of the state of allotments: "A monotonous grid of rectangular plots, devoted mainly to vegetables and bush fruit and tended by an older stratum of society, particularly men over forty and old age pensioners. Prominent over the site were assemblages of ramshackle huts, redolent of 'do it yourself' from the corrugated roofs of which sagging down-spouting carried rainwater into a motley collection of receptacles… Where plots had been vacated, weeds in summer grew waist-high, almost reaching the tops of abandoned bean-poles from which tattered pennants of polythene still fluttered noisily to scare birds from non-existent crops."

Thorpe felt that the future lay in what he called leisure gardens, with an emphasis on flowers, shrubs and lawns, as could be found in the Netherlands, Denmark, and West Germany. In the event, a whole range of factors that he could not have anticipated caused a demand for allotments that has never ceased to this day.

Two influential books laid the foundations for a revolution in thinking. In 1962, Rachel Carson published Silent Spring, raising the world's awareness of the pollution of the environment. Ten years later, the British economist E F Schumacher published Small is Beautiful, carrying the message that bigger was not necessarily better. Schumacher provided the foreword for John Seymour's Complete Book of Self-Sufficiency, published in 1976. Seymour explained: "Self-sufficiency does not mean 'going back' to the acceptance of a lower standard of living. On the contrary, it is a striving for a higher standard of living, for food which is fresh and organically grown and good, for the good life in pleasant surroundings."

The term "the good life" had been adopted the previous year for a BBC TV series, featuring Tom and Barbara Good and Jerry and Margot Leadbetter. The Good Life, which ran for three years, but is now rooted deeply into pop culture, played on the incongruity of self-sufficiency in Surbiton, and the different attitudes of two middle-class families. It also captured the mood of the times, and the growing interest in cultivation of food and allotments.

In the years since, allotment gardening has lost its particular working-class character, and has become much beloved by the middle classes. Thorpe's description of vacant plots is a thing of the past: there are long waiting lists in many places across the British Isles. In 2011, 32 British councils said that they had closed their waiting lists due to rocketing demand. There are 350,000 allotment-holders in Britain – with 150,000 more on waiting lists. It is extraordinary to realise that, a hundred years after the allotment could represent the difference between survival and starvation, it has become a national obsession across society, a pastime and a pleasure. It's no wonder, then, that the allotment has finally gone primetime.

'The Big Allotment Challenge' begins tonight at 8pm on BBC2

'The Gardens of the British Working Class' by Margaret Willes (Yale University Press, £25)

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