Of Cabbages and Kings: The History of Allotments by Caroline Foley, book review

How the seeds of revolt led to a growth industry

Annalee Mather
Thursday 16 October 2014 00:46

Six years ago, I inherited a quarter-sized allotment plot, and my concerns centred on how to accommodate a lone, straggly gooseberry bush into a four-raised box-bed rotation scheme.

After a run-in with the site manager and committee-level discussions on the shade of green we had painted our shed, the realities of co-existing with fellow plot holders on a five-acre site sunk in. Your personal patch of rented land is a precious thing; plot holders who had cultivated the same soil for decades and spent the day in their ramshackle retreats were, in this case, faced with an influx of a younger, more time-constrained demographic.

Caroline Foley's fascinating book traces the development of allotments back to the Middles Ages and the origins of the right to your own piece of land. These areas of common land were the precedent for the 300,000 plots currently occupying 45,000 acres in England and Wales today. It is an entitlement that has survived due to philanthropy, political posturing and rebellion.

The Peasants' Revolt of 1381, as well as Kett's Rebellion of 1549 against the illegal enclosures of common land, and Elizabeth I's far-sighted planning act of 1589 – all helped to attain and preserve the right to cultivate our own land. In 1701 Jethro Tull's seed drill led the charge of the Agricultural Revolution. Land was reclaimed by governments, cereal farming doubled and agriculture managed to supply 98 percent of the British consumption of bread. Great achievements at a time of a rise in population but, by 1845, agricultural labourers were left with no land, no jobs and neither the money nor education to represent themselves.

Jesse Collings, a Liberal MP with a concern for the state of the countryside, succeeded in passing the Allotments Act of 1887. Local authorities were now obliged to provide allotments if any six registered local voters requested them, if there was no provision – a key phrase that is the basis of modern allotment law.

With the onset of the Great War, the Defence of the realm Act (1914) allowed the government to seize unoccupied land for farming and allotments and with this came "allotmentitis", with thousands applying for supervised plots. The changes in allotment practice are dynamic, fuelled by the plethora of soft focus, lifestyle-led media on growing your own, but as Foley points out "...if a strip on the commons had not been a matter of life and death for the medieval serf we would not be enjoying them today."

An excellent account detailing the changing practice and importance of the patch you hope to take on – read it while you work your way up that long waiting list.

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