The Right Worshipful Lord Mayor of Oxford, Mrs E F M Standingford, couldn’t quite believe her eyes as she stepped decorously through the gates of Osney, St Thomas and New Botley allotments, one warm August afternoon in 1986. Patiently waiting for her on the other side was Mr Trevor Green, and beside him a pumpkin of gargantuan proportions. Over 200 lbs in fact, though history does not record how it was winched onto the scales.
A grainy black-and-white photograph of Mr Green and the Lady Mayor, both looking somewhat sheepish, features in a splendid commemorative volume, published by the Oxford and District Federation of Allotment Associations (O&DFAA) to mark its centenary on 21 August 2019.
The book, heroically pruned from a mountain of minutes, account ledgers and personal reminiscences, is entitled A Growing Concern. Chapter headings, ranging from ‘1919: potatoes and politics’ to ‘2009: reclamation, revival, responsibility’, give some idea of its alliterative range. ‘Water, weeds, acts and leases’ feature large in its pages, as do ‘vacancies, bonfires, theft and waning influence’, not to mention serious flooding, Dutch Elm disease and periodic invasions by campervan squatters, fly-tippers, badgers, wild rabbits, and Victorian-bottle diggers. ‘Horticultural slums’ was how the government’s Thorpe Report (1969) described the lamentable state of many of the nation’s sites.
It was a far cry from the golden age of the allotment, the first half of the twentieth century, when, in the face of two world wars, Britons were encouraged to ‘dig for victory’ and the number of allotments nationwide topped 1.5 million.
Beetroot and Brussels sprout, cabbage and cauliflower, parsnip and onion (none of your Bok choy and Kohlrabi in those days), and of course potatoes, potatoes, potatoes … Tons of edible produce came forth from the earth. The Oxford records show that Oriel College patriotically allowed twenty plots to be carved out of its sports ground, while Southfield golf course contributed twice that number, and swathes of Cutteslowe Park were dug up in support of the heroic cause.
Allotments – in the sense of parcels of land – have been around for a very long time (since the Saxons at least). They speak of an age when beasts were burdened and land was calculated in furlongs and chains. To this day allotments are still measured in ‘perches’ or ‘poles’ (5½ yards), four poles making up a chain (the length of a cricket pitch) ten chains one furlong, and eight furlongs a mile. [Note to agronomists: 1 hectare = 2174.52 poles.]
The modern allotment movement can be dated to 1819. In that year an Act was passed which enabled the provision of parish land specifically for the feeding of the poor. Coming as it did after centuries of systematic enclosure for the (more or less exclusive) benefit of landed gentry and farmers, it is hard not to see this legislation as a last, desperate attempt to protect a few slivers of community-cultivatable land on behalf of the less privileged. As such, allotments are both vestiges and symbols of freedom. It is no accident that one of the earliest campaigners for more generous allotment provision was William Wilberforce, better known for his opposition to slavery.
The law condemns the man or woman
Who steals the goose from off the common,
But lets the greatest sinner loose
Who steals the common from the goose.
It was an Oxford MP, Robert Croft Bourne, who introduced what eventually became the 1925 Allotments Act, a key piece of legislation stipulating that one third of any local authority allotment committee should be non-council members, and that allotments could not be sold off or converted without ministerial consent.
Trouble was: nobody seemed to want a plot any more. The post-war records show a consistent fall in allotment adoption, especially following the end of food rationing in 1954. The consumer, leisure, television and building booms accelerated this decline – even, paradoxically, as interest in gardening grew. [The first TV broadcast of Gardener’s World on 5 January 1968 came from Oxford’s Botanic Garden.] Every new semi-detached house came with its own patch of lawn (and borders) which meant that gardeners were choosing to dig closer to home.
Undaunted, and notwithstanding a marked ‘lack of interest and the difficulty of obtaining judges’, the O&DFAA pressed on with its annual competition for the best-kept allotment site. Mr G Heynes won the Challenge Trophy for the third time. The year was 1972.
Mr Heynes’ prize was a pair of secateurs from Selfridge’s – and permanent embossment on a large wooden shield.
It is still on proud display to this day.
The Allotment Story continues next time …
We can’t close, however, without sharing the following extraordinary tale of allotment skulduggery:
“My most vivid allotment recollection involves a goat.
“A long time ago I was the letting secretary at Cripley Meadow. One of the allotment holders there (may he remain forever nameless) was a man who ran a pub in Jericho. He seemed to enjoy antagonising his fellow allotmenteers and took it upon himself to break every rule in the book – including bringing a goat to his plot. [The hoof-marks of a horse were also spotted by one horrified neighbour. Ed.]
“The goat kept escaping and eating everyone’s vegetables. People were getting VERY cross.
“Late one night, as I was putting the children to bed, I got an apoplectic phone call. It was the pub landlord. His first words were: ‘You’ve stolen my goat! ‘ I was taken aback by this and assured him that I most certainly hadn’t. The following week several sheds were burnt down – mine included. The nameless allotmenteer moved away soon after: apparently there were ‘issues’ to do with the pub tenancy.
“Several years later, I found out what had happened. Under the cloak of darkness, someone on the site had captured the goat, put it in the back of their van and driven it to a friend’s farm in North Wales. There, so I’m told, the goat happily lived out its years, surrounded by green pastures, plentiful things to eat – and no fences to jump.” – Miranda Creswell