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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.

Allotment Shed

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.

Allotment Polytunnel

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.

Allotment Raised BedsTrouble 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.

Allotment Wild

The Allotment Story continues next time … 

Morris Oxford IconWe 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

Allotment

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Allotmenteers and Archaeologists share in the Fellowship of the Fork. The results are sometimes surprising.

I recall many years ago being involved in an abortive attempt to cultivate an allotment on the Trap Grounds. It was plot no.13. I have since wondered if that were the reason it was the only one available. I also wonder if it had ever been cultivated. The weeds came up like parsnips. Night-hawking bottle diggers had been over the site some time in the past and all the clinker from the Victorian rubbish heap that underlies the site had been turned up on the topsoil. I found some good bits of china, including most of a Worcester College dinner plate. Best of all was the old shed, which needed digging out as much as the plot itself: archaeological strata, datable mostly by newspapers and magazines, at the bottom of which were sepia photos of Edwardian ladies without their clothes! … Anyway, I didn’t last long on that patch and I wonder if anyone has tamed it since. It needed a firmer hand than mine. – JW

Talking of archaeological strata, one of the world’s most distinguished archaeologists also happens to be a dedicated Trap Grounds allotmenteer. We asked if he had discovered anything in the course of his digging.

There have been no really exciting finds, I must admit; but in the topsoil, above the layer of tipped rubbish containing early twentieth century artefacts, you can find Roman and medieval pottery. Presumably the topsoil was brought in from an archaeological site to make up a cultivation soil. So it’s a kind of archaeology, but in reverse order! It would be interesting to analyse some samples. – Barry Cunliffe

 

Allotments have been revitalised in recent years. These Google Earth images, taken from Joanna Innes’ blog, Life in the Floodplainhighlight the recovery made between 2003 and 2009 at Cutteslowe.
Two recent subscribers to Morris Oxford are Mike Stone and his cousin Douglas. Their grandfather Harry was a keen allotmenteer. Indeed, he once received a cup for his efforts. It stands only 3½ inches high, but it tells a very human story. Mike has donated it to the O&DFAA to award annually to a budding allotmenteer, plus a cheque for £50. May the name of Harry Stone live on for many growing seasons to come! 

Harry was a larger-than-life character. At the age of sixteen he worked his passage on a tramp steamer to Canada where he became a lumberjack. He came back to Europe with the 48th Canadian Highlanders, fought in World War I, survived the terrible Battle of Passchendaele, and eventually returned to Oxford where he married and had a family. He was one of the first employees of Morris Motors, where he remained for the rest of his working life. He died in 1955 aged 71.

The cup was awarded to him in 1938 as a member of the Cowley and District Allotment Association (for what we don’t know). Harry had been badly gassed in the war and therefore dug his allotment with the power of his arms alone. His legs did, however, manage to propel him to the Plasterers Arms, a short walk from the main home at 19 London Place, St Clements. He also grew some lovely flowers which his boys trundled up to North Oxford on a hand cart to try and make some extra cash. He was a lovely grandfather. We were very sad when he died.

Allotmenteers, it would seem, are ingenious and artistic as well as productive. Here’s how Jane Mollison of Cripley Meadow transformed a dull black plastic water butt:
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