The politics of Victorian allotments

Pause for another digression. While I was transcribing the minutes I was still interested in the creation of the allotments back in 1881.  It was Rev. James idea to organise the flower shows but were the allotments his idea too?  I have come to the end of that particular avenue of exploration at the moment – although I am still hoping there may be something in the Crawford archives in the Library of Scotland.

So, I thought I would try and put the development of NSHS in a wider context.  Several people have written about the history of allotments – I just googled History of Allotments and Allotment History and came up with a number of websites and blogs so I won`t repeat anything that is written there.  I bought a very interesting book, The Allotment Chronicles: A Social History of Allotment Gardening by Steve Poole, about the social and political history of allotments.  This has a chapter entitled “Victorian Acts and Acres,” the period I am interested in at the moment, but it is mostly about the history of rural allotments, and mostly in the south of England.

What I learned is that the alleviation of rural poverty by providing allotments to improve the standard of living of agricultural workers and their families was a hot political topic in the nineteenth century.   In 1883 The Allotments Extension Association was created to campaign for legislation to provide allotments for rural workers.  In the 1885 general election the Liberals accused the landowners of denying workers land to rent for allotments in favour of  large farms and their catchphrase  was that if labourers voted Liberal they would get “three acres and a cow.” This pressure and debate culminated in the Allotments Act of 1887 which required local authorities to provide allotments where there was a demand for them, and gave them the powers to compulsorily purchase land for the purpose. This is not immediately applicable to the creation of NSHS allotments, as they predate the act, involved a private arrangement with the Earl of Crawford, and they were for industrial not agricultural workers, but the political debate was going on at the time and both Crawford and James are likely to have been aware of it.

I found one of Poole`s references on the internet: Landlords and Allotments, The History and Present Condition of the Allotment System, published in 1886, written by The Earl of Onslow.  He was Honorary Secretary of the Land and Glebe Owners Association for the Voluntary Extension of the Allotment System.  This must have been created in response to the Allotments Extension Association, as he thought that the political campaign, that landowners were not doing enough, had mislead the public and he wanted to put right some of the misconceptions.  He also wanted to encourage landowners to voluntarily extend the allotment system by providing allotments for all their workers who wanted to rent one.  He thought that this was the most effective and satisfactory way of increasing the number of allotments and improving the lot of the rural poor, and was much better than the compulsory provision by local authorities (or maybe he just didn`t want any of his land to be compulsorily purchased). He conducted a survey of his friends and fellow landowners in the different parts of the country to determine the current situation.  He found that there was very little demand for allotments in the northern counties, including Lancashire (Wigan was in Lancashire at that time). The only mention of industrial rather than agricultural workers is in Derbyshire, where allotments were provided near many of the towns and mining villages, and were greatly prized by the miners and mechanics.

Lord Onslow asked the “larger landowners” if they were “prepared to make proof to the public that he has taken or will take steps to meet fully the demand for allotments in his neighbourhood.”  There is a list of those who replied in the affirmative at the end of the book.  The Earl of Crawford is not listed, but this does not necessarily mean he replied in the negative.  He may not have been asked.  He may not have been one of the larger landowners as his wealth came from his mines, not agricultural land, or he may not have been Lord Onslow`s friend.  NSHS allotments were already in existence by the time this book was researched, but it may be that the Earl of Crawford was influenced by the political debates of the time, and thought that the allotment movement should be extended to industrial workers.

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