Allotments for the Unemployed. How it began and how it was organised.

I decided to investigate The Society of Friends Allotments for the Unemployed Scheme. A google search brought up a blog from Birmingham library archives with some references and links, so I won`t repeat anything you can find there.

After some more rummaging around on the internet I discovered that the Society of Friends have a library in their Meeting House in London.  I searched the catalogue (I am still amazed at what you can do from the comfort of your own sitting room) and found several references to Allotments for the Unemployed.  So last November, I took the opportunity of having a daughter living in London to stay with, to visit the library.  It has helpful people, a great café and is just across the road from Euston Station.  I had emailed them in advance to request the documents and when I got there they were all waiting for me.

In the miscellaneous box there were all sorts of articles, pamphlets, instruction booklets, publicity (they called it “propaganda”) and reports.  There were personal accounts of how the scheme started:  During the 1926 General Strike, some Friends saw the extreme poverty in South Wales. A Friend from Huddersfield, John H Robson, had a reputation for being able to talk to the working man and he was asked to visit to see if anything could be done.  In the Rhonda he saw derelict allotment gardens and unemployed men side by side: “Now then lads there`s a question I want to put to you – why are these gardens of yours in such a disreputable condition?  When work was brisk you found time to dig them.”  Quick came the answer: “It`s more than we dare to go working on those allotments. If we are caught doing so we will be cut off the dole.”  There were other reasons too why the men did not cultivate the allotments.  They could not afford the rent, or to buy seeds, fertilizers and tools, the fences were broken down, the allotments over run by sheep and they had no money to buy timber to mend the fences.

There were lots of Friends in high places.  They contacted the Ministry of Labour, argued successfully that a man who was spending his unwanted time usefully should not suffer, they were able to reassure the unemployed men that their dole would not be affected and the Friends Allotment Scheme was underway.  The object of the scheme was to help unemployed and seriously impoverished men and women (I was interested to read this as the members are always referred to as men in the records.)  Spoon feeding was not encouraged – as what costs nothing is apt to be valued accordingly.  Seed potatoes, vegetable seeds, lime, fertilizers, tools, fencing and huts were provided to those in need at about half the normal cost.  There were personal testimonies from unemployed men about how joining the scheme had allowed them to feed themselves and their families but also help them to regain their self respect, interest in life and hope for the future.

There were two committees running the scheme – the SoF Allotments Committee and the Central Committee, which included representatives from the Government.  They both met in the Friends Meeting House, on the same day, and with many of the same people and there seems to have been some conflict and confusion about the roles of the two committees.

The SoF Allotments Committee operated firmly within the tradition of Christian philanthropy, social and political action.  They began with a devotional period and were often reminded that unless there was a spiritual foundation to their work no lasting or useful structure could be erected.   During one meeting Ebeneezer Talbot spoke of how “Activity without love availeth nothing.”  He felt there was a danger of them losing something of the real love for the men whom they were trying to help.  They should be continually on their guard against so standardising their methods that they lost the personal touch and the real incentive for their work.

The committees tendered for the supplies and decided who to buy them from.  They discussed advertising and publicising the scheme to recruit members and raise funds.  In 1931, after the government stopped their contribution they appealed for funds in the Times, and in 1933 Arnold Rowntree (Of the chocolates fame) made an appeal on the BBC.  One of the conditions of the Government reinstating the grant in 1932 was that help should only be given to those who were wholly or partially unemployed and seriously impoverished men were excluded.  The Friends successfully argued against this restriction. They also wanted to negotiate concessions on public transport for unemployed allotment holders who had allotments at a great distance from their homes. This proved more difficult and they don`t seem to have done so.

In 1932 some men who had been selling small quantities from their allotments had had their benefits reduced by the Public Assistance Committee.  This led to rumours that men who took allotment gardens would be penalised.  The Friends took this up with the Government resulting in a circular issued by the Ministry of Labour.  This set out clearly that an unemployed man cultivating an allotment should not lose unemployment benefits and should be allowed to sell his surplus and this was supplied to the area organisers.

The members of the committee seemed very caring, dedicated and hard working – particularly Dr Joan Mary Fry (Chair of the Allotments Committee), Fred Dobson (Secretary), John Robson (Chief Organiser) and Maud Bower (Friend) went travelling around the country organising and reporting back and it seems to have been at their own expense.  In 1934 John Robson was encouraged to take a good holiday and he took 6 weeks off.  He arranged to go to Palestine but intended to combine his holiday with visits to land settlement schemes.  In 1933 Joan Fry went to Germany to visit allotment schemes and her mind was very much exercised about the general conditions there – the only hint of what was happening in the rest of Europe at the time.

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