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The history of allotments

Published: 21 October 2021

Allotments have provided space for people to grow their own fruits, vegetables and plants since Anglo-Saxon times. These photographs from the Daily Herald Archive show how they developed and were used in the 20th century.

What is the Daily Herald Archive?

The Daily Herald was a British national newspaper published between 1912 and 1964. At one point, it was the top-selling newspaper in the world, with a monthly circulation of more than 2 million.

Every photograph and negative taken for the newspaper was stored in a picture library, categorised and filed for easy access should they ever be needed again. This amazing collection—comprising 3.5 million photographs, contact sheets and glass negatives—is the Daily Herald Archive, which we now care for at the National Science and Media Museum here in Bradford.

The images in this selection were all taken from the archive.

Grow your own: The origins of allotments

Allotments are small parcels of land rented to grow fruits, vegetables and plants. Some people even use them to keep bees and smaller animals like rabbits and hens. Allotments can vary in size but the most common is ten rods or poles, which is an old Anglo-Saxon measurement roughly equal to 250 square metres.

Allotments have their origins in the late Anglo-Saxon/early medieval period when huge fields—some could be hundreds of acres—belonging to villages or manors, would be divided into thin strips for individuals or families to grow crops. This was known as the open-field system.

By the late 1500s, these large fields or ‘common land’ would be divided up into plots to be used only by the owner. They were then enclosed with hedges during a process known as ‘the enclosures’ that would take place over the next few hundred years, through a series of Acts of Parliament. In compensation, ‘allotments’ of land would be attached to tenant cottages; this is said to be the first written reference to allotments in the UK. Unfortunately, these allotments would not help the very poor in society, some of whom starved because of the enclosures.

Allotments as we know them today stem from the General Enclosure Act of 1845 that made provision for ‘field gardens’ to be used by the landless poor—although very little enclosed land was actually set aside for this purpose. The later ‘Small Holdings and Allotments Act’ of 1907 and 1908 imposed responsibilities on councils to provide allotments if there was a demand for them.

Man digging on allotment © Science Museum Group Collection
Image used in Daily Herald to promote ‘Dig for Victory’ campaign, 1939

There was a huge increase in allotment use during the First and Second World Wars as blockades resulted in a shortage of imported food. Disused railway land, public parks and private gardens were all utilised to grow fruit and vegetables. The famous ‘Dig for Victory’ campaign during the Second World War produced 1.3 million tonnes of food from nearly 1.5 million allotment plots. 

There was a steady decline in allotment use after the wars as focus shifted to housing and rebuilding initiatives. The decline slowed during the 1970s when TV shows like the BBC’s The Good Life inspired interest in food production and self-sufficiency.

Since the 1990s, there has been something of an ‘allotment renaissance’ as concerns about global heating and an interest in organic produce led people to become more concerned about where their food came from. Unfortunately, this steady rise in interest has not been met by supply; in some urban places, waiting lists for allotment plots can extend to several years.

Grow your own - gallery

Allotments and wellness

For those lucky enough to own or rent space to grow fruit and vegetables, whether that be in a back garden or an allotment, the health benefits are numerous. Allotments can provide a social community space for like-minded people to get together and share ideas, produce, or just have a catch-up. This can be crucial in alleviating loneliness and provide a lifeline during periods of isolation such as the Covid-19 pandemic.

In addition to regular fruit and vegetable growing, allotment holders often volunteer on their association committee, giving up time to help manage and maintain allotment sites, providing additional opportunities for social interaction.

Growing fruit and vegetables can help maintain or increase fitness, particularly more labour-intensive tasks like digging and weeding! It can help strengthen muscles and improve balance and regularly visiting an allotment plot or vegetable garden will top up vitamin D levels, crucial for healthy bones, teeth and muscles.

An allotment or vegetable garden can supplement the weekly food shop and provide an individual or family with fresh, seasonal fruit and vegetables. These are likely to be more delicious and, if grown organically, free from the chemicals found on supermarket produce.

And natural products are always better for the skin if—like Phyllis, pictured below—you feel inclined to have a potato facial!

Allotments and wellness - gallery

A chance to experiment

Growing food from scratch can be an immensely rewarding experience. New knowledge and skills are gained, and growing all year round helps people learn more about the natural world through the behaviour of bees, insects and birds. The proximity to nature is often a great source of inspiration and can help provide a new and exciting environment to teach children about food and the ecosystem.

Fruit and vegetable growing also gives people the opportunity to get creative and—sometimes intentionally, sometimes not—it can throw up a few surprises like new varieties or strange shapes!

A chance to experiment - gallery

Friendly rivalry

Some people grow fruit and vegetables as a hobby or for the numerous physical and mental health benefits it brings, but for others, it’s a chance to express their competitive nature. What is your neighbour growing? How big is their cabbage compared to yours? What are they using to overcome the difficulties with the soil in our area? These questions can be hard to resist.

In some cases, this can play out as friendly competition between neighbours and nearby allotment holders. It can also involve serious competition with year-round dedication and the lure of awards and prizes. Competitions take place up and down the country every year to celebrate the best produce grown—this can range from low-key competitions in the local pub to local and national competitions at country shows.

There are even competitions which award prizes for the best allotment plot, which consider things like the quality and diversity of planting (fruit, vegetables and flowers); the visual appearance of the plot and its cleanliness; creativity and ingenuity in improving soil conditions; and evidence of sustainability practices.

Friendly rivalry - gallery

The bigger the better!

Woman posing with giant pumpkin © Science Museum Group Collection
Record-breaking pumpkin grown by a St. Briavels gardener, 1930s

The most popular forms of competitions are undoubtedly those which seek to identify the biggest, heaviest or longest vegetables. People often get into this competitive sport (of sorts!) after entering ordinary vegetables in local shows and winning prizes. This recognition of hard work gives people an immense sense of achievement and is addictive, encouraging growers to do bigger and better next time, always aiming to beat the world record.

Growing giant vegetables is a huge technical challenge, requiring considerable discipline and year-round dedication to push vegetables to their limits. Serious growers know exactly when to plant their seeds and how to support the weight of their huge vegetables; some growers will even use lamps and polytunnels to give a little boost.

Country and state fairs have been awarding prizes for giant vegetables since the mid-19th century. The pumpkin has always been a favourite—although arguably more popular in the United States than the UK. Some shows specialise, like the Egton Bridge Gooseberry Show in North Yorkshire, which first took place circa 1800. Other shows include numerous categories, like the Harrogate Autumn Flower Show, which hosts the giant vegetable competition for the North of England Horticultural Society.

These competitions have come on a long way since the early days and the ‘giant’ vegetables of a hundred years ago would likely seem very average compared to the colossal vegetables that have been entered in recent years, some of which need a tractor to move them!

Interest in growing giant vegetables increased significantly during the Covid-19 lockdowns as people spent more time in their gardens and wanted to try something new. Four new world records were set during the 2020 Grow Show, including longest beetroot, longest salsify, heaviest red cabbage (at 31.6kg), and longest leek.

Giant vegetables gallery

Protecting the future

Interest in sustainability has increased in recent years, with people rethinking how they can meet their current needs without compromising the needs of future generations.

A UN report from 2011 suggested that 1.3 billion tonnes of food—or one third of food produced globally—is wasted every year, including nearly half of all fruit and vegetables. This waste or loss happens during many stages of the supply chain, from agricultural production to household consumption.

One way we can improve this statistic is by growing some of our own fruits and vegetables. This will have a positive impact by helping to reduce the amount of single use packaging we purchase, the amount of fuel we use to get to the supermarket and the consumption of out-of-season produce which must travel further to get to our local shop.

Most allotment holders also compost their allotment waste, which recycles nutrients and carbon back into the soil. Allotment plots can be a more sustainable way of growing food compared to large-scale agricultural practices, which can damage soil in the long term through intensive farming.

If growing your own food is not attainable, other changes which will help us live more sustainably include shopping locally, buying seasonally, only buying what you know you will consume, and buying ‘wonky’ or ‘ugly’ versions of supermarket fruits and vegetables.

Woman wiping tear away from eye while holding onions Science Museum Group © Mirrorpix/SMG Images
Photograph used in Daily Herald article about preparing soil for vegetables in the winter, 1933

Further reading

Allotments

Agriculture and land use

‘Dig for Victory’ campaign

Giant vegetables

  • Charles Elliott, ‘Giant vegetables’, Horticulture, October 1994, p13–17
  • Catherine Yronwode, ‘Here’s how to grow giant vegetables!’, Organic Gardening, December 1994, p22–24, 26, 28–29

Sustainability