Thursday, 18 August 2011

A Brief History of Allotments

Fair Fields Full of Folk

I have written an article on the Future of Allotments to help define why allotments are an important community resource. It explains why a government report described allotment provision at local level as "patchy" and it should present a modern outlook on the subject. But it seemed to lack perspective on its own; so here's a primer.  A quick run down of how we got here - A brief History of Allotments.

The right to an allotment is compensation by the state to British Citizens for the loss of common land into private ownership due to enclosures.  Common land is collectively owned land upon which people have long held rights.  These usufructory rights allowed people to graze livestock, collect food, fuel and under certain circumstances, build homes. Access to commons are ancient rights that predate modern law and monarchy. Common rights contrast sharply with modern concepts of land ownership.  Private land can be held to exclude others, the use of public land is determined by a government and open access land affords no one property rights.  

Commons are a unique environment and are handed down to us from a time on earth when man understood he must cooperate with his community to thrive and could not have entertained the concept of paying to be here!

Commons were established sometime between the 5th and 8th centuries.  With the breakdown of the Roman empire Saxon invaders moved in and formed kingdoms within which a system of clan ownership developed. 

With much of Britain covered in dense forest, uncleared common land stood alongside agricultural fields farmed by 'ceorls', free men. 'Hides' of land were owned individually but would often be worked cooperatively. The carruca meant heavy English soils could be ploughed effectively, but as it required up to 8 oxen to pull it, it further encouraged cooperation within communities.

This led on to the common field system of farming with crop rotation, communal hay meadows and communal pastures.  The open field system did not restrict social structure or land tenure and the system continued under Norman rule.  After the Black Death serfdom was replaced by copyhold land tenure, this later became the leasehold we are more or less familiar with.

Sheep Devour People
Through the 14th - 17th centuries wealthy landowners worked to alter the open field system. They wanted to convert arable land to grazing for sheep, supported by the Statute of Merton 1235.  This led to hundreds of English villages being completely depopulated through the evictions of those working the land. Driven out to be replaced by a few tenant shepherds.  

The 1381 Peasants Revolt was in part due to enclosure, by 1450 Jack Cades Rebellion was calling for land reform amongst other demands and by Ketts Rebellion of 1549 enclosure was the catalyst as it was with the Midland Revolts of 1604 - 1607.

In the History of the Kings of England written by the priest John Rous, the first written objection to enclosure was made.  Thomas More became the first person in authority to speak out against enclosure in his book Utopia, published in 1516.  Other high profile names that also spoke out included Thomas Wolsey, Hugh Latimer, William Tyndale, Lord Somerset and Francis BaconCharles I did set up a number of anti enclosure commissions as if in response, though he was not exactly anti enclosure himself.

In the early 17th century James I and Charles I wanted to drain fenland commons to create arable land for the crown, in a bid to raise revenue.  Dutch engineers were brought in at zero cost to the crown as developers were paid by being allocated a third of the land enclosed and drained.  Commoners fought back by leveling ditches and fought the engineers in court.  The court cases were paid for out of a common purse into which each contributed according to his worth. Charles tried to prevent this and prosecuted ringleaders.  

In 1642 Sir Anthony Thomas was driven out of the East & West fens and the Earl of Lyndsey was removed from the Lyndsay level.  Between 1642 and 1649 the crowns share of fenland was seized and returned to common. The crown was patient.

Between 1760 and 1840 the crown had it's way, most of the fens were drained and enclosed by act of parliament. 

Back to the 17th century, Gerrard Winstanley and his supporters attempted a new kind of protest against enclosures. They cultivated common and vacant land in Kent, Surrey, Buckinghamshire and Northamptonshire. They then shared their crops at no cost, until hired thugs attacked the "diggers" and destroyed their communities.  

Winstanley pleaded to the government, without success. Though it is clear that the "diggers" had little effect in their time, they did plant a seed of thought that later sprouted in the 19th and 20th century  with the allotments & small holdings movements.

When Watt Tyler confronted Richard II during the 1381 Peasants Revolt the king had agreed to end restraints upon the free use of common forests.  Despite this royal assurance access was eroded for centuries, coming to a head in the early 18th century. During this period wealthy landowners enclosed forests to create private parks and hunting lodges; vigilante bands such as the "Wokingham Blacks" responded.  

In 1721 a gang with a leader known as "King John" took 11 deer from Bishops Park, Farnham and paraded them through the morning market. King John had local support and even held a public meeting to speak out against accusations of being a Jacobite. The authorities did not try to apprehend him and he was never caught.  

The Black Act of 1723 was meant to end this resistance and justified the death penalty for hundreds of people charged with feeding themselves with wild meat.  A century later when the act was repealed, the death penalty was replaced with transportation to the colonies.  

The enclosure of forests was by no means an exclusively English affair either. In France there was mass resistance to moves by the state to control common forests.  In Austria the war between poachers and gamekeepers has continued for centuries, the last poacher to be shot was Pius Walder in 1982.

The Act of Union in 1707 paved the way for the swift enclosure of the Scottish Highlands. Compared to the steady erosion of commons land across England through the ages, the Scottish clearances were more shock and awe than softly softly. Poignantly described by Betsy Mackay:

"Our family was very reluctant to leave this place, and stayed for some time after the summons for evicting was delivered. But Sellar's party came round and set fire to our house at both ends, reducing to ashes whatever remained within the walls. The occupants had, of course, to escape for their lives, some of them losing all their clothes except what they had on their backs. The people were driven away like dogs who deserved no better fate."

The final, and most contentious wave of formal enclosures in England happened between 1760 and 1870. Five thousand acts of parliament enabled 21% of English land to be enclosed, 7 million acres of which were commons.  Millions of people who had previously known lawful access to land lost both access and livelihood. 

William Pitt made one time farmer, Arthur Young, the first secretary of the Board of Agriculture. The board was described as being:

"..not a government department, like its modern namesake, but an association of gentlemen, chiefly landowners, for the advancement of agriculture, who received a grant from the government".  

The ninety plus volumes published by this board up to 1793 were said to be:

"..monotonous in their reiteration of the point that agricultural improvement has come through enclosure and that more enclosure must take place".

Arthur Young had changed his opinion by 1801 and presented a report to the board outlining the severe poverty caused by enclosure. He was told that he might:

"Do with it what he please, but would not print it as a work of the board."  

Young was not the only advocate of enclosure to change his mind.  Along with John Howlett and David Davies he argued that those who lost had lost commons rights should be compensated with small enclosures of their own.

From the Statute of Merton 1235 up to and including the General Enclosure Act of 1846, statutes were written to pronounce enclosure as legal by landlords sitting as parliamentary representatives. Representing a people that were generally unaware of their loss and silenced when they opposed what threatened their way of life - in the 19th century you had to have land to become an MP! Conflict of interests? Not in those days.

Enclosure acts were nearing an end in the 1860s when Lord Eversley headed the Commons Preservation Society which later became the Open Spaces Society.  They employed direct action and successfully fought for commons access.  

By 1876 they had strong parliamentary support and that year the Commons Act ruled enclosure could now only take place if there was some public benefit.  It is hard to be sure just how beneficial this act was in reality. No amount of legislation would regain the commons already lost and an agricultural depression due to cheap imports was hitting Britain hard, so demand for the little scrub land that remained was doubtless in decline anyway.

It was during this time that education and land reformer Jesse Collings MP began his call for "Three Acres and a Cow" as concerns rose about a rising number of "poor" people. That is, people dispossessed of land and the ability to take care of themselves. A series of statutes soon followed. The 1887 Allotments Act, the 1892 Smallholding Act and the 1908 Smallholding and Allotments Act; gave local authorities the power to acquire land.  Since then any loss of commons would probably have been a result of failure to register under the 1965 Commons Registration Act.

Unless you enjoy a particularly Malthusian outlook towards society it's hard to see the land reforms of the last 800 years as anything less than the wholesale redistribution of public property into private hands.  The replacement of ancient cooperative land ownership by an elitist system of private ownership. Though that raises many social questions in itself, keeping to the issue of land rights I'll try to validate my assertion with the following statistics:

  • In 2006 0.3% of the UK population owned 69% of the agricultural land mass of 41 million acres (60 million acres in total) - DEFRA(excludes wasteland, bogs etc).
  • The biggest individual landowner is the Duke of Buccleugh with 277 000 acres of the total UK land mass.
  • The wealthiest is the Duke of Westminster with 140 000 acres; 100 of which are in Mayfair with 200 acres more in Belgravia.
  • The Crown estates hold a total of 677 000 acres of UK land between them.
  • Britains 16.8 million householders lease barely 4% of Britain between them.
  • The top institutional landowner, The Forestry Commission, similarly holds around 4% of British land.
Source: Kevin Cahill, Who Owns The World

The legal right to an allotment in England is compensation for the loss of lawful access to common property and it raises an issue worth bearing in mind:  

The only rights you have are the ones that you claim!

right, n
1. That which is proper under law, morality or ethics.
2. Something that is due to a person by just claim, legal guarantee or principle.
3. A power, privilege or immunity secured to a person by law.
4. A legally enforceable claim that another will do or will not do a given act; a recognized and protected interest the violation of which is wrong.
5. The interest, claim or ownership that one has in tangible or intangible property.
Source: Blacks Law Dictionary.

Well that's it for the past, next post will be about the future and if you got this far, congrats & thanks for reading!

Special thanks go to: 
Simon Fairlie whose article A Short History of Enclosure in Britain provided many sources of reference.
Edward Dodson who gifted me a copy of The Great Robbery by Graham Peace, which was gratefully received.
Gill Barron for the swift dispatch of the very well illustrated The Land magazines.


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