Allotment Gardens for the Unemployed

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During the 1930s, allotments were provided for the unemployed and the scheme was described as ‘one of the most important social services which have been placed in the hands of local authorities.’

By 1928, there were 300,000 unemployed miners (almost half from South Wales), of whom 200,000 – 250,000 had little or no hope of finding work in the pits again. In the winter of that year, several collieries in the area shut down and soon there were, reported The Times, ‘1,000,000 souls facing starvation.’ The miners, through no fault of their own, were victims of a failing economic and political system and allotments were seen as a way to help them. Unlike the nineteenth century, however, it was not the landed classes, the church or the government that stepped in, instead, it was the Society of Friends (SOF) (the Quakers) who set up the Coalfields Distress Committee to help and encourage men to grow-their-own food.

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The scheme carried on until the 1960s. This map shows the receipent societies in 1950.

The Friend’s scheme was an immediate success and within a short time, there were 203 allotment societies in South Wales. By 1929, some 1,600 tons of seed potatoes were distributed to allotment holders, along with 12.5 tons of peas, 8 tons of beans and over a million packets of seeds. By 1930, there were 15,000 allotments holders in Sheffield, where a plot could be rented for 2d. per week, with nothing to pay for the first six months. One ten rod plot in Sheffield was said to have produced 700 pounds of potatoes, 30 cauliflower, 40 cabbages, 60 pounds of peas, 30 pounds of beans, 20 pounds of beets and 30 – 40 yards of flowers. The average yield from a plot was calculated at £5 to £7 worth of produce per year.[i]

 

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Breaking the land. Unemployed men digging an allotment, 1930s.

In November 1930, a conference was held in London in order to find ways to expand the provision of allotments for the unemployed. Not only were they seen as a solution to hunger and keeping the unemployed occupied, they also offered a form of security to the government by helping to maintain the status quo. Ramsay MacDonald, the Prime Minister, gave the keynote speech. Sir Christopher Addison, the Minister of Agriculture, thought the provision of allotments was such a good idea that he encouraged the government to take over the work of the Friends in providing allotments. As a consequence of Addison’s enthusiasm for the scheme, the Agricultural Land (Utilisation) Act came into force in 1931, although Parliament intended to repeal it as soon as the crisis was over.[ii]

With government participation in the scheme, the SOF Allotments Committee (formerly the Coalfields Distress Committee) now became known as the Government’s National Allotments Committee. In 1932, Scotland re-joined the scheme, having abandoned it previously after only one season. Allotments were seen as ‘a strong counteracting influence’ to the ‘Red and Communistic agitators’ to which unemployed men might fall prey.[iii] Unfortunately, the government’s involvement with the scheme was short-lived and after only a year it withdrew its support, shut up its office, dismissed its staff and left the allotment holders in the lurch. The Society of Friends had little alternative other than to assume full responsibility for the scheme. The Government’s National Allotments Committee was dissolved and SOF invited some of its members, as well as members of the National Allotments Society, onto a new committee, which was named the Central Committee for Allotment Gardens for the Unemployed.

By 1935, the Allotment Gardens for the Unemployed Scheme had spread to every county in England and Wales, although the distribution of allotments varied according to the number of unemployed. The number of men helped had risen to 120,641 and their produce was estimated to be worth £600,000. Three years later, employment was on an upward trajectory and although the number of people participating in the scheme fell, it continued until the 1960s by which time it was known as the National Allotments and Gardens Society Assistance Scheme. In 1961, it had a budget of about £9,000, which helped 12,000 people to ‘provide the best and most wholesome food-stuffs.’[iv] Grants were available for seeds, fertiliser and potatoes ‘to old age pensioners and blind persons,’[v] women and the unemployed. For two shillings, the scheme supplied enough vegetable seed for a ten rod plot. The scheme was also available to people who did not have allotments but had vegetable gardens of at least 150 square yards.


[i] Society of Friends Archive, Quaker House, London

[ii] Thorpe, H. 1969. Departmental Committee of Inquiry into Allotments. [Cmnd. 4166]: HMSO.1969 p.18. Full text of Departmental Committee of Inquiry into Allotments.

[iii] DeSilvey, C. 2001. When Plotters Meet: Edinburgh’s Allotment Movement 1921-2001. Unpublished MSc. thesis, University of Edinburgh. http://www.fedaga.org.uk/files/plotters.pdf. p.12

[iv] British Library 7084.b.6

[v] British Library 7084.b.6

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