How much is that vegetable on the allotment?


Trying to assess the value of an allotment is something that has preoccupied many minds and been the subject of considerable debate for more than two hundred years. Throughout their history, the social benefits of allotments have been considered just as important as the economic benefits. In the period of the Swing Riots, in 1830, rural crime rose to a point where landowners were desperate to find a way to alleviate it. One solution was to provide allotments, which were highly likely to be forfeited if the holder transgressed in any way. Transgressions included crime, drunkenness and not attending church on a Sunday. Writing On the condition of the agricultural labourer in 1846, George Nicolls was of the opionion that allotments ‘make to the labourer and to his family the difference between want and sufficiency, between privation and comfort.’ At a time when almost seventy per cent of a labourer’s income was spent on food and drink, the financial advantage of an allotment could be significant.

Seebohm Rowntree carried out a scientific study to assess the value of an allotment to some unemployed families in York. Rowntree’s Unemployment a Social Study (1911) gives a detailed accounting of the amount of produce grown in allotments between 1902 and 1904. Twenty-four men, each with a 345 square yard allotment, kept precise records of the amount of produce grown over the three years of the experiment. The value of this produce was calculated by Rowntree to be worth about a quarter of the weekly income for a family on a minimum wage.

A study, covering the period 1890 – 1914, in Barrow and Lancaster, revealed that thirty-one of sixty-two people interviewed had a family allotment or grew vegetables in their gardens. Not only did their allotments provide food for family and friends, in the Belgrave area of Leicester, plot holders were known to hang their surplus on the railings outside the allotment and sell it for 3d. – 4d. per bag.

5180475In 1941, ‘a well-cultivated 300 square yard plot’ was said by the Ministry of Agriculture and Fisheries (MAF) to be able to produce up to one ton of vegetables per annum.’ Post-war, MAF calculated that a ten rod allotment could produce, per week, twenty pounds of vegetables in the winter, eleven pounds in spring, twelve pounds in the summer and fifteen pounds in the autumn.  MAF also pointed out that allotments were of even more benefit to a housewife by shortening her queuing time at the green-grocer and making her husband happier by giving him a hobby that allowed him to forget the stress of his job!

Arthur Simons, author of The Vegetables Grower’s Handbook (1948), was emphatic in his opinion that a ten rod allotment could absolutely not grow enough food for a family of four.’ Whereas Hellyer (1942) said a well-cultivated plot in favourable conditions could yield around 56 pounds of broad beans, 182 pounds of main crop tomatoes and 168 pounds of onions per rod.

Definitely not the final word on the subject but, in my opinion, the most sensible comment was made in 1918 by F.E. Green. He thought it doubtful that allotment holders actually gave much thought to how much their produce was worth, because if it was financial rewards they were after, they would be better off doing overtime at their jobs. It was, he said, a desire to be outdoors and love of gardening that were the greatest benefits. 

This is an abridged extract from my forthcoming book Dig for Plenty: a history of allotments, which is published by Five Leaves and will be out shortly.




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