JC Niala, University of Oxford
The significance of the allotment in urban English history is inconsistent. In general, the allotment space is treated as marginal, yet simultaneously they remain inextricably linked to popular imaginations of significant periods of history, such as the Second World War. This link resurfaced with COVID-19 and is reflected in the language of war permeating public and private discourse about the pandemic. The day after lockdown began, my neighbour asked me if I was going to ‘dig for victory’, as I set off to my local allotment for my hour of daily exercise.
In the same way that physical allotments are often hidden from the view of people who navigate city streets, urban allotment history is similarly disguised. The assumption that people primarily use allotments to alleviate hunger, has obscured understandings of other motivations of use. I have been carrying out research on allotments in Oxford for 18 months, and the onset of the pandemic has showed a shift in use that is both a continuation of, and a break from historical patterns.
At 101 years old, the Oxford and District Federation of Allotment Associations is one of the oldest in the country. Echoing the 1918-1919 (Spanish Flu) pandemic, the First World War and the Second World War, there was an appreciable increase of (socially distanced) people on sites across the city. For some people (as in the First World War) allotmenteering was largely practical and a way to secure their supply of food. For others, it was analogous to newspaper reports during the 1918-1919 pandemic, where it was cited that allotmenteers had better health and were more likely to survive because of their practice.
However, what was fascinating (particularly as lock down eased) was the significant number of people who went to their plots simply to sit and gaze into the distance. One of the aspects of allotmenteering that is obscured is leisure and recreation. There are those who maintain their plots just enough to prevent eviction from a site, in order to have an outdoor space in which they can relax. Indeed, it is leisure and recreation that secured access for allotmenteers to tend their plots. During the COVID-19 pandemic, instead of ‘Dig for Victory’, the government Department of Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, launched a ‘Pick for Britain’ campaign which encouraged city dwellers to work on countryside farms that had labour shortages. Because the UK government was not considering allotments as sites of food production, it was possible as happened in France and Ireland, they might have been shut during lockdown.
The fact that English urban allotments remained open during lockdown, is the defining feature of the continuation of and break from historical patterns. The continuation is the increase in growing by urban citizens during times of national crisis. This increase can also be seen during the 1970s oil crisis, the financial crash of 2008 coupled with government austerity measures, and during the ongoing climate change crisis. During all of these crises, the use of allotments has increased and waiting list numbers have grown. The site where I have had a plot since November 2018 is an example of the manner in which crises can lead to increased growing. When I first got my plot, the site it is on was at best ¾ full, by the time lockdown was easing, it had a waiting list. However, the marked difference is both the distinct lack of government support and co-option of the public upsurge in cultivation. During the Second World War, the government requisitioned public land such as parks and converted them into allotments, meaning that England reached the highest level of urban allotments in history.
The rapid change in lifestyle in the 1950s and 60s (including high levels of employment and the welfare state) saw a brisk decline in allotment use. Many sites were developed, and others fell into disrepute, prompting the government to commission the Thorpe inquiry in the early 1960s. It is this enquiry that would unknowingly secure access to sites for allotment holders in 2020. The subsequent Thorpe report saw the National Allotment Society become the National Society of Allotments and Leisure Gardens. A policy acknowledgement that allotments were more than about growing food. This change brought about a security for allotments that transcended the decade in which it was made. It is a decision that is still controversial with the allotmenteers who see growing food as the raison d’être of their practice. And yet it is this change in categorisation, a taking into account of people who use allotments for leisure and recreation, that made allotments accessible during lockdown. It is a policy moment that suggests that it is recognising the plurality inherent in allotment sites that will continue to secure their presence into an uncertain future.
About the author: JC Niala is a doctoral researcher at the University of Oxford. She is a historian of the Great War and her research focuses on African soldiers and the East African front. With support from The Oxford Centre for Research in the Humanities, she has worked on public history projects featuring female and Black scholars in Oxford’s history.