Published by EH.NET (August 2003)

Jeremy Burchardt, The Allotment Movement in England, 1793-1873. Woodbridge, Suffolk, UK: Boydell Press, 2002. xii + 287 pp. ?45 or $75 (hardcover), ISBN: 0-86193-256-0.

Reviewed for EH.NET by Bethanie Afton.

In his study of the allotment movement in nineteenth century England, Jeremy Burchardt, Lecturer in Rural History at the University of Reading, has entered the continuing debate on the condition of the laboring classes in rural society. The research is based on a dataset of 1971 records from 1641 different allotment sites across the country complied principally, it would appear, from printed primary sources including parliamentary papers, county reports of the Board of Agriculture and the publications of the Labourer’s Friend Society and the Society for Bettering the Conditions and Increasing the Comforts of the Poor. Using these records Burchardt has provided a new and useful analysis of the spatial and chronological distribution of the allotments, of their size and rental value, of the crops grown, the cultivation practices adopted, and the yields obtained, of the occupational structure of the tenants and of the status and motivation of the landowners who made such provision. The material shows a slow spread between 1793 and 1805 in response to the harvest failures and high prices of the war years. Although relatively few allotments were established during the first phase between 1793 and 1829, the overall success of the early plots provided a model when crisis again struck in the form of the Swing Riots of 1830. During this second phase of the movement the popularity of this form of economic aid combined with social and moral control spread rapidly. By 1873 over 240,000 allotments, or one allotment for every three male agricultural laborers, were created.

A real strength of the book is the discussion of the relevance of the allotment movement to various rural social issues in Victorian England. It had an impact on both the rural laborer and the people providing the land. Where available, allotments were much in demand by rural laborers. The high yields obtained on the plots made a substantial contribution to the laborer’s family income. While not as valuable as the pre-enclosure right to graze a cow (a right not commonly held by the laboring poor), it was more beneficial than the more usual common rights to gather fuel, wood, and the like. Thus allotment provision did help to counter the losses brought about by enclosure and could significantly improve the standard of living of the agricultural laborer. The desire for allotments runs contrary to the notion that the proletarianized laborer had no interest in landholding. Working their own land gave laborers hope of a rise in status to that of the small tenant farmer. It made use of the time of the laborer’s wife and children in a period when employment opportunities were becoming more limited. However, the movement did not solely improve the economic status of the laborer. Through the provision of allotments an atmosphere of greater independence, industriousness, and self-help was encouraged. It focused the attention of those with allotments on the cultivation of their plots rather than on less socially acceptable activities including drunkenness, crime, and protest. Often the allotment rules were designed to reinforce the good behavior of the tenants. Landowners were willing to rent out allotments in part to benefit from this improved behavior. At the same time allotment provision was a means to enhance their own status — provision of allotments helped owners gain and maintain social approval. An unintended result of the movement was the impact it had on fostering and sustaining interest in agricultural trade unionism and Chartism. Thus, argues Burchardt, the movement should not be viewed as it often is as a return to traditional paternalism but instead as a movement that brought rural laborers more closely in line with respectable Victorian values.

Burchardt argues that the allotment movement was an essentially rural phenomenon until the third quarter of the nineteenth century. Where they occurred, domestic outworkers including the framework knitters around Leicester, Nottingham, and Derby, the shoemakers of Northamptonshire, and ironworkers from the area in north Worcestershire and south Staffordshire often outnumbered agricultural laborers as allotment holders. Because they faced growing competition from the more mechanized urban industrial sector, Burchardt argues, their depressed economic status was similar to that of the agricultural laborer. Like the agricultural laborer, they turned to allotments to improve their standard of living. In the book, apart from their link with the growth of Chartism, these groups receive limited attention and are treated as ‘rural’ industrial workers. This is somewhat problematic. Outworkers were often located in towns and larger villages. A number of cities including Nottingham, Sheffield and Birmingham had areas of urban allotments. This casts some doubt on just how ‘rural’ the movement was. How would the urban allotment holder fit into the analysis of rural social issues — rural protest, crime, reduction of the poor law, the rise of rural trade unionism — presented by the author? Would other conclusions have been reached if more attention had been paid to the urban aspect of allotment holding? The failure to acknowledge sufficiently the urban element of the movement does not negate the argument of the book. It does, however, leave it somewhat unbalanced.

Overall in his analysis of the importance of the allotment in rural society, Burchardt presents an interesting and well-argued case to show that by helping to alter the attitudes and status of the rural laborer, the movement had a significant impact on the nature of rural dissent and on the condition of the laborer in rural society. In this, the book makes a welcome contribution to the current debate.

Dr. Bethanie Afton is currently a Research Fellow investigating the Impact of Enclosure on the Berkshire Landscape as part of a New Opportunities Fund project held between the University of Reading and the Berkshire Records Office. Her past publications include Agricultural Rents in England, 1640-1850 and Farm Production in England, 1700-1914 (both with M.E. Turner and J.V. Beckett) and “The Statistical Base of Agricultural Performance in England and Wales, 1850-1914” in E.J.T. Collins, editor, The Agrarian History of England and Wales, VII/2: 1850-1914 (with M.E. Turner).