Commons, smallholdings, allotments and gardens were the subject of a pop up talk at the Museum of English Rural Life on Monday 21 November.
The talk began with a tour through the redesigned museum galleries. Here, with reference to the relevant artefacts and displays such as ‘Grow Your Own’, Dr Burchardt explained that while most allotments today are in towns, the allotment movement began as a response by landowners to rural poverty at the end of the eighteenth century. The number of allotments increased and became more widespread after the Swing Riots of 1830 which were directed against the introduction of threshing machines to replace manual workers. The wider provision of allotments was a response to this and seen as a way to improving the lot of labourers on the land, and thereby reduce rural unrest.
The audience was told about the hierarchical class structure of landowners, farmers and labourers in rural areas at the time. One of the effects of the provision of allotments was a change in the relationship between the labourer and the land, but the motives of those who provided land were often to increase the industriousness of the poor and reduce idleness.
The modern image of allotments is perhaps more associated with growing your own food in times of hardship as part of a sustainable green lifestyle or a healthy outdoor leisure activity.
A local example of moral improvement through allotments was depicted in Mary Mitford’s story William and Hannah which appeared in her 1835 book Belford Regis. William lived just down the road from Katesgrove Hill on Silver Street, described as:
…that wretched suburb Silver Street, where the miserable hovels had not an inch of outlet, and the children were constantly grovelling in the mud and running under the horses’ feet, passing their whole days in increasing demoralization; whilst their mothers were scolding and quarelling and starving, and their fathers drowning their miseries at the beer shops… [ref 1]
William and Hannah were to marry but the tale begins with their break-up caused by William’s drinking at the Eight Bells [ref 2]. There is a happy end and reconciliation of the pair on an allotment provided by local brewer Mr Howard. William has forsaken the beerhouse to grow vegetables, fruit and flowers.
Mary Mitford appends a note to the story:
The system on which the above story is founded, is happily no fiction; and although generally appropriated to the agricultural labourer of the rural districts, it has, in more than one instance, been tried with eminent success amongst the poorer artisans in towns – to whom, above all other classes, the power of emerging from the (in every sense) polluted atmosphere of their crowded lanes and courts must be invaluable.
She goes on to say that ‘Mr Howard’, although that is not quite his name, does really exist. It seems probable that he was James Hayward, brewer of Shute End, Wokingham [ref 3]. James Hayward was a supporter and committee member of the Berkshire Labourers’ Friend Society, and in a letter to the Berkshire Chronicle he wrote of the Wokingham scheme and encouraged other landowners to participate. The Berkshire Chronicle was happy to support these aims [ref 4]:
The interest which we have always taken in the question will at all times induce us to open our columns to Correspondents who either seek or confer any information on the allotment system. We think it right to add that a personal inspection of Mr Hayward’s Wokingham allotments would convince the most incredulous, as to the benefits derived from the occupation of gardens contiguous to a town, as well as country places.
The Being Human 2016 programme of talks at the MERL continues for the remainder of the week:
Tuesday 22 November – Freedom food? Factory chickens and the complexities of industrialised modern farming. Professor Andrew Godley.
Wednesday 23 November – Freedom of movement? Reanimating the evacuee experience. Sonya Chenery.
Thursday 24 November – Free to control? Value judgements and the management of Bovine TB in badgers. Professor Richard Bennett.
Friday 25 November – Popular Justice: Right and retribution in rural England. Dr Stephen Banks.
All talks start at 12 noon at the Museum of English Rural Life, Redlands Road, Reading, RG1 5EX.
You can register your attendance:
- While Mary Mitford’s locations cannot always be taken literally, in this case it seems reasonable that she was referring to the real Silver Street.
- Silver Street was well supplied with alehouses and beerhouses, but the Eight Bells may not have been an actual public house.
- Another clue to his identity is that ‘Mr Howard’ lived at ‘Oakley Manor’; Wokingham was often called Oakingham at that time.
- Berkshire Chronicle 5 October 1833. British Newspaper Archive via findmypast.uk. There are several items relating to the Labourers’ Friend Society in this edition.