Among uses to which land around the Thames is now put, farmland and pasture, parks and nature reserves, and sports grounds loom large. In terms of acreage, allotments come below all these, but still, they’re dotted around the floodplain. Of 35 allotments currently supported by Oxford City Council, ten are in or around the Thames floodplain. North to south, starting to the west of the Thames, that’s Upper and Lower Wolvercote, The Trap Grounds, Cripley Meadow, Osney St Thomas and Bullstake Close (locally these are known as Twenty Pound Meadow and Botley Meadow), Spragglesea Mead, Cowmead, both in New Hinksey, and Redbridge by Kennington; then, alone on the east of the river, Fairacres Road in Iffley Fields – built on land reclaimed from the river. (Note the recurrence of the ‘mead’ element in allotment names, suggestive of the lands’ former use – and actually that seems to be generally the purpose these grounds formerly served, whether or not this history has been preserved in the name).
Allotments are not clustered in the same way along the Cherwell, perhaps because more of its banks have been colonised by university, collegiate and other educational institutions, though Summertown and Marston Ferry allotments are both close by; Marston Ferry abuts a floodplain field.
After floods in 2007, the Oxford and District Allotments Association, dealing with the aftermath of damage, estimated that 40% of city provision was in the floodplain.
Other allotments are located along streams which feed into the Thames or Cherwell: thus, Court Place Farm in Marston is on the Marston Brook, on a narrow bank of gravel and sand; Eden Drive (by the John Radcliffe Hospital) on the Bayswater Brook, and a handful of allotments — Town Furze, Fairview, perhaps Barracks Lane, Elder Stubbs Charity and East Ward — on different parts of the Boundary Brook. Brasenose Farm lies by some watercourse whose ultimate destination is unclear to me. Kestrel Crescent lies across the Northfield Brook. Streams and ditches not widely known may be familiar to plot-holders: South Ward allotments adjoin a stream running down from Boar’s Hill called the Barleycote stream, once used to cool beer, which was accordingly said to be served from the ‘Barleycote Arms’.
This watery theme isn’t surprising. Allotments need water, so placing them by a water source is advantageous to them, as well as possibly representing a good use for land less usable for other purposes. Some of these allotments have no mains water connection, relying instead on rainwater catchment and wells. Of East Ward (on the Boundary Brook), it is said (this seems to be a story about the past): ‘There was no mains water. Some of those near the brook cut steps down to collect water from it. One enterprising fellow with a plot bordering the middle ditch rigged up a hand pump to get what water he could from it.’ Some sites congratulate themselves on having recently installed mains water; Botley Meadow, by contrast, boasts of having recently dispensed with it, now drawing water from Botley Brook (with advice from a hydrologist plotholder) — and, following. this example, the Oxford Federation has now identified ‘water harvesting’ as an action point.
Some sites have longer and shorter histories of making do. Spragglesea pumps water out of Eastwyck Ditch. Wolvercote Common ‘on the Oxford floodplain’ relies on wells, as does Marston Ferry. The Cripley Meadow allotment website, which expects members to manage on rain and well water, provides instructions in how to dig a well. ‘The water is never far below the surface at Cripley, so digging a well is not too difficult. A depth of five feet will be sufficient.’
Allotments beyond the floodplain may have access to culverted streams not visible on the map, or be watered by springs. Several allotments on the slopes around Headington report water in the neighbourhood, for better or worse. The St Clements allotments in Pullens Lane claim to be ‘lush and fertile’ because they’re just above the spring line (though they also have mains water). At Bartlemas Close, it’s reported that there are apparently streams running beneath, and that some plotholders have found wells ‘to their advantage’. At Risinghurst, water perhaps runs down from Shotover, though this is reported more as a problem than an advantage.
Water can’t always guide location. Allotments need to be placed where they serve the local population. But dependency on mains water can itself cause problems. The spring 2020 newsletter of the Iffley allotments, on the slope up towards Rose Hill, carries many injunctions about the need to economise on water.
Of course being on the floodplain or some other form of watery region can pose challenges. Of Wolvercote Common it’s said that though it floods that’s ‘rarely during the summer growing season’. Spragglesea gets flooded (though the angelica is reported to thrive on it); Cowmead has been inundated. Osney St Thomas (Twenty Pound Meadow) often has problems with flooding, and had an especially bad time in 2007. Looking through the gate of Bullstake Road/ Botley Meadow on a walk, we had the impression that some of the huts were perched on stilts.
The allotment movement had its origins in the late eighteenth century, when agricultural labourers’ real wages were falling, and poor rates were rising. There were concerns that labourers were becoming immiserated, and losing moral fibre. Philanthropists thought that if they could give labouring families access to small, low-rent plots of land, they might better provide for themselves, and find a productive use for their energies. But, the theory was, these plots should be small, so that they weren’t tempted out of the workforce altogether: the example of Ireland suggested that peasant economies weren’t conducive to national progress. Nor of course did employers want to see the supply of labour diminished.
Early allotment provision was small-scale and haphazard, depending on the good will of local landowners (or alternatively, their fear: enthusiasm for providing allotments shot up after the ‘Swing Riots’ of 1830). It’s sometimes suggested that allotments compensated for access to land lost at enclosure, but, though that’s a way the case for allotments was sometimes argued – as a reparations story – only in a minority of cases did this provide the immediate context for their creation. Around Oxford city, this may hold true in two instances of mid-nineteenth century enclosure: Botley Meadow (though what was done in the short term with land set aside in the enclosure award is obscure), and the Elder Stubbs allotments, near Brasenose Wood. In the latter case, some continuity is embodied the persistence of a body of charitable trustees, but allotments were set up on the current site only during the First World War, so again, the line of continuity is blurred. Otherwise Oxford allotments – like most across the country – were some way post-enclosure.
By one means or another, allotments did multiply, if unevenly across the nation. By the 1890s (Martin Gaskell reports) some 400,000 allotments had been created. At this point, a move was made to enable the filling of gaps, by means of a statute empowering local authorities – when demand was evinced — to draw on rate income to acquire land for this purpose, and let it out at sub-market rents. During the next twenty years, more than 100,000 new plots were established on that basis.
Outside cities, these new powers and responsibilities were assigned to county councils (which came into being in 1889). The first allotments at Marston, Headington and Littlemore were provided by the county council, at a time when all these places lay beyond Oxford city limits. Allotments at Mill Lane, Old Marston, were already in operation by the 1890s.
Through the First World War, much thinking about allotments continued to emphasise their role in rural economies. That was the context for A.W. Ashby’s Allotments and Smallholdings in Oxfordshire, based on a survey undertaken in 1913-14 but not published till 1917. Ashby looked at what small parcels of land were available where, who was cultivating them, with what ends in view and with what success. His view was that ideally, smallholdings and allotments should provide engines of growth for their proprietors, allowing them to accumulate capital and move on to better things. However, on the whole, he found that, although small holders and allotmenteers might be hard-working and in their way ambitious, they did not aim at more than self-sufficient small enterprise. Round about the city of Oxford, he reported, some allotments were, in this spirit, dedicated to market gardening, which was not so common elsewhere in the county. Thus at Headington ‘a large quantity of peas and other vegetables, with strawberries and other small fruits are grown….for sale….by people who make a business of market gardening and higgling’. Peas were similarly grown at Cowley and Littlemore. But sharp seasonal fluctuations in demand in the city, where the university closed down each summer, made life hard for small producers. By contrast, current allotment rules don’t allow commercial exploitation. The Osney and Botley allotment website cites the act: ‘Under the Allotments Act 1922, allotment plots must be used for the production of fruit or vegetables for consumption by the plot-holder and their family, and/or of flowers for use by the plot-holder and their family’.
From an early date, an alternative – originally a small stream of — discourse focussed on allotments’ potential as adjuncts to the lives of urban and industrial workers. By the later nineteenth century, urban populations were growing much more rapidly than rural ones, so their needs attracted increasing attention. There was some consonance between demands for the provision of more open spaces in towns and the call to give townsfolk access to small plots on which they could grow vegetables. Oxford City provided allotments before it opened the first city park (off the Cowley Road) – though the availability of Port Meadow, Christchurch Meadow and latterly the University Parks gave it some alibi for foot-dragging in respect of parks. The first temporary allotments were created in 1890, permanent sites quickly following. In parallel, Cowley Recreation ground opened in 1892.
The first allotment sites in Oxford were to the south-east, along the floodplain, and in the east — areas where the working population was concentrated. Thus at Osney St Thomas, Botley Meadow, Cripley Meadow and East Ward (north of the Cowley Road). Outside the city (as it then was) they were to be found at Pullen’s Lane, Headington; at Old Marston and Barton Fields.
Not all allotments were (or are) on city land. Brasenose, Corpus, Magdalen and Oriel, the Warneford Hospital and the Morrell family have all at some point been allotment landlords. In 1943, it was reported that more than half of the land then in use as allotments (a much larger area than usual in the context of war) was private land.
Overall, it seems that the pattern of Oxford foundations had this shape:
The graph is rough and ready: it’s based on imperfect information; it doesn’t capture the expansion and shrinkage of sites, or in more recent decades, a pattern of subdivision, in which what had been viewed as one allotment (if perhaps spread over more than one location) split into separate entities: in recent years, the official number of allotments has grown by that process, rather than by brand-new foundations.
For all its imperfections, the graph suggests what’s evident from the more detailed record, that, as elsewhere, both world wars, by putting pressure on food supply, encouraged the extension of small-scale garden provision — in the latter case, under the slogan ‘Dig for Victory’. Phil Baker and Wendy Skinner-Smith estimate that Oxford plot numbers increased from circa 1600 in 1914 to circa 4000 in 1918. Even the University Parks were dug up, along with large areas of Cutteslowe Park. Oriel Cricket Ground and the Oxford (Southfield) Golf Course provided plots. In 1943 (against a background of significant local population growth in recent years) there were possibly as many as 8000 plots. Some of these sites were formalised as allotments after the wars. After the First World War, they were seen to have a role in supporting returned servicemen. So the Trap Ground Allotments were set up at this time, when the Oxford and District Federation of Allotment Associations (ODFAA) was also founded. Lenthall Road, Iffley/Rose Hill was formalised after the second world war.
The 1930s also saw new foundations, reflecting on the one hand the growth in Oxford’s working population (especially to the east, in association with the new car works) and on the other the economic pressures of that decade, that made household self-provisioning look attractive both to individuals and to policy makers.
Of course, housing development also put pressure on land. The interwar and postwar expansion of housing accordingly followed a complicated dance with allotment provision. Allotment land was sometimes built upon (e.g. a part of East Ward allotments became the Boundary Brook estate), but conversely new housing increased demand (so the establishment of the Fairview estate was followed by the creation of Fairview allotments). Some built-over sites were relocated. So, allotments at Weirs Lane were built over by early council housing, but allotments came and went on other sites around the Abingdon Road. Similarly, the postwar construction of the Donnington estate displaced allotments which were then recreated at the bottom of Fairacres Road (where what had been a turning space in the river was reclaimed using soil dug out in the making of Blackbird Leys); this new site in turn was scaled back when new houses were built at the bottom of the road.
Growing affluence and new consumer lifestyles reduced allotments’ appeal in the 1960s: the point at which brand-new foundations cease. It was at this juncture that large sections of the once very extensive East Ward allotments in Cowley were surrendered for development; another part was later developed as a nature park. The Trap Grounds fell from use and became overgrown. In Cutteslowe, a disused section of allotments was taken into the park. Later this was adapted to provide a ‘semi-natural wildlife area and community woodland.’
Both in Oxford and nationally, there were signs of change in the 1970s and 80s — associated with inflation, the early green movement, and the increasing involvement of women. In 1989, Oxford City Council joined in discussion, producing a menu of ideas about how allotments might improve their fortunes (with the implicit threat that if this didn’t happen, they would have little case against losing their land to development). Overall, the City Council has been been given credit for successfully working with the Oxford and District Federation of Allotments in this period, with the effect of maintaining allotment provision better than in many parts of the country.
Nonetheless, as elsewhere, substantial recovery in allotments’ fortunes has been chiefly a feature of the twenty-first century. In relation to any given site, the energy of particular individuals tends (no doubt rightly) to be credited. Still, the shift has been so widespread that deeper forces must be at work.
At a national level, a 1998 Select Committe Inquiry into the future of allotments sparked the establishment of an Allotments Regeneration Initiative, launched in 2002, with support from the charitable, voluntary and local government sectors, and funding from a mix of sources (including Big Lottery money). Reflecting wider interest and effort, in 2007 the Oxford City Council committed substantial sums to a programme of improvement, chiefly fencing and plot salvaging: this provided an encouraging context for those striving to improve the fortunes of particular sites.
Nonetheless, had there not been such people on the ground ready to exploit the moment, these initiatives wouldn’t have achieved much. Change in the gender and ethnic mix of plotholders may have been a factor; concern about the environment and the slow-down in the economy. A new generation (not necessarily meaning a young generation) perhaps brought new orientations and organising skills. From around this period, there are repeated reports of successful grant-seeking to improve facilities, and of efforts to recruit and retain plot-holders, along lines that had been discussed earlier. The Council’s never-ending quest for building land must have helped to concentrate minds.
Still, given that elements of many of these grass-roots changes had been manifest earlier, the scale and character of the shift in allotments’ fortunes remains striking (if uneven across sites, because of differences in their circumstances and in the vigour of leadership from time to time).
Although demand for sites has increased locally, as nationally, yet by national standards, Oxford remains well endowed in relation to demand, with some 2700 plots. Though there are often waiting lists, turnover is said to be sufficient to allow new applicants to be absorbed before they’ve waited too long. In June 2020, the ODFAA website listed 14 out of 35 as having plots available.
The alert reader may have noted that many of my photos — indeed, all of my early hotos — have been taken through fences or at a distance. Allotments face security challenges — especially theft of tools — so aren’t usually open to non-members. Initially, I depended for information on the websites that many of them maintain. Also on a survey, which Lorna Robinson of Oxford Brookes undertook in 2008 on the basis of conversations with plot-holders on seven sites and a questionnaire to another 100, with a focus on sustainable development and community benefits. More recently — since completing the main run of the blog — I’ve been given the chance to step inside some allotments. Phil Baker and Wendy Skinner-Smith also kindly gave me a copy of the informative history of the Oxford and District Federation of Allotment Associations that they compiled for its centenary in 2019. This includes reports from most of the affiliated sites on their history and current state.
An allotment is usually about 250m squared (though they’re conventionally measured in perches, also called poles or rods — probably the last context in which that old measure survives). They come in different sizes, and may be split to accommodate new members. There’s usually a requirement to keep the allotment in good order, and to join in occasional communal work days. Allotment associations generally have constitutions. The City Council requires them to elect committees. They’re invited to send representatives to city/ODFAA liaison meetings.
Though allotment holders often have purely personal motivations for investing time and energy in allotments — health, company, saving money – Lorna Robinson found that most of those she questioned were also interested in their possible wider benefits, and allotment websites bring out that angle too: thus there’s much interest in organic gardening; supporting wildlife, and educating the young (primary schools quite often have plots).
Barracks Lane Community Garden – though marginal to my concerns inasmuch as it stands well above the floodplain, up the incline from the Cowley Road – is interesting inasmuch as, representing a variant on the allotment model, it’s been deeply shaped by themes that are shaping contemporary allotments too. Established thirteen years ago on a dilapidated Council car park, and since extended by taking in other waste ground, it’s always been too small to host many allotments, and in any case there are other allotment sites nearby (East Ward; the Links). Instead, in consultation with local people and community groups, it’s been developed as a garden for common use, with herbs and fruit trees, which people can tend or learn to tend, or consume, but where they can also meet for other purposes: to enjoy the space, colours, scents and sounds of a garden; to organise playgroups or hold yoga sessions, play in the sandpit or cook in bread, pizza or tandoori ovens.
It’s a hotbed of collective and fringe forms of educational activity: a Forest School; work-sessions that bring together more and less able-bodied children; sessions supplied for young unaccompanied migrants. Once it was a magnet for small grants of various kinds, but now many of these funding streams have dried up, and the Council too has had to cut support. Had it not been for the enthusiasm of its founders and their successors, it could never have taken root; had it not been for the enthusiasm of its users, it could not have blossomed. But any such enterprise needs some income to fertilise it. In straitened times, it’s more of a challenge to sustain the common resource that in turn sustains diversity of collective life.
By and large, Oxford allotments are in good heart. In relation to those in floodplain settings more particularly, some concern has been expressed lest better management of flooding open up scope for new building — affecting, for example, the land on which New Hinksey’s Cowmead allotments now stand. The Flood Alliance has seen reason to try to allay these fears. It is, they say, an integral part of their plan that there should remain land open to flooding. That’s one among other functions that allotments can perform.
Martin Gaskell’s article, referred to in the text above, is ‘Gardens for the Working Class: Victorian Practical Pleasure’, Victorian Studies 1980.
Extensively revised to incorporate information from the very informative ODFAA centenary history. Also to add information about Barracks Lane Community Garden: thanks to Kate Jury for showing me around. And to Margaret Thompson, for the tour of Fairacres Allotments.