Allotments in York have a long history but the First World War was to have a dramatic effect on their development, lasting until modern times.
The Allotments Act had been passed in 1908 by the new Liberal government, with the aim of helping low income households, especially in industrial towns, to supplement their supply of food. It laid on the authorities the duty to provide allotments where there was a demand for these, and gave them powers to compulsorily purchase land in necessary. There had been an Allotments Act in 1887, but this only encouraged private allotments and the development of railway allotments.
In York the Rowntree family and other businessmen founded the first allotments in the late nineteenth century, each 300 square yards. In 1899 there were around 120 plots in total in York. By 1905 there were as many as 450 plots, including in our local area:
|Landlord||No of plots||Size of plots|
|South Bank||Mr De Bing (Burgh?)||60||180-720 sq yards|
|Nunthorpe||Mr De Bing (Burgh?)||30||180-720 sq yards|
|Clementhorpe||Mr Waddington||30||100-400 sq yards|
(Yorkshire Gazette, 25 Oct 1905)
These sites ran competitions for vegetables and flowers, but it seems that in the main they were used by working men with decent pay, rather than the unemployed. As these were privately owned and over-subscribed there was a move in the early 1900s by residents to persuade the York Corporation to establish sites. Both Liberal and Labour councillors promoted the cultivation of allotment sites in York as a means of social reform. Holgate was the first, opening in January 1906.
The success of the Holgate scheme led the Corporation to advertise for other groups and individuals to petition for sites. Our South Bank residents were the first to do so, but the authority had problems with identifying suitable land. The Smallholdings and Allotments Committee, which sat for the first time in January 1908, suggested to the newly formed South Bank Allotment Holders’ Association that land at Bustardthorpe, behind the York Racecourse be considered. At first the Association thought this was too far away from existing houses at that time. Despite this the Committee went ahead and in 1909 secured the land for 129 plots, in two fields at Bustardthorpe, ‘for the labouring classes’. The rents were set at 12s 6d a year. The Association was renamed the Bishopthorpe Road Allotment Association and began to organise shows for produce. At this time the Lord Mayor of York was its President and the Sheriff was Vice-President. Even the Archbishop of York was a member. This demonstrates that allotments had a major role to play in community life, as large areas of open space in York, especially near the riverside, were in private hands and inaccessible to the working classes.
The First World War
There began to be some problems when war broke out, as men went off to fight and women found themselves unable to tend plots when they had family and other responsibilities. For example a Mrs North from the Bustardthorpe asked to be relieved of the rent due for the half year as her husband was on military service, this was approved by the committee.
But growing food shortages meant that more plots were needed to grow crops such as potatoes. Under the Defence of the Realm Act 1914 (DORA) the Ministry of Agriculture and Fishing gave powers to local authorities to take over unused plots of land for allotments, to solve these problems.
In December 1916, to meet the need for expansion, the Committee considered a number of sites, including in our area Hospital Fields (Albemarle Road), Upper Scarcroft, Beresford Terrace and Bishopthorpe Road. They aimed to create around 470 allotment plots in total, each around 300 square yards. They specified that two thirds should be for potatoes. In 1917 the Ancient Society of Florists agreed to give a prize for the highest yields from these allotments.
This move proved very popular, with 516 applications by Jan 1917. Local byelaws were suspended and people were allowed to keep pigs and chickens on plots, if properly housed. The Yorkshire Gazette claimed the allotment as an act of patriotism: ‘We do not hesitate to say that the man who, knowing how to grow potatoes does not at once ask for land and get to work, will be as blameworthy as would the corporal who, seeing a chance to capture an army of the enemy, put off the effort until it was too late.’ The local press saw the popularity of the new allotments as a weapon in defeating the U-boats.
In 1917 the National Government of David Lloyd George passed the Cultivation of Lands Order Act and York Corporation set up War Allotments throughout the city, including Albemarle Road, Scarcroft Hill, Bishopthorpe Road, Beresford Terrace, Knavesmire Crescent, Campleshon Lane, South Bank Avenue and Thompson’s Field. By now it was estimated that over 65 acres in total had been allocated to allotments, a tenth of the area of city, with 1091 plots. This was estimated to be a greater proportion than any other northern city.
There were lectures and classes about horticulture, for example organised by the York Railway Institute. Local people were able to use their produce to support charitable causes. On 30 October 1918, Mr W C Lilley of Bishopsgate St reported that he and colleagues had been selling trays of allotment produce at the Britannia Inn in Nunnery Lane, with the takings going into the Hospital Box.
This new regime led to other changes. Whereas in the past, allotments had appeared to be a male preserve, it appeared that women were now starting to play a greater role as a result of the war.
In 1917 allotments were set up in grounds adjoining Scarcroft School, following a suggestion by HMI Young. Gardening began on 3 March, with two classes of 14 students each and Senior 6 and 7 teachers MT CA Heron FRHS and Mr J R Bellerby. In addition there were cookery demonstrations in the school kitchen in support of the food economy campaign, with the King’s proclamation on this read to the school.
In February 1918 the school was closed for a week so that teachers could help to register local people for food rationing.
In October 1918 special absence was granted to certain boys to help farmers in the area around York to gather the potato crop.
Even after the War there was still horticultural activity – two gardening classes in 1921 visited the Museum to study insect pests.
Vacant land for Scarcroft was part of Micklegate Stray (and still is, but now owned by the City Council rather than the Freemen of Mickelgate Ward). There are still public footpaths through the site, leading from Nunnery Lane to the Knavesmire and Hob Moor. The Nunthorpe Hall estate formed the southern and eastern boundary of the site, and to the west the rear gardens of Wentworth Road.
The first tenancies started on 1 Feb 1917. Scarcroft met the demand for 319 plots, each 300 square yards, with at least two thirds planted with potatoes. The rent was 10 shillings a year. Allotment gardening was important to the War effort, with maximum penalties for trespass or crop damage at £100 fine or a term of imprisonment.
Garden Produce Shows
The Scarcroft and Knavesmire Allotment Holders’ Association held their Annual Show at Scarcroft School in August 1918.
The York Promenade Working Men’s Club, in St Benedict’s Road, held their first garden show in September 1918. The aim was to encourage amateur gardeners, while at the same time raising money for the York County Hospital. Key organisers were George H Johnson, Charles Potter and Charles Pickering, who all played a leading role in trade locally. Charles Potter had the off-licence and grocer at 1 Vine St, Pickering’s were the butchers at 10 Bishopthorpe Road, and George H Johnson was the fish dealers later famously known as Johnson and Elson.
After the War
At an allotment prize-giving at the Tempest Anderson Hall in November 1918, representatives of the York Corporation said they would so everything possible to provide allotments for all who wanted them, increasing these where possible. Arnold Rowntree said that whereas before the war there were 257 Corporation allotments and 1081 private allotments, during the war there were a further 1952 Corporation allotments and 501 private allotments, with a total of 3791 by July 1918. It was calculated that around 50% of the acreage would be under potatoes, a total yield of around 700,000 tons. Now that the war was over there would still be food shortages, but those planning the urgently needed new housing developments were urged to incorporate an area of land for allotments nearby.
In December 1918 the Yorkshire Evening Press recorded two questions which the York and District Allotments Association Ltd. were putting to the Parliamentary candidates. They represented around 3000 allotment holders. Firstly whether the candidates supported a proposal to maintain or extend the present municipal powers of obtaining land for allotments, and secondly whether they were in favour of adequate compensation for any disturbance of allotment tenure? Each of the candidates was in favour of these.
York people liked their wartime allotments and it now became necessary to negotiate how these allotment sites could continue, as the powers to keep the land, under the Cultivation of Lands Order Act, expired in 1923. Some sites, such as those in Campleshon Lane, closed down as they were required for housing/building works. Others were renegotiated, using powers from the 1908 Allotments Act. Various later Acts helped, such as the 1922 Allotments Act, which gave greater security of tenure to plotholders. An Act in 1925 obliged local authorities to provide allotments if there was a demand in an area.
Later, some sites, such as those at Clementhorpe, unfortunately closed as the corporation no longer had powers to retain them. There was a battle over Knavesmire Crescent land and eventually plotholders were offered plots at Bustardthorpe.
Interest peaked in 1926, when the Corporation owned or leased 173 acres, with 2,393 plots.
However in 1931, because of rising unemployment, the Corporation agreed that unemployed men would not be required to pay in advance for their plots upon taking up a tenancy, and there were various other schemes to help the unemployed. Seebohm Rowntree pointed out the value of such plots in times of hardship. In the late 1930s there were still over 1,000 plots tended in York.
Allotment Associations flourished, including Scarcroft, holding exhibitions and competitions. Scarcroft allotments were retained during the inter war years and went on to contribute significantly to the Dig for Victory campaign of World War II.
In 1941 there were new plots alongside the wall in Albemarle Road.
By 1944 York had a total of 73.47 acres, of which Bustardthorpe covered 11.85 acres, Hospital Fields at Albemarle Road covered 2.37 acres, Nunnery Lane 9.4 acres and Scarcroft 9.4 acres.
Bustardthorpe allotments became famous around the world because of the celebrated Russell lupins, bred there by plotholder George Russell.
After WW2 York Racecourse needed more land and so the Bustardthorpe allotment site moved to a new site further along the road.
Years after the war in July 1946, redundant Anderson air raid shelters were offered to tenants for use as tool sheds. These simple corrugated iron shelters were popular with tenants and cost £5 apiece to install. Today just one example survives as a tool shed on Scarcroft, with a second being used as a compost bin.
Wilson, Ross York’s Allotment Heritage, Project report 2007
Wilson, Ross (2009) Cultivating the city: York’s allotment gardens 1905-1914. York Historian, 26. pp. 65-78
Wilson, Ross (2012) ‘Social Reform and Allotment Gardening in Twentieth Century York’, Journal of Urban History, 38 (4) 731-752
Scarcroft School logbooks
Yorkshire Evening Press