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Cockney plots : working class politics and garden allotments in London's East End, 1890-1918



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The allotments scheme was a complex and diverse social, political, and economic movement that provided the labouring classes with small plots of land, usually no larger than one-eighth of an acre, on which to grow vegetables. From the late nineteenth century to the end of the First World War in 1918, the East End of London experienced an overwhelming increase in allotment cultivation and provision. Working-class men in the boroughs of Hackney, Poplar, East Ham, and West Ham participated in the allotments scheme for a variety of reasons. Allotments were places in which a working man could grow his own food with his family’s help to supplement low, casual or seasonal wages, and his gardening kept him out of the pub and on the land. During the war period, food prices increased to intolerable levels in the East End so that the allotment was one of the few ways to reasonably feed the family, especially for the casual dockers. East Enders maintained personal and collective connections to the land that they had lost both through the Enclosure Acts of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries and the urban sprawl of the early twentieth century. Finally, allotment gardening provided the healthy leisure activities of exercise, horticultural education, and civic participation. The allotment was embedded in a social ethic that espoused industriousness, sobriety, respectability, and independence and in this way was a middle class solution to a working class problem. Yet, working men adopted the scheme as their own with enthusiasm and dedication and created natural spaces in the degraded landscape of the East End. By 1916, with the passage of the Cultivation of Lands Order, the East End boasted thousands of allotments growing vegetables on London’s vacant lots largely due to the persistent demands of residents on their local borough councils. The allotment association provided East End men with an unparalleled opportunity for grassroots political participation and gave way to a marked increase in working-class political awareness during the period. East Enders gained a foothold in local, regional, metropolitan, and later national politics for the first time in decades. The allotment in the East End also significantly changed the environment in which it was situated. The green space improved the esthetic of the area, adding to the general well-being of all of the boroughs’ citizens. East End allotments brought life to an area that many believed was lifeless. Not only did working men prove they could bring their sooty surroundings to life, but that they could also bring back to life the long-latent self-sufficiency of their ancestors. They were attracted to the scheme at a higher rate than many of the other 28 London boroughs because of their poverty, their maintained connection to green space, their cultural and political interest in land, and their profound sense of the loss of the land and the independence it brought.



Working Class, Urban Poverty, Gardening, Land Reform, East End, London, First World War, Allotments



Master of Arts (M.A.)






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