In recent weeks, The Big Allotment Challenge, in which pairs of gardeners compete in a series of competitions to ‘grow’, ‘eat’ (preserve making) and ‘make’ (flower arranging), has featured on primetime television, attracting around 2.5 million viewers. It’s really no surprise to see this familiar format applied to allotments; there’s clearly a ready audience with around 350,000 plots in Britain, plus around 100,000 people on waiting lists.
Writing about the programme in The Guardian, Julian Baggini raises some interesting points, but one which doesn’t ring true for me is his claim that The Big Allotment Challenge “turns the allotment into a site of competition, when in essence they are all about solidarity and co-operation”. He links this move to the ways in which late capitalism packages non-material goods and experiences as consumer products. This ignores two important features of allotments: their competitive history and their integral role in industrialisation and the development of capitalism.
While there has always been a ‘gift relationship’ associated with allotments, whereby allotment holders share produce with friends and neighbours and participate in charitable and community activities, competition has also been present through the history of allotment holding. As a traditionally male environment, allotments shared this competitive element with other male working class pursuits, such as pigeon racing, bowling, clog dancing and sport. Secret techniques, seed varieties, fertilizer recipes and so forth were fiercely guarded, as an allotment holder I interviewed for my PhD described:
You can imagine the rivalry that used to go on…and secret things and secret this and where they get the seed from…the specialist seed merchants who supplied the real stuff, you know, the real selective stuff and you’d never disclose where you bought this stuff from it was all secret (Dudley allotment holder).
While not all the allotment holders I interviewed took part in competitions, it was an important activity for some, and a common source of dispute and rivalry. Many arguments are carefully recorded in allotment society records. In a typical example at Palfrey (Walsall) Show in 1926, an exhibitor was asked to refund his prize money when it was discovered the sweet peas he entered were not grown on his allotment.
While sometimes the rivalry could get out of hand, competition and co-operation aren’t necessarily opposites of course and allotment holders also told stories of how competitors had helped each other:
…sprouts had gone just the week before the show, cabbage root fly. Well the other people, like say my dad, people like that as had got some sprouts spare, ‘cause they’d put a couple of spares at the end of their rows, they’d dig it up for him and they’d take it…although they were competing against each other and that’s how it used to be, great (Dudley allotment holder)
Although they were active in organising competitions and community events, allotment associations have rarely been politically active in comparison to other forms of working class organisation. It was only in the last decades of the twentieth century that anti-consumerism and more radical environmental groups began to show an interest in allotments. When they were first introduced into industrial towns and cities in the nineteen and early twentieth centuries, allotments had a clear role in supporting capitalist agendas. Allotments were an example of ‘rational recreation’, a notion based on middle class fears of radical social and political movements which aimed to ‘respectabilise’ leisure, combat idleness and to promote acquiescence. They were seen as a form of social control by employers, who hoped that allotments would help create a ‘play discipline’ which would diminish working classes threats to social stability by promoting industriousness and improving labour discipline. Allotment holding was seen as an acceptable form of recreation because it had a useful purpose, promoted industry and could help to counter idleness and dissention. Awarding prizes for growing was one aspect of this strategy.
So while competition has always played a part in allotment holding, as in The Big Allotment Challenge, this has been, for the most part, carefully controlled and designed to reinforce the status quo. The origins of urban allotments were closely linked to the growth of capitalism. Perhaps the nineteenth century manufacturers had some success in dissipating dissention via allotments because, for most of their history, politics have been of relatively little significance in this environment. But this is only part of the history of allotments. Crucially, they offered something more important than a supply of cheap food or a way to occupy their leisure time. Throughout their history, allotments have offered working class communities (or men at least!) a freedom they enjoyed in few other spaces: the freedom to participate in acts undeniably anti-capitalist in their own way: thinking, reflecting and dreaming:
…you’re in another world…when you go up there, you’re in a totally different world, relaxed, easy-going …You haven’t got the cares of your job or your study or whatever it is you’re doing… (Wolverhampton allotment holder)
…you can just talk to it and look at it, sit on the seat for ten minutes in the sun if it’s shining, ‘cause we’ve always had a seat up there. Have a cup of coffee on the wall… (Dudley allotment holder)