by Joe Earp
Nottingham has a long history of allotment gardening. The St Anns Allotments are the oldest and largest detached town gardens in Britain, possibly the world. Their unique history and heritage has been recognised and it is a Grade 2* listed site.
The site has been in continuing use since the last 600 years. The name St Anns Allotments is a fairly modern name for the site and for many hundreds of years it was known as the Hungerhills. It has been suggested that the name Hungerhill comes from the Old English word ‘hungor’ which meant ‘sparse’ and was used to refer to bleak and bare hills. Another suggestion is that it derives from ‘hangar’ which meant a meadow or grass plot usually by the side of a road. A third suggestion is that it derives from ‘Hangra Hills’, which literally means hillside of clay. This third suggestion is quite probable as the whole site sits on a ancient filed which was known as the Clay Field.
The earliest reference to the site comes from a record transaction for a John and Anabilla releasing 2 acres of arable land to Ralph de Perewyche. Which explains: “The wronghlandis abutting upon the Becke Sike, or brokk and the other lies in lyngwolddale abutting upon Hongerhill”.
The land was originally owned by St Mary’s Church and the hospital of St John. In 1551 the land became the possession of the Nottingham Corporation who had acquired it from Edward VI. By 1605 there are records which show that the Nottingham Corporation leased two or three acres plots to 30 Burgesses or Freemen of the town of Nottingham. The plots were known as Burgess Parts. This leasing of the land at £15 per year allowed the Corporation to use some of this money for the upkeep of the medieval Trent Bridge. The allotment of land to the Burgesses continued over the next 250 years.
By 1831 the population of Nottingham had grown from about 11,000 in 1750 to 50,000 by 1831. Most of the population of the town of Nottingham lived in the original medieval layout, which by the early 1800s, was cramped and compact. The idea was quickly reconsigned that the Burgesses Parts, which were mainly used for grazing, could be turned into individual gardens and leased out to wealthy tenants. The Corporation to begin with were not happy about subletting and complained about these proposed gardens. However the idea was soon agreed and by 1832 30 Burgess Parts had become as many as 400 cultivated gardens.
These new detached gardens offered the wealthy Nottingham Victorians the chance to get out of the ever growing city and create their own pleasure gardens, within distance of the town. The plots were used and enjoyed by the shopkeepers and professional people who lived over their businesses in the town centre and so had little garden around their homes. Many had summerhouses where tenants could relax, enjoy their lawns and flower beds, make tea or a meal on the stove, and cultivate their fruit and vegetables. Glasshouses were also common.
Over time there was a slow transition moving away from gardens that were used by the middle classes for recreation towards allotment gardens for poorer workers. They offered low income families the opportunity to supplement their low wages by growing their own fruit and vegetables. Howit (1831) explained that many of the gardens had “excellent summerhouses and there they delight to go, and smoke a solitary pipe, as they look over the smiling face of their garden, or take a quiet stroll amongst their flowers; or to take a pipe with a friend; or to spend a Sunday afternoon, or a summer evening, with their families. The amount of enjoyment which these gardens afford to a great number of families, is not easy to be calculated – and then the health and improved taste!”
During the Second World War the gardens were used and were vital for the Dig for Victory Campaign. The Dig for Victory campaign encouraged people to transform gardens, parks and sports pitches into allotments to grow vegetables. People also kept their own chickens, rabbits and goats. Nine hundred pig clubs were set up and about 6000 pigs were raised in gardens. The Government knew the British people could be starved out by a sea blockade; as much imported food came from Canada and America, supplies were vulnerable to attack from the German navy. The British Merchant Navy also had to change its role, to be available for transporting troops and munitions. The campaign was spearheaded by Lord Woolton, Minister for Food, and it fired public enthusiasm via radio broadcasts. It introduced ‘Dr Carrot’ and ‘Potato Pete’; displayed iconic posters in stations, shops and offices; produced leaflets and recipes, as well as specially written songs and slogans, and even lists of recommended ‘food for free’ in the countryside.
From the 1950s the allotments fell into a slow decline, (there was some renewed interest in the 1960s and 1970s) and by the early 1990s the site was suffering from further neglect and decline.
In 1993 a group of allotment holders formed what is now STAA Ltd (previously knowns as the St Anns Allotment Campaign) to protect and improve the allotments and so began the process of reversing the decline and once more turning them into a vibrant centre of community activity. Today the site is a vibrant and beautiful setting.
So next time you are out that way why not drop into the visitor centre and have a tour of the St Anns Allotments. For more information regarding visiting the allotments please refer to the link below: