In 1902, The Rowntree family included generous provision for allotment land in their plans for New Earswick. By doing this, they were replicating the behaviour of many affluent people. Until ‘The Smallholdings and Allotments Act’ was passed in 1908, the 60,000 acres rented out for allotments across England were provided by landowners, not by the state.
The chief reason for this collective generosity was that providing space for allotments was already known to be an effective way to tackle poverty. Allotmenteering was viewed positively by the upper classes: it was seen as ‘self-help’ of the most attractive kind. The gifts of land for this purpose even generated income for the donors, as the rents charged for allotments were based on market rates. Offering people allotments avoided the taint of charity and allowed poorer families to save money and improve their lives.
The outbreak of the First World War, and the implications of naval warfare, introduced a new urgency into the provision of allotments. In 1914, Britain was heavily dependent on food imports and, during wartime, the increased costs of shipping led to a rapid price rises. Scarcity and higher prices triggered panic-buying, hoarding and widespread accusations of profiteering.
Government reluctantly accepted its role in feeding the nation. Confidence was restored a little when a Cabinet Committee on Food Supplies was formed in August 1914, aimed at steadying prices. The Committee set official maximum retail prices for key commodities and hoarding was ‘strongly discouraged’. In due course, as it became clear that a voluntary code was not sufficient to prevent profiteering, those found abusing the system were fined or even imprisoned.
The Rowntrees were quick to grasp the implications of U-boat warfare and potential shortages. They responded generously by substantially increasing the amount of space available for staff to rent as allotments. Demand soared across York, with waiting lists for folk who were not as fortunate as Rowntree employees.
In addition to offering more space, in 1917, the Rowntrees also formally permitted women to be allotment holders, so that everyone could contribute to growing enough food for their families. This was a typically progressive step, which reflected the realities of the lives of many York families. Husbands and sons were away and the remaining family members needed to do everything possible to enhance their diets and balance their budgets.
The War Gardens – as the new allotments were called – flourished and the Directors complimented the commitment that turned meadows into useful crops. They offered prizes for the best allotments and introduced a new ‘Ladies Section’ into the prize-giving. The Cocoa Works Magazine wrote an article about the success of the female allotment-holders at Rowntrees, entitled “The Paste and Office Girls Defy German Submarines”.
By the end of the War, ladies’ allotments were just as popular as men’s and there could be no question of going back. Instead, the Rowntrees made yet more land available so that soldiers returning from the war would not be obliged to compete with female staff for allotment space. In this, once again, Rowntree staff were fortunate. Over the next decade, many other landowners decided simply to reclaim the space that had been requisitioned for wartime allotments.