Dig where you stand


Ponders End Allotments, London (1997)

Last week the Royal Horticultural Society published a depressing report on the loss of front gardens, now paved over for car parking. More than five million UK front gardens are now devoid of plants and more than twelve million have been hard-surfaced. A nation of gardeners has become a nation of garagistes. A few years ago I accompanied writer Bob Gilbert on one of his walks for a new edition of his London walking guide, and in suburban London we often found ourselves walking down streets which resembled a line of car showrooms or forecourts. Keeping up with the Joneses no longer means making sure the roses haven’t got blackfly, but proudly displaying this year’s car registration plates. As to what’s happening in the back garden, who knows?

Not only is this damaging the environment, especially in London where the majority of trees are still in private gardens, and where the craze for concrete is apparently at its worst, but it also represents a blow to urban civility. For a well-tended front garden was once a gift to the neighbourhood, an important piece of social altruism, which refuted the so-called ‘tragedy of the commons’ (whereby people only secure their own interests), and signalled a powerful contribution to collective well-being and amenity.

The passion for gardening has fluctuated in modern times, and we may yet see the return of the front garden, but possibly in a different form. This is the argument of historian Margaret Willes, who in her wonderful history, The Gardens of the British Working Class, charts the changing enthusiasm for different kinds of plants and styles of garden over the centuries, interspersed with periods of indifference, or the pursuit of other interests. Unsurprisingly, the passion for gardening is directly related to what is happening in the way people are housed. Today, with increased insecurity of tenure in private housing, and the increasing frequency with which owner-occupiers move as they climb the housing ladder, there may be fewer incentives in maintaining a well-tended garden – especially if there are several family cars to find room for away from the road.

Willes writes that whenever she told people she was writing a book about working class gardens their immediate response was – ‘Do you mean allotments?’ While never under-estimating the importance which allotments have played in millions of people’s lives over the past 150 years – and still do – the focus of Willes’ encyclopaedic study is more on the ornamental and floral traditions, through which people have expressed their interest and love in cultivating flowers and designing their own gardens. She cites the strong traditions which existed amongst the 18th century Spitalfields and Paisley weavers, the Durham and Northumberland miners, and the Sheffield cutlers, for perfecting their small gardens – though they also grew vegetables too when they could. Many succeeded, in learning enough Latin to be able to study technical treatises on plant propagation.

The rise of the public park, including the creation of specialist botanical gardens, met both recreational and pedagogic needs, with trees, shrubs and flowers often labelled with both Latin and vernacular names (my local park, Clissold Park, still has one tree bearing a pre-war metal identifying plaque). Park managers soon became aware that ‘the great unwashed’ were often as learned in the matters of horticultural good-practice as their own professional staff. Flower shows proliferated across the villages, towns and cities of Britain, becoming a high point of the annual calendar, and at the end of the Second World War some two-thirds of the population claimed to do some gardening. With the advent of the high-rise council estate, window boxes began to feature prominently in local floral competitions.

The passion for gardening had its critics. The Chartists suspected the provision of allotments was designed to distract the urban working classes from the political struggles still to be had, whereas the charismatic leader of the agricultural workers’ union, Joseph Arch, is reported as saying approvingly, ‘The garden is a starting point of the land question.’ Neville Chamberlain thought allotments turned potential revolutionaries into citizens, and regarded the enthusiasm of the Yorkshire miners for their gardens as ‘an antidote to Bolshevism’. By contrast, the wayward artist-gardener, Ian Hamilton Finlay, once hoped that, ‘Garden centres must become the Jacobin clubs of the new revolution.’

Such tensions over garden ideals still simmer: the most bitter fight over the land-grab that became the 2012 Olympic Park in east London, concerned the levelling of the historic Manor Gardens, an allotment site in Hackney which had been a focal point for local gardening enthusiasts for more than a hundred years.

Willes’ history concentrates on the people who gardened for themselves and for others, for reasons of utility (and employment) as well as for recreation and sheer pleasure. Her focus is on the cottage garden, the suburban garden, the allotment, and those who worked in the gardens of the great country houses. The book concludes with the coming of the world of TV and celebrity gardening, where the instant make-over or the low-maintenance patio garden comes to the fore, artfully disguising the lack of serious horticultural or ecological implications (and therefore denaturing) of such quick-fixes.

It would be wonderful if she continued the long history she has started, and at some point in the future investigates that most mysterious of spaces, the suburban back garden, so often only fleetingly seen from the window of the train: its promiscuous and eccentric bricolage of sheds, trellises, washing lines, bikes, work-stations, trampolines, play-houses, sun-decks, paddling pools, ornamental water features, fruit trees and cabbage patches, still remains to be properly explored.

KW/Ponders End Allotment photograph ©Jason Orton






A People’s History of Gardening

Stoke Newington Literary Festival, St Mary’s Old Church, Stoke Newington, London N16. Sunday, 7 June 2015 at 1pm £4 (booking advised)


Margaret Willes’ The Gardens of the British Working Class, is already acclaimed as a masterpiece of social history. The book covers cottage gardens, communist settlements, allotments, herbals, window boxes, gardens in war and peace, flower shows, therapeutic gardening, and many other topics in a long historical sweep.  She will be in conversation with Ken Worpole on these and many other matters.