During the inter-war years, when unemployment was rising, one method of support to unemployed men and their families came from the Religious Society of Friends. The ‘allotments for the unemployed’ scheme was set up in South Wales in 1926 to allow unemployed miners to provide fresh vegetables for their families, as well as providing them with a sense of purpose and what Joan Mary Fry, clerk of the Central Friends Allotment Committee described as ‘useful creative interests’ (Report of some of the work of the Society of Friends in distressed areas in Great Britain, 1926-1932).
The scheme proved extremely popular, and supported by a government grant, spread throughout deprived areas of Great Britain. However, in 1931, the scheme came under threat when financial support from the government ceased. The Central Friends Allotments Committee issued an appeal for funds. In December 1931 in Birmingham, in response to the appeal, Hall Green Quaker meeting suggested to the regional Friends Warwickshire North Monthly Meeting that a local appeal could be made via a radio broadcast. The Monthly Meeting asked Florence Barrow (1876 – 1964), a Quaker relief worker who was involved in many social welfare activities in the city in this period, to arrange the radio appeal.
In the same month, Alderman Thomas Quinney, a member of the Society of Friends and also chair of Birmingham City Council’s Allotments Committee, proposed to that Committee that they discuss how the council could help unemployed men establish themselves as allotment gardeners. He put forward the idea that ‘an unemployed man should be assisted in connection with his rent for a period or that he might be helped with the provision of tools at a moderate cost’ (Birmingham City Council Allotments Committee minute 2594, 10th December 1931, BCC/1/CA/1/1/4).
At the City Council’s Allotment Committee meeting of January 1932, a deputation from the Christian Social Service Committee (a cross-denominational organisation involved in social welfare work across the city) which included Florence Barrow, the Reverend Canon Stuart Morris, Mr Batty and Mr Dalley and Mr Hunt from the Labour Exchange presented a scheme to help 1000 unemployed men obtain and cultivate allotments. Part of the scheme consisted of the establishment of a voluntary committee known as The Birmingham Allotments for the Unemployed Committee, with the above representatives from the Christian Social Service Committee joined by Alderman Quinney and Councillor Cooper as representatives from the City Council Allotments Committee and the Council’s Allotments Superintendent (Birmingham City Council Allotments Committee minute 2606, 14th January 1932, BCC/1/CA/1/1/4). On learning of the establishment of the new committee and its aims, Warwickshire North Monthly Meeting of the Religious Society of Friends recorded the following minute,
‘This important scheme for the alleviation of the plight of our unemployed has received the warm sympathy of our meeting, and it is hoped we may find our way to support the efforts of the Committee.’ (Warwickshire North Monthly Meeting minute 33 February 1932, SF/2/1/1/1/1/32)
It was decided that allotments at Moor Green, Greenleigh Rd., Oldford Rd., Wash Mills, Hermitage Farm, Kingstanding and Northcote Rd. would be provided for the unemployed. The Birmingham Allotments for the Unemployed Committee raised sufficient money for those who had no allotment previously to be provided with a plot free of rent for the first six months, together with a free set of tools and enough seeds to cultivate the plot.
After the first 6 months, a weekly rent was charged for each allotment. For a total cost of 6 shillings 6 pence, three seed collections containing 16 varieties of vegetables, 4 stones of potatoes and fertilisers were provided which was sufficient to cultivate an allotment plot of 300 square yards. An extra charge was levied for a spade and fork at 2 pence each and an instruction book at 1 pence.
Locally the ‘Allotments for the Unemployed’ scheme was administered by an Area Administrator acting under the supervision of the Central Friends Allotments Committee in London. The Area Administrator was responsible for coordinating orders of seed collections and fertiliser for local allotment and horticultural societies or groups who decided to work with the scheme to help the unemployed. Each society was given the necessary paperwork to issue collection cards to applicants and collect and record rent payments.
According to an article in the Birmingham Gazette written by the Area Administrator, William Northey in March 1935, in Birmingham in the previous year, 1028 unemployed men used the scheme, with 46 allotment and horticultural societies distributing 988 seed collections, 3728 stones of potatoes, 730 bags of lime, 123 spades, 156 forks and 280 instruction books. Many of the men went on to become long-term allotment holders and many participated in the annual shows run by allotment associations, winning prizes for their home-grown produce.
Eleanor (Project Archivist, Birmingham and Warwickshire Quakers)
Acton, L., (2011) ‘Allotment Gardens: A Reflection of History, Heritage, Community and Self’, Papers from the Institute of Archaeology (PIA) available from http://www.pia-journal.co.uk/articles/10.5334/pia.379/
Fry, M., (1932), Report of some of the work of the Society of Friends in distressed areas of Great Britain 1926 – 1932, document reference 292/126.96.36.199, Modern Records Centre University of Warwick, available from http://contentdm.warwick.ac.uk/cdm/ref/collection/tav/id/2671
Library of Birmingham, Allotments in War and Peace, available from http://www.libraryofbirmingham.com/allotmentsinwarandpeace?nojs
Allotment Resources, (2013), Allotment gardens for the unemployed, available from http://allotmentresources.org/blog/allotment-gardens-for-the-unemployed/
The Spectator, (12 December 1931), The allotment for the workless, and indeed the urban worker, p.16 available from http://archive.spectator.co.uk/article/12th-december-1931/16/the-allotment-for-the-workless-and-indeed-the-urba