The History of Allotments in Southam
Allotments in the UK date from the reign of Henry VIII, when landowners started giving land for the use of the poor to relieve local poverty. In reality, these acts of “Charity” were really doing nothing more than restoring access to land to people who had lost it during the reformation of the Church in the reign of Henry VIII. The administration of Common Lands and the common field system of the Middle Ages had been closely tied-up with the Church, although the village lands were actually very often run as cooperatives.
It was during the reign of Henry VIII, that Southam allotments began. On 26th March 1538 the ‘Town Lands’ were given back to the people of Southam as a charity, for “the relief of the poor and the maintenance of highways and bridges”. The poor were of course expected to grow their own relief, so in effect the most important part of the charity was the provision of allotments. It is probable that the existing Welsh Road site, together with the (now closed) site on the Banbury Road are both on ‘Town Lands’. Old Ordinance Survey Maps show both sites divided into half-acre allotment plots. On the Welsh Road site, the whole of the field was marked out as such, not just the two strips currently occupied by the Southam Produce Association. Some of the older inhabitants of Southam still refer to the land as “the poors”.
Some of the earliest surviving documents relating to the Southam Allotments are dated July 30th 1690, written on vellum (calf’s skin), being a lease given by the Charity Trustees of lands in the common fields of the parish of Southam, permitting the Rector, Churchwardens, Overseers of the Poor and the Surveyors of Highways of the parish, to receive the rent, together with an adjoining terrier (a document in which are described the site, boundaries, acreage, tenants etc) listing the strips of land contained within the four common fields, giving the names of the strips and the names of the adjoining tenant(s), signed by five of the trustees with a pendant red wax armorial seal of Thomas Wagstaffe.
Southam, an ancient market town, was an important place in those days – as indicated by the four common field system. Normally towns only had three.
By 1824 the Southam allotments were broadly speaking, laid out in their current form and the site is considered to be the second oldest allotment site in Warwickshire.
Allotments for boys
Dr Henry Lilley Smith set up allotments for boys at Southam in the 1830s. Initially he provided one and a half acres of garden, divided into twelve plots for boys from 8 to 14 years old. The rent was 6d or 1s a month (with no rent payable for the three winter months). The boys had to grow flowers and at least six different kinds of vegetables; some of them also planted fruit trees. Dr Smith encouraged the boys to grow herbs such as mint and sage for sale and also provided a library of books for them to borrow.
Famous visitors to the boys’ allotments
The Labourers Friend Society (a local branch of a national movement) publicized Dr Smith’s initiative and visitors to the allotments included the Speaker of the House of Commons, Byron’s widow and the explorer Sir John Franklin. Later on the boys’ allotments were extended, but sadly the scheme folded after about ten years.
By the 1890s there was an active Allotment Association with 271 acres of allotments (1.7 acres for each working family in the town!) The surviving allotments in Welsh Road benefit from a rather unusual feature; (see photo on your left). It’s an old air-raid shelter – rather surprising right out in the country, but presumably originally for workers at the RAF Southam air-field opposite.
Up until 1967, the lands on which the allotment are situated were managed by the Town Council, at which point, the Southam Produce Association (SPA) took over the day-to-day running of the sites.
On 22nd January 1974, a formal agreement was drawn up between the SPA and the Town Council, with SPA becoming trustees of the allotments.
In 1990, following discussion with the Town Council, it was agreed that SPA would lease the land directly from ‘Southam United Charities’, rather than the Town Council sub-letting the ground to SPA.