An Everyman’s Eden: Unearthing the History of Sheffield’s Allotments

Postgraduate researcher and current School of English MA Student, Jane Withers, who is working on the heritage garden at Furnace Park begins to dig up the history the allotment, unearthing as she does so its startling connection to the history of Sheffield. – Adam J Smith

Sheffield is a city to be envied. With its vast city centre parks and breath-taking views across South Yorkshire, it’s no wonder Sheffield has been branded ’the greenest city in the UK.’ But what of the less grand green spaces? What of the small patchwork quilt of humble allotments that blanket areas of the city?Peppered with private Edens of escapism, hidden away from the humdrum of city life, the industrial hub of Sheffield has shared over 300 years of its time with the lesser known history of the garden allotment.

The whereabouts of the first allotments is steeped in speculation. The exact time of their evolution from strip farming is thought to have occurred in the late seventeenth century, but strong claims have been laid to the origin of allotments en masse as having taken place here in Sheffield.

Ralph Gosling's 'Plan of Sheffield'

Ralph Gosling’s ‘Plan of Sheffield’

As shown in the above map (the Cathedral is circled in red), urban gardens dominated Sheffield city centre (seen by the yellow arrows radiating from the Cathedral). Although the gardens illustrated in 1736 cannot be proved as allotments (very little documentation survives alluding to the use of these plots) it was thought that the total number of gardens shown could be in excess of 200.

These plots were popular with craftsmen of the time, whose green fingers itched with creativity and cultivation. The popularity of the city centre escapes grew, and by 1780, Flavell claims that there is evidence of between 1500 and 1800 allotments being leased within the city boundaries of Sheffield (see the ‘Further Reading’ section at the end of this post). This expansion could be accredited to the discovery of a more efficient crucible method for producing steel, thoroughly placing Sheffield on the industrial map and causing a need for an alternative past time, away from the grime and smoke of the industrial sites.

It was not only steel workers who realised a demand for these little plots of paradise, but their managers as well. Middle-class businessman, made up of merchants and industrialists, used the profits of their businesses to buy land, which they then divided and leased as allotment plots to workers.

Records from the mid eighteenth century give details of the occupations of the leaseholders of 43 manorial plots within the Sheffield boundaries. Each plot would average between 150-200 square yards at a price of 0.3d. per square yard – so in decimalised terms, factoring in inflation, a 200 square yard allotment would cost £56.09 per year. Not bad for a little place of one’s own?

The occupiers of these kitchen gardens are also listed in documents from the Sheffield archives. One plot of 43 different lease owners contained:

  • 28 x Cutlers
  • 2 x Button makers
  • 2 x Shoe makers
  • 2 x Bakers
  • 2 x Innkeepers
  • 2 x Widows
  • 1 x Clerk
  • 1 x Grocer
  • 1 x Schoolmaster
  • 1 x Husbandsman
  • 1 x Gardener

These records build an idyllic picture of city life. The individuals, all concerned with their own trades and occupations, are apparently brought together by the promise of blue sky and green grass. You can imagine it now, the stern Schoolmaster with his sleeves rolled to the elbow, puffing on a pipe in the afternoon sun. The Widow who leases the plot next to his walks past carrying her crop of rhubarb, the Schoolmaster tilts his cap, the Widow replies with a healthy, “How are you? Any luck with the peas?”

They then become engrossed in swapping stories of leek success and lettuce failure. The Grocer strides across the plots, his little dog in tow, clutching at his radishes with pride as they blush red in the South Yorkshire heat.
“Are they for the table, or the shop?” The Schoolmaster asks, lifting his cap to just above his bushy brows, and so on and so forth the image goes.

Whether events such as these happened is entirely left to speculation and creativity, but we can be assured in the knowledge that in the eighteenth century, the people of Sheffield loved their allotments, and why shouldn’t they?

As well as being a form of escape or relaxation allotments provided crucial sustenance for working families. Fresh produce was expensive to buy, and many families lived in houses without access to gardens. Renting a plot of land was seen as an investment, for not only could the family eat their produce at the cost of a pack of seeds and time, they could also supplement their household income by selling surplus produce at local markets, adding to the already thriving market gardening scene across England.

This romantic ideal of green England was not to last untouched, and in Sheffield, the vulnerable plots of earth and natural nourishment were to come under threat from the gluttonous industrial era that boomed in Sheffield in the nineteenth century.

That is the topic for my next post, where I shall discuss and illuminate the trials and tribulations of the allotment gardeners of Sheffield in the nineteenth century. However, for now, let us bask in the spring sunshine that has graced these seven hills in the last few days, and close our eyes. Imagine the breeze ruffling the stalks of the onions around you, making the pea pods dance and the spinach flutter. You’re sat in your allotment, you breathe in the beautifully clean air as you wiggle your toes in the turf around your makeshift chair. Eden has come again, and grown by your very own hands.

Further Reading

Flavell, N. 2003. ‘Urban Allotment Gardens in the Eighteenth Century: The Case of Sheffield’, The

Agricultural History Review, 51(1): 95-106

This article, along with many other documents detailing Sheffield’s past, can be found in the Local Studies section of the Sheffield public library in the City Centre. Information about the local studies archive can be found via this link:

https://www.sheffield.gov.uk/libraries/archives-and-local-studies.html

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