In October 1841, Revd John Bramston, the new Vicar of Witham, issued a notice “To the Poor Inhabitants of Witham”. It said that “it is intended to divide a Field, near Chipping Hill Bridge, called Knee Field, into allotments of garden ground not exceeding 20 rods.”. A rod measured 30.25 square yards (25.3 square metres). Knee Field as a whole measured about 8 and a half acres.
At that time, allotments were usually provided by charities, to help the poor to feed themselves. They were often known as “garden fields”. These ones in Witham from 1841 were provided by the Church. The rent increased as time went on, but always included a potato.
As well as being poor, the tenants had to obey a long list of regulations. For instance, they were not allowed to work their plots on the “Lords Day [Sunday] or Christmas Day, or Good Friday”. No “buildings or trees” were allowed. Not more than half the plot was to grow potatoes. “No children were permitted except to work” and damages “by them were to be made good by the parent”.
Dr Henry Dixon, who lived in Witham then, was a nonconformist in religion, and always cast a searching eye over the affairs of the Church of England. He noted in 1842 that “some of my neighbours lay claim to an excessive amount of charity in letting out these allotments to Agricultural labourers. Our Vicar the Reverend Mr. Bramston held his rent audit in his Coach House last Friday evening. The Entertainment consisted of roast mutton (alias baked), plum-puddings, ale and Bacca. The number of Tenants is about 70, and these poor people pay at the [annual] rate of £5.6.8 per acre!!! In the Vicar’s predecessors time 6 years ago, this land was let to a farmer for 30 shillings (£1.50) per acre.”
There was a New Year dinner for the tenants of these Church allotments, as late as 1955. The land was sold for housing in about 1960. The site is now occupied by Saxon Drive and Tithe Close.
From 1887 onwards, various enactments had allowed or compelled Local Authorities to provide allotments, in addition to the charitable providers. So Witham Urban District Council did so, particularly during War times and during the Depression of the 1930s, when home-grown food was very much needed.
For instance, at various times there were some in Church Street, Glebe Crescent, Guithavon Road, Hatfield Road, Homefield Road, Maldon Road, Powershall End, and near the Station Maltings (known as “Canada”). These pieces of land were often earmarked for Council houses or other uses in the long run. So whenever building started, the allotments had to be replaced elsewhere.
In December1936, there was extensive damage caused to the “green-stuff of the holders” of the Maldon Road allotments. This was caused by two hundred sheep straying onto them from the adjoining meadow. They belonged to Mr Arthur J Horner, Witham’s veterinary surgeon. He received a letter from the Council about them, which he regarded as “officious”.
By the 1940s, the “Witham and Rivenhall End Allotment Holders and Garden Society’” had been formed. The members were able to combine together to negotiate for their rights. They also combined with the Witham Rabbit Society and other organisations to have summer shows in Witham Park.
All the scattered pieces of allotment from the past are now used for other purposes. Today, activity is concentrated on the popular Cut Throat Lane site by the railway. This is owned by the District Council, and I think it was laid out in about the 1970s.
In the past I interviewed many Witham people about life in the early 1900s, and it was striking what a big part the allotments played in sustaining the family, and how much time they took up. Here are some of them.
As a child, Mrs Elsie Hammond (born c 1900) used to “pick the beans, and pick up potatoes, or drop them, drop the potatoes in the first place” on their ground near the Station maltings. Peas they managed to “wangle” when they were out pea-picking, but they grew “all the other vegetables, cause they couldn’t really buy them, you see. Couldn’t afford to buy them. That’s how, people used to work their sets, you see. Potatoes, they used to do an exchange. People didn’t, couldn’t pay out a lot, they use to exchange, one with another. So they’d have a change of seed. It was the only way to work it.”
Mrs Edith Brown’s (born in 1895) family had an allotment in Maldon Road “for all the vegetables her husband grew, grew all his own vegetables. Used to grow stuff for all the winter, and store it all. Mm, he used to clamp all his beetroot and parsnips with straw and earth and then you just got ‘em out when you want ‘em. ”We never bought a thing hardly, now and again we’d buy a swede wouldn’t we? But otherwise we never bought no potatoes or onions and everything used to be, you know, kept and, my husband used to go Sunday mornings and cut the greens for the dinner all fresh.” The allotment was about a mile away from their house in Church Street. They also had a flourishing flower garden at the house.
Mr Maurice Greatrex (born in 1903). “That glebe land that was sold by the Church [Saxon Drive]. Well we had an allotment on that, 20 rod allotment on there which father used to keep going as well and, ‘cos there were eight of us in the family you see and wages weren’t very high. They weren’t anything like they are nowadays. And so he had a job to keep things going.”
Mr Walter Peirce (born in 1908): “And then where the, opposite the Spring Community Centre was allotments [now Saxon Drive]. Five shillings a year, my father used to have it. Twenty rod. Well, you paid the five shillings, and a potato. And you had a little bit of supper, all the, um, holders of the allotment. And you went and paid it, Mr Hodges was the man, that took the money . He lived right, the other side of the railway line, in Highfields Road, but a bomb dropped on it during the War, didn’t it? Blew it all to pieces. But they’ve rebuilt a new house, didn’t they. Well, that was the man who used to take the money.”
Mrs Ethel Hicks (born in 1891): “We made wine in great big stone bottles with a handle on the side. We used to make rhubarb, and dandelion. Ooh that was lovely. Better than any whisky if you keep it a year. I made blackberry, damson, all sorts I used to make. But that used to be rhubarb, mostly, because they grew that on the allotment, and you see that didn’t cost anything. Only just the sugar, well the sugar wasn’t only about sixpence a pound then. You could do what you liked.”
Mr Ken Miller (born 1935): “Well Henry Dorking’s, the blacksmith, his father was a great poacher, well not poacher, rabbiter, and lived by the gun sort of thing, and there was a hare that used to elude him in the Garden fields, of course the allotment holders wanted it caught because of the damage it was doing. And down opposite Spring Lodge, there was a five bar wooden gate, I can see it now, into the allotments, and this gate was always open for people coming and going on their bikes and trolleys and what have you. And this hare always got away across the road, cause it was, it was all fields across the road then, and the hare’d get away. So one day he shut the gate, and the hare ran full belt into the gate, and he got it, killed it. And Henry always used to spin this tale, and how his father got that, cause his father was a great big tall bloke, and as I can remember he used to call on his bike, and, he was a bricklayer for Crittall’s, and I used to sharpen his chisels for him.”
A version of this article appeared in the Braintree and Witham Times in January 2016