Losing Common Land

author: Shared Assets
date: December 1st, 2019

Land use, land tenure, land enclosure in Britain

Understanding the place of food-production in modern day London requires a historical perspective on how the land system in Britain has developed, how the city itself has grown, and how land use has changed along with the city. In particular, modern land use in Britain has been shaped by the process of enclosure, which mainly took place throughout the country from the sixteenth to nineteenth centuries through both market exchange and legal enforcement. Previously, commoners had had access to open land for food growing even where they did not own it. Through enclosure, smallholdings were consolidated, access made exclusive to the owner, and commoners deprived of land to grow food. In London, this was further driven by the financial imperative to gain rights over land to build and sell housing. Since enclosure, almost all rights over land reside with the landowner, but several responses to the loss of access to land are evident in London’s food growing landscape to this day. Resistance to enclosure resulted in the retention of several commons in London, such as Hampstead Heath, pictured opposite, though these are not typically used for food production but preserved for amenity and recreational uses. Of greater relevance in a food growing context are allotments. In the nineteenth century, in the absence of social protection and an increasing urban population, land was provided for the labouring poor to grow food. In 1908, a duty on local authorities to provide access to public land to this group for food growing was introduced, and after the First World War the right to rent an allotment was extended to everyone. During World War 2, citizens were encouraged to ‘dig for victory’ and grow their own food; by 1942, 50% of Britain’s vegetables were allotment-grown. Many of these allotments still exist today, although their extent has shrunk dramatically since the mid-twentieth century.

Map comparing population density in Great Britain

The development of Greater London: urbanisation and population trends

Greater London has grown to its current geographical size over two millennia. Today, Greater London occupies 600 square miles, but up until the 17th century, it was largely contained within the square mile of the City of London. The surrounding area was largely rural. London was founded by the Romans as Londinium around 43 AD, roughly occupying the square mile of the modern day City of London. When the Romans left Britain, the invading Saxons took over Londinium, and established isolated farmsteads in the surrounding countryside. Several of these survive as towns today, denoted by their Saxon names (ending in -ham, -ton, -wich, -worth). Throughout the Middle Ages, London grew both in terms of numbers of people and land covered. However, it was during the course of the Industrial Revolution that London’s population exploded. Between 1714 and 1840, the population rose from 630,000 to 2 million people, becoming the largest city in the world. Increasingly, roads linked the city to the surrounding villages - many of which had developed on and around previous farmsteads. By 1880, the population stood at around 6 million. In the years preceding World War 2 this again rose, but more slowly, to a peak of 8.61 million in 1940. Following the Second World War, the population of London declined. One in six buildings in London had been destroyed during the war, and in the following years there was a large rebuilding programme. The improvement of transport links, expanded incomes, ‘slum’ clearance and lack of space in the city encouraged many to move to the suburbs. This meant that the inner London boroughs became much less densely populated, and the wider metropolitan area expanded. In total, population declined by around 22% between 1939 and 1988, to 6.7 million, with the biggest declines in inner London, but has been rising again since 1991, and was projected to surpass its previous peak by 2015. Despite this only recently reversed decline, London has physically expanded by 60% in the past 100 years; Londoners are now less densely housed and using more land than the same sized population did in the early twentieth century. As London has grown, the city has subsumed hamlets, market towns, suburbs, industrial areas and farmsteads, which have become neighbourhoods.

The growth and decline of food growing in London

Market gardening, the cultivation of vegetables for sale, was first introduced to Britain in the 16th century by Flemish immigrants granted the right to settle in the town of Sandwich in Kent by Elizabeth I. The practice soon spread to London to supply a growing demand for “garden luxuries”. Market gardens were generally established close to the Thames and its tributaries for water supply, and were also able to source manure from London’s horse stables. By 1796 Daniel Lysons calculated that “five thousand acres [over two thousand hectares], within twelve miles of the metropolis” was being cultivated for the supply of the London markets with garden vegetables. In addition 325 ha were being cropped with fruit (primarily in the west London areas of Brentford, Isleworth, Twickenham, Hammersmith, Kensington, and Plumstead), and about 690 ha cultivated for potatoes (primarily in the east London neighbourhoods of Barking, Ilford, Eastham, Leyton, and West Ham). He identified that during this period Fulham, in south west London, had the greatest areas of market gardens at 325 ha. Market gardening reached its peak in the 18th century and was displaced by the rapid expansion of London during the 19th century which drove up land values for development.

The case of Chelsea

Now an affluent west London neighbourhood, Chelsea was once one of the key areas for market gardening in the London area. Market gardening grew throughout the 17th century. Chelsea produced root vegetables, peas, beans, cabbages, asparagus and herbs, and there were orchards of apples, pears, plums, and cherries. Growers were mainly tenants of large landowners including aristocrats and the church who were able to charge higher rents on garden land than land used for growing grain. Many of the farmers were French Huguenots who introduced lettuce crops.

In addition to market gardeners there were also “farm gardeners” who grew corn and vegetables, both for market and as feed for cattle. They grew using a system without a fallow, made possible by heavily manuring the land with dung and night soil (human manure). In Chelsea and Fulham they occupied significant areas of agricultural land from the early 17th century to the middle of the 19th. Market gardening in Chelsea began to contract by the end of the 18th century as the value of land for development started to outstrip its value for food production. The area of land in Chelsea cultivated as arable for the market was said to have fallen from 135 ha in 1664 to 68 ha 1795.

The land utilisation survey of Great Britain

Ordnance Survey (1935) N.E. London and Epping Forest. Land Utilisation Survey of Britain, Sheet 107, 1:63,360. London: Land Utilisation Survey of Britain.

Ordnance Survey (1935) Watford. Land Utilisation Survey of Britain, Sheet 106, 1:63,360. London: Land Utilisation Survey of Britain.

Ordnance Survey (1935) S.E. London and Sevenoaks. Land Utilisation Survey of Britain, Sheet 115, 1:63,360. London: Land Utilisation Survey of Britain.

While we have data relating to how London has expanded in geographical size and how its demography has changed, data on land use is less available.  This means it is difficult to track how food production in the capital has changed. However, one of the most authoritative data sources on agricultural land use in London was created by schoolchildren.

In the 1930s, a comprehensive survey of land use - the Land Utilisation Survey of Great Britain (LUSGB) - was carried out, led by Professor Dudley Stamp. The data were collected by schoolchildren and their teachers, and checked by the research team. What was unusual about the survey was its comprehensive level of data. Of alternative data sources, the Ordnance Survey collects data on land features but not usage, and the Agricultural and Horticultural Census does not record land use outside of agricultural land (it also relies on sampling for smaller farms).

From the maps created from the LUSGB we can see that in the 1930s, much of London’s land, particularly in the South, had potential for agricultural use. Only areas marked red are deemed too built up to be used for any kind of agriculture.  Green areas are open meadowland, brown areas are arable land, and yellow areas are heathland and moorland.

Although the landscape shown in the LUSGB maps is likely to have changed since the 1930s, given the geographic and demographic changes to London explained above, these maps provide an indication of what land could have been available for food growing if not built upon. A similarly comprehensive mapping exercise, if undertaken today, could help inform planning decisions, so they take local, urban food growing into account.

Relationship between population trends and agriculture in a historical perspective

An expansion of the built environment exerts pressure on the space available for agricultural production. This can be driven by population growth - for example when demand for housing during the Industrial Revolution quickened the process by which landowners enclosed common land in the capital - but is not necessarily, as we see from London’s twentieth century history. In particular, how densely housing and other buildings are built, the space people expect, the infrastructure built to facilitate urban life, as well as the regulations and planning rules that determine the shape of the city, all mediate whether population growth exerts pressure on space for food production. As well as housing and commercial development, other uses compete for space in the urban environment, from leisure facilities, to parks, to private gardens. The risk of urban sprawl motivated the creation of London’s Green Belt in the 1930s; an open area of land surrounding the city with planning protections to curtail the outward spread of development. The Green Belt still makes up 19% of London’s ground area, but is under constant threat from other land uses.

In more recent years, the banks of the River Lea have been earmarked not just for building construction (though this continues apace) but also for recreation and economic activity in the form of the Olympic Park - resulting in further loss of food growing space, such as allotment plots.

More recently the Lea Valley has also been the site of a revival of these residualised practices, with the development of community led and cooperative food growing organisations such as OrganicLea, London Grown and the Wolves Lane Consortium who have taken leases on public growing and amenity land, and disused municipal plant nurseries, to revive the tradition of market gardening and horticulture in the area.

Despite the pressures of development and renewed population growth London has managed to retain much of its green and open space. Around 40% of London’s land area is green, and over a third of the land area is classified as open space. In New York and Paris the figures are 14% and less than 10% respectively. Its story is therefore less one of a city that has been built over, but of changing land use; pushing food growing into corners and out of the city. However, we can also see examples of communities who are drawing on this history of farming, and individual food growing, within the city, to push for policy and funding frameworks which support food growing as an essential part of the urban landscape, to resist continuing land privatisation, and to realise its potential to tackle a range of social, economic and environmental issues affecting the city and its inhabitants.

The case of the Lea Valley

An example of how these trends interact is provided by the Lea Valley in East London, which runs from the outskirts of the city down to the River Thames nearer the centre. From the sixth century, the Saxons grew crops in the Lea Valley and in 894 AD, the Danes established the first market gardens there. For centuries, the Lea Valley, known as London’s ‘bread basket’, hosted food growing on its banks due to the fertile soil and proximity of the river for water and transportation.

The Valley experienced early industrialisation as the river could be used to drive mills, and transport goods, and this process continued through the nineteenth century, but farming continued to flourish alongside these commercial activities. The removal of a longstanding tax on glass in 1845, just at the time when London’s expansion was displacing longstanding market gardens in other areas, led to a rapid expansion in glasshouses for growing salad crops and fruit. By the 1920s, 200 million tonnes of tomatoes were being harvested each year in the Lea Valley, and by 1930 the value of its produce was worth over half that of all agricultural produce in the country.

However, twentieth century urban expansion changed the shape of farming in the Valley. Food production was pushed further North along the river banks as the city expanded and land was developed for housing and industry. The Valley lost its competitive advantage for farming, including glasshouse production; new ‘hydroponic’ methods of growing salad crops meant the Valley’s high quality soil was no longer so valuable, the availability of piped water and motorised vehicles reduced the need for producers to be situated near rivers or consumer markets, and grain mills no longer needed a water-driven energy source. While in 1950 the Valley had 1,300 acres of glasshouses, by 2002 this was down to 300.