VICTORIAN LIFE AND BEYOND
Victorian Britain was a dreadful place to live in if you were poor. Whether in the towns or the countryside, unskilled work was physically gruelling and badly paid. Over time the government slowly introduced new laws to improve working conditions, provide better relief for the poor and ensure every child had the right to education - but this wasn't enough.
In the 1880s a terrible agricultural depression struck the country, affecting not only labourers but also their bosses. Many of these landowners, as they struggled to turn a profit, could not afford to increase the wages of their workers despite the looming risk of starvation. One solution that did not threaten the status quo was to provide them with surplus land, enabling them to grow their own food. These new allotments were a necessary burden for these men to feed their families, but they were also a point of great contention. Cultivating the land was just another task to add to their already arduous lives - by 1884, when labourers won the right to vote, allotments had become an important electoral issue.
At the start of the 20th Century allotments began to appear in urban environments, where poverty was no less a problem. Progressive industrialists began providing their employees with plots of land to grow their own food: for example, chocolatier and social reformer Joseph Rowntree created 4,000 plots for his employees after discovering, through a survey undertook in 1901, that one in five of the population of York had less food than the inmates of the workhouse or a prison.
The district of Surbiton, to the south of the bustling Kingston upon Thames and north of rural Surrey, was a relatively new urban area at this time. Though not battling poverty to the same extent as industrial cities, allotments - such as those within Lord Lovelace’s estate in neighbouring Tolworth - began to be provided to workers in the area by the turn of the century.
However it would appear there was not enough to meet demand. In 1908 the government passed the Smallholdings and Allotment Act, which for the first time required local councils to set aside land for allotment provision. Almost immediately the Surbiton Urban District Council received a petition from ten allotment holders asking for new land to be provided under the act. The following spring the Recreation Grounds and Allotments Committee began to consider the purchase of land for new allotments at Tolworth and Red Lion Field, as well as other potential sites in the area; in 1911 local authorities purchased privately held land which was to become the Tolworth Main allotment site.