Celebrating Sheffield's long history of 'growing your own'

William Ibbitt, south east view of Sheffield, 1854. Reproduced with kind permission of Museums Sheffield.
William Ibbitt, south east view of Sheffield, 1854. Reproduced with kind permission of Museums Sheffield.

The fascinating and surprising history of allotments in Sheffield has been brought to life in a new book.

The fascinating and surprising history of allotments in Sheffield has been brought to life in a new book.

Plot holders at Manor allotments in Sheffield.

Plot holders at Manor allotments in Sheffield.

A History of Allotments in Sheffield by Margaret Boulton follows the story from the early 18th century until the present day.

Margaret began studying the subject after finding evidence of historical growing on her own allotment in Ecclesall - and spent three years writing the book.

She finished it in 2016 and self-published it last year - and is now keen to share what she has discovered.

“It is really a celebration of allotments in Sheffield,” says Margaret.

View from Wincobank Hill of the allotments, Waling Road, Tipton Street and Sanderson Street and across to the Brightside Works and River Don Works. Reproduced with kind permission of Sheffield City Council.

View from Wincobank Hill of the allotments, Waling Road, Tipton Street and Sanderson Street and across to the Brightside Works and River Don Works. Reproduced with kind permission of Sheffield City Council.

“Not a lot has been written about allotments in industrial cities and they have an interesting history.”

The first evidence she found for allotments in Sheffield dates back to the year 1712 - and those early pioneers took up the pursuit for reasons that would be instantly recognisable to their modern day successors.

“It wasn’t a case of them being given land for sustenance - it was to enjoy,” she said.

“They had good wages in comparison with those in the south who were given allotments as part of their employment for food.

Marion Gerson from Manor Allotments.

Marion Gerson from Manor Allotments.

“Here they were well paid and could have purchased vegetables in the market - but clearly chose to grow them.”

As Sheffield industrialised and green areas were crowded out, city centre allotments were sold off by the wealthy industrialists who owned the land.

They then moved to the suburbs surrounding the city centre - places like Walkley, Crookes and Heeley.

Margaret’s research indicates that this desire to spend time cultivating their own food sprang from a wish to escape the harsh conditions of everyday life.

Cutlery manufacturing razor grinding (Illustrated London News, 1866). Reproduced with kind permission of Sheffield Archives.

Cutlery manufacturing razor grinding (Illustrated London News, 1866). Reproduced with kind permission of Sheffield Archives.

“The conditions in Sheffield were actually appalling,” she says.

“You can see from the pictures how awful the pollution was.”

One passage in the book quotes social-scientist Friedrich Engels on the health problems experienced by workers grinding knife blades and forks for the cutlery industry - especially those using ‘dry’ stones.

“The main danger of this trade comes from breathing in breathing in particles of sharp metallic dust thrown up into the air during the grinding process,” he wrote.

“The average expectation of life of a dry grinder is barely 35 years, while that of a wet grinder is rarely more than 45 years.”

Against this backdrop, the urge to escape the dirt and smog of the city for the clean air of an allotment becomes easy to understand.

Esther Pamacheche from Manor Allotments.

Esther Pamacheche from Manor Allotments.

The fact that allotment holders grew flowers on their plots reinforces the idea that people were doing it for more than simple survival.

This, Margaret says, proves her theory that allotments were a place of refuge and escape from the environment in which they worked.

Their primary function seems to have been to make people’s lives that little bit brighter.

“They wanted to get away from that environment and spend more time in the garden,” says Margaret.

“It is a place where you can make your own decisions, you can grown what you want and you are not managed by other people.

“I think there is a sort of freedom about that too.”

Margaret has had an allotment herself for as long as she has lived in Ecclesall - around 25 years.

On it she grows potatoes, onions, beans, berries and herbs and says there is just something enjoyable about being outside and growing your own food.

In the preface of her book, she notes that there are more than 3,000 allotment holders in Sheffield across 70 council and 20 private sites.

Margaret says waiting lists are still an issue but that Sheffield City Council have worked hard to ensure that everyone who wants access to a plot can get one.

Marion Gerson, treasurer of the Sheffield Allotment Federation, said people today came to allotments for different reasons.

“For some people it is all about growing their own food,” she said.

“There are a couple of people who are vegans and buddhists and to be able to grow their own food at a low cost is very important.

“For other people it is as much about having an outdoor space and enjoying it.

“There are lots of flats and houses without gardens in Sheffield and those people enjoy being in the sun and getting their hands dirty in the soil.

“People say if I am stuck at home I can get really quite depressed but if I am here it just makes me relaxed to be away from then hustle and bustle of city and to hear the birds and feel the air.

“It is not the same as the park as you have your own little domain.”

Marion, 73, has herself had an allotment at the Manor for six years.

She said that allotment holding in Sheffield is currently very popular - although numbers aren’t evenly spread across the city.

In some of the more affluent areas of the city there is huge demand with some sites having up to nine year waiting lists.

However, in other areas some sites like Corker Bottoms and Roe Woods lie empty and overgrown.

If you are interested in renting an allotment, see www.sa-federation.co.uk or www.sheffield.gov.uk/home/parks-sport-recreation/allotments.html.