This section is from the book "The Balance Of Nature And Modern Conditions Of Cultivation", by George Abbey. Also available from Amazon: The Balance Of Nature And Modern Conditions Of Cultivation.
The power granted by Elizabeth was extended by an Act passed in the last year of George Ill's reign, which gave the churchwardens and overseers power "to provide land for employment of the poor to an extent not exceeding twenty acres." This was extended to fifty acres by an Act passed in the last session of the unreformed Parliament, which also gave power to the churchwardens and overseers to enclose waste and common land with the consent of the lord of the manor, or belonging to the Crown. These Acts also gave the parish authorities power to find land on which to employ the poor - an early recognition of the "right to work" and live.
The first "Allotments Act" was passed in the very last days of the unreformed Parliament. It provided that, when enclosure Acts were passed, the parish vestry might let portions of the land set aside for the use of the poor, to cottagers in allotments of not less than one acre in extent. This Act was amended, and the powers under it increased, by another Act passed in 1873. Its principle was further extended by Mr. Jesse Collings's Allotment Act of 1882. This Act enacted that the trustees of the parish charity funds should offer them to cottagers and labourers in allotments of not more than one acre. The statute was fenced round with many restrictions, but in spite of this it did good work in many parishes - practically founded the small allotment system of a few perches in area, say from 10 to 20 perch plots, of great value to artizans and others in towns for the growth of vegetables, and also in villages the residents of which had not sufficient ground attached to their dwellings for the production of vegetable crops equal to the requirements of the household, besides affording profitable employment for leisure time.
As to the former Acts, intended to benefit toilers on the soil, they seem to have fallen into disuse.
"Three acres and a cow" controversy and the elections in 1885 and 1886, the first in which the agricultural labourer had a vote, awoke the country to the importance of keeping the labourer on the land, and certainly aimed at establishing "peasant proprietors." Nothing, however, was done until the Spalding election in 1887, when the Unionist Government hastily introduced the Allotment Act of 1887. This Act enabled the sanitary authority of any urban or rural district, on a requisition from six ratepayers, to provide allotments limited to one acre. The authority had power to take land compulsorily for this purpose. But the machinery of the Act was so cumbersome and expensive that very little use was made of it. In order to acquire land compulsorily, a provisional order had to be obtained, which was practically an Act of Parliament. And when this course was taken, it was found that the legal expenses exceeded the value of the land. The Act was amended in 1890 by another measure, providing an appeal to the county council. Sir Henry Fowler's Local Government Act of 1894 extended and simplified the powers of local authorities. Parish councils were empowered to acquire land for allotments, and there was an appeal to the county councils.
Parish councils were also enabled to hire land for allotments, the rent to be fixed by a single arbitrator appointed by the Local Government Board.
In 1892 Mr. Henry Chaplin succeeded in passing his Small Holdings Act, which gave power to the county councils to purchase land for small holdings of not less than one and not more than fifty acres in extent. The purchaser was to pay one-fifth of the purchase money down, and repay the remainder in equal annual instalments. The great defect of the Act is that it confers no compulsory powers on county councils, and with a few exceptions it has remained a dead letter.
This, then, is the machinery in existence up to 1907 for the provision of allotments and small holdings, and that it failed to satisfy the land hunger of the agricultural labourer is shown by the working up to 1894. Out of the 419 rural sanitary authorities only 83 had taken advantage of the Act of 1887, and 12 county councils. These had provided 1,836 acres of land and 413 acres respectively, which supplied allotments to 5,536 tenants. Then came the Parish Councils Act, and under it 18,601 acres of land was provided for 45,393 tenants in various parts of the country. By the first Allotments Act of 1887 to the year 1902 the acreage provided by local authorities was 20,850, and the number of tenants 50,927. This, of course, takes no account of the extension of the private letting of allotments, nor of the work done by Mr. Jesse Collings's Act of 1882.
Small holdings, as distinguished from allotments, show a poor result from Mr. Chaplin's Act. The acreage brought under the Act is only 220, and the tenants 136. All these figures are taken from the latest report of the Local Government Board which goes no further than March, 1902.
The greater part of land acquired by local authorities has been hired by agreement, the compulsory purchase clauses have only been put in force in two cases, and in one of these - the St. Faith's case - the experiences of the Norfolk County Council were of such a kind as to effectually deter any other local authorities from putting into force the powers it is supposed to possess. Some parish and district councils, however, have put into force their compulsory hiring powers under the Local Government Act of 1894. But the whole method of obtaining land by local authorities was hampered by the gentlemen who were elected to the local authorities not being in sympathy with the demand for allotments and small holdings, the labourers not being so alive to their own interests as to get their own representatives elected upon them.
The Small Holdings and Allotments Act, 1907, came into force on January 1, 1908. This Act has several important provisions. It gives county councils compulsory power to hire, as well as buy, land for small holdings. The rent or price of the land is to be fixed by a single arbitrator appointed by the Board of Agriculture, in case no agreement is come to by voluntary arrangement. The management of allotments is taken out of the hands of the district and given to the parish councils, and the size of an allotment is increased to five acres.
In case county councils take no steps to put the Act in force when asked to do so, the Board of Agriculture can take action. Two Small Holdings Commissioners have been appointed to see that the local authorities do their work. The Treasury has made a grant of £100,000 a year towards the expenses of these commissioners. There are provisions in the Act which ensure that the local authorities shall report every year to the Board of Agriculture as to the demand for small holdings and allotments, and the steps which are to be taken to supply them.
The Small Holdings and Allotment Act, 1907, may be regarded as the Peasants' Land Charter, and likely to re-establish small holdings in England to as great, if not greater, extent than existed in the middle of the nineteenth century, thus placing it on an equality with Wales, where, out of 65,000 holders of land, over 48,000 hold less than fifty acres, and the Act being extended to Scotland, whether on the hire or purchase system, security of tenure being accorded, there is no question of the success of allotments and small holdings restricted to occupation by persons possessed of practical knowledge of economic agriculture and horticulture. This, however, is contingent upon the crops being favoured by natural aids and the cultivators safeguarding them.