Allotment Gardens for the Unemployed

 The time when land at Goddard’s Farm was purchased for allotments was one of depression in the economy and considerable unemployment.

Throughout the 1920’s unemployment in Great Britain was above a million reaching almost 2 million in 1930.


1930      1.917

1931      2.630

1932      2.745

1933      2.521

1934      2.159

1935      2.036

1936      1.755

1937      1.484

1938      1.791

1939      1.514

1940      0.963

Thereafter numbers continued to decline and did not exceed 1 million again until 1976 (1).

In Reading according to the 1931 Census, 2,540 men were unemployed and 707 women (2). Huntley & Palmers reduced their workforce in the 1920’s from a post-war peak of 5,000 in September 1919 to 3,500 two years later with a reduced working week (3).

A brief note therefore here of the impact this had on allotment provision in Reading and that this period that sometimes vanishes in the phrase, “between the wars” is worthy of further research. The Allotment Gardens for the Unemployed scheme was started in 1926 in South Wales by the Society of Friends (4).

Reading's 1933 Labour Exchange

The Agricultural Land (Utilisation) Act 1931 received Royal Assent on 31 July 1931 but before that, Local Authorities were expected to be aware of the need to provide allotments to those who were unemployed or not in full-time employment. The act was described as “An Act to promote the better utilisation of agricultural land in Great Britain and the settlement of unemployed persons thereon, to amend the law relating to small holdings and allotments, and for purposes connected with the matters aforesaid.” (5).

The Allotments and Small-holdings committee set up a voluntary committee to carry out the scheme. Reading Allotment Society and Caversham Allotment Holders Association were invited to suggest members who would be willing to sit on the committee (6). At the 17 February 1931 committee meeting the Town Clerk reported that there had been 34 applications for plots and 20 applications for seeds and fertilisers (7). In England and Wales as a whole, it was reported that the cost for the 1931 season as a whole had been £26,000 and 64,000 men had been assisted. The Cabinet Agricultural Policy Committee reported that there would be no funding for the scheme for the following year, but that the Society of Friends had so far raised £15,000 to enable the scheme to continue (8). Interestingly the Agricultural Policy Committee pointed out that the measure was an unemployment, NOT an agricultural measure. Earlier in the year, there had been a request for the Manager of the Employment Exchange in Reading to take up a seat on the Reading Allotments and Small-holdings committee. This request was rejected on the grounds that the limit of co-opted members under the Allotments Act 1922 had already been reached (9).

17 November 1932, a meeting of unemployed men had been held in Abbey Hall. As a result of this meeting the Mayor requested on behalf of the organisers of the meeting – Reading Allotment Society, Toc H and Society of Friends who were working with the Allotment Gardens for the Unemployed Central Committee if there was any corporation land that could be let (10). It was thought that an unused portion of Hill Top allotments (in Tilehurst) could be offered, although this evaporated early in 1933 when the landowner gave the Corporation notice to quit (11). Later in the same month, the committee was informed that almost all the requirement could be met on existing sites.

A new Labour Exchange on South Street was opened on 17 July 1933, having previously been situated on London Street. Immediately recognisable to some as a Labour Exchange, the building now houses the South Street Arts Centre (12).

The Employers Entrance now the main entrance to South Street Art's Centre

Pressure from the Allotment Gardens for the Unemployed Central Committee continued into 1935. In 1936 the Committee was concerned about security of tenure and worked with the Friends Allotment Committee and National Allotments Society Limited (13). Security of tenure is a theme that recurs as an allotment holders’ concern on a regular basis.

Unemployment was still a national problem in 1936. 620 unemployed Welsh miners stopped in Reading on their way to London on 2 November, sleeping at the Cattle Market (14).


(1)    The Longman Handbook of Modern British History 1714-1995, Chris Cook & John Stevenson. Data comes from various sources.

(2)    A Vision of Britain Through Time accessed 7 February 2012.

(3)    Huntley & Palmers Collection accessed 7 February 2012.

(4)    Allotment Gardens: A Reflection of History, Heritage, Community and Self, Lesley Acton, UCL Institute of Archaeology, DOI: Accessed 6 February 2012.

(5)    Agricultural Land (Utilisation) Act 1931

(6)    Allotments and Small-holdings Committee, Minutes 17 February 1931 – R/AC1/3/47 (BRO)

(7)    Allotments and Small-holdings Committee, Minutes 17 February 1931 – R/AC1/3/47 (BRO)

(8)    Cabinet Committee on Agricultural Policy 10 December 1931 – CAB/24/227 (National Archives)

(9)    Allotments and Small-holdings Committee, 16 March 1931 – R/AC1/3/47 (BRO)

(10)  Reported in Allotments and Small-holdings Committee Minutes, 12 December 1932 – R/AC1/3/53.

(11)  Allotments and Small-holdings Committee Minutes, 7 February 1933 – R/AC1/3/53 (BRO).

(12)  The South Street Labour Exchange, Reading’s working people and their stories. Project Coordinators: Sabina Netherclift and Cassie Friend.

The twenty-page community history, “The Labour Exchange Project” produced in 2011, is a work of art.

(13)  Allotments and Small-holdings Committee Minutes, 14 September 1936 – R/AC1/3/62 (BRO).

(14)  Berkshire Chronicle report, referred to in (12) above.

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7 Allotment Gardens for the Unemployed

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