Aylestone Allotments and Leisure Gardeners’ Society was founded in 1901 by a small group of local people from the Wheatsheaf Works and Leicester Gas Corporation, who, faced with the impact of industrialisation on their work and home lives, sought to improve their local community by banding together “to establish comradeship, to create a community of interests and to spread a spirit of mutual helpfulness”.
By working together and forming a co-operative society, the people of Aylestone were able to afford a lease on this land, which would have otherwise been beyond their financial reach. The decisive and forward-thinking action of these people meant that the site — which had fallen into disrepair since the allotments were founded in around 1892 — could be saved, and that local people would be able to feed their families healthily and abundantly no matter what happened to their work at the factories.
Although local industry provided jobs for much of Leicester’s population, the work was highly specialized, often relating to a specific mechanised process, meaning that people, though perhaps very skilled at these jobs, did not have a set of transferable skills or a trade which they could take elsewhere if they were made redundant or deemed unfit to work.
As one writer describing the Wheatsheaf Works in 1906 put it, “one gets to this remarkable outcome of the factory system that out of the 1,000 or more men and women employed in one of these vast establishments, nominally ‘boot and shoe makers,’ there might be scarcely half a dozen able to make a boot right out, and only a small proportion who would be qualified later on in life to set up even as village cobblers.”
Such a set-up meant that many of Aylestone’s workers were utterly dependent on the factories for their meagre wages, which, in 1906, constituted roughly £1 a week (less than £60 in today’s money), for long, difficult hours, without many (if any) of the rights and protections that we enjoy today.
Visitors to the site at the turn of the 20th century lauded the “great variety” of fruit and vegetables that the amateur gardeners at the Society could grow, noting that “It is sometimes a question not alone of abundance, but of superabundance, the surplus being then disposed of to neighbours, who appreciate it so much that they are ready to pay more for what they know is absolutely fresh than they would give to the street-hawker”. Some young people on the site would further supplement their incomes growing roses and cut flowers.
The allotments thus proved indispensable to the people of Aylestone, whose brilliant endeavours freed them from their work as “links in a chain”, and led to leaders in social policy at the time calling for them to be “commended to the attention of the world at large”, later celebrated in a report for the House of Commons for their “striking and successful” achievements.