The Land Settlements in East Anglia

by Marina O'Connell for the 'Managed Retreats' magazine.

The Title “Land settlements in East Anglia” conjures up images of early settlers arriving in boats from Europe thousands of years ago. But as recently as the 1930’s parts of rural East Anglia were settled  by families from the industrial North East of Britain into newly formed colonies. This colonisation was sanctioned and funded by the government, and the use of the word colonisation was theirs. 

In the 1930’s Britain was suffering from the “Great Depression” . Similar to the   current recession this was caused by a banking crisis, it put millions out of work and  caused  many small businesses to go  bankrupt . At that time there was no welfare payments and many families went hungry and cold.  Unemployment in the minefields  and industrial areas of the north east were running at  a massive 70%.  Shockinly payments and handouts were kept to a minimum as it was thought to make people lazy. No matter that there was no work to do.  Families suffered massive  hardships with starvation and homelessness a common sight.

At the same time rural England was undergoing a crisis as well, farming was not profitable, people had been leaving the land to emigrate to the new colonies since the 1880’s or  to move to towns and cites to earn a living.  The old traditional ways of farming with horses and hand skills were beginning to change with the introduction of tractors, and nitrogen bases fertilisers. This change was famously recorded  by Ronald Blythe in Akenfield.

In 1930 a  coalition nationalist government was formed to deal with the crisis ( is this all beginning sound familiar ?). The Government  decided upon a radical and unique social experiment. They decided to “re  colonise” parts of England with the unemployed from the North East, and Wales where the unemployment rate was the highest. The colonisation term of phrase is quite surprising in todays context it is difficult for us to imagine that rural south England needed colonising. But at this time the countryside was emptying fast and  this was envisaged to be a stepping stone to moving people to colonise New Zealand, South Africa and Australia.

 

The Government  created the  Land settlement Association ( LSA) which was  granted  money from the government and  the Carnegie trust and with this  they bought up 21 farms across the country. This was sub divided to create over 1000 homes, each equipped to run as  a small holding of between 4-10 acres. Those in East Anglia were based on fertile soils and in places with fantastic microclimates for horticulture.  They are still to be found at Ardleigh in North Essex, Newborne in Suffolk and Abingdon  in Cambridgeshire.

There was much discussion at the time as how to how to create effective colonies;  should the holdings be part time, on less that 1 acre, should they be in the north east, should they be larger units of 50 acres, or the mid way size of 4-10 acres ? Would they be economically viable or would they just be displacing others from food production and re-creating the cycle of unemployment ?  In the end they decided upon the model of “colonies “ ; of 50-80 holdings of 4-10 acres each with “compulsory co-operation”  at the core of the system.  This meant that if you took up a tenancy on one of the holdings you were obliged to trade through the central organisation, it was thought this would give them an economic edge.

The holdings were set up as market gardens growing  salads, vegetables fruit with a small amount of pigs and poultry. They were equipped with tools, out buildings, stock  and glasshouses and importantly a home. An Estate  Warden  co-ordinated  the production, and marketing through a pack house. There was  a central store  supplying the equipment necessary, bags, string fertiliser and so on.  Most colonies had  a central farm to bring on the plants or piglets needed to stock the units. The men and women were offered work on these central farms to earn wages to bump up their takings from the holding.  Each Estate also has a training advisors on all aspects of the production, pigs, tomato growing, outdoor fruit .

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The miners and their wives were interviewed for a tenancy on one of the holdings by the LSA staff for their suitability for resettlement. Those who had had an allotment were preferred and then given 3 months of training once on site. Only then could the whole family move down to join the husbands in their new homes.

The change must have been phenomenal; from underground all day to over ground ,employed to self employed, from the north east to the south east and the cultural  change that that involved.  One thing that did not seem to change however was a deeply class ridden voice that comes through the documentation.  The newly styled self employed growers were required to clock on in the pack house to make sure they got  up in the morning at 8.00 am, this could be some miles away from their home.   Their takings were held back by the co-op and given out like wages so that it did not get spent all at once, or worse still drunk in the social club.

I interviewed a number of people who were the children at the time of the move from the North East to these settlements. They all speak about how their mothers in particular thought they had arrived in  “utopia”  or  “paradise”. Others found it difficult, the open friendly communities in the north where they were in and out of each others homes to the quite reticence of the southerners. At Newbourne it was the pub  in the village that eventually broke down this barrier.

The turnover rate of tenants was high at 50%, for two reasons.  The closer the re-settlement to the original home the lower the turnover rate suggests a huge wrench in culture and close knit families.

Secondly it was very difficult to earn a living from 4 acres of land. Often the families were living on an income lower than their unemployment allowance had been in the mining villages. Although now of course they had access to the food they were producing, but encouraged not to eat it as technically it had to be sold through the co-op to generate an income.

With the start of WWII, the demand for coal and food increased and this changed the emphasis of the land settlements to maximising food production over re-employing and training miners. The tenancies that came vacant were offered to farm labourers who wanted to get a step up onto the farming ladder. This intake of  people were more skilled at growing than the miners and for the next 30 years the LSA  “brand” as it became known  across the country did very well.  In the 1950s the ownership of the  LSA’s was transferred to  the Ministry of Agriculture and slimmed down to 10 estates and  500 growers. They focused on horticultural and out of season production of  vegetables and salad with some flowers production. The collective LSA brand of salads provided 78% higher of the salads into the UK wholesale markets by the late 1970’s.

The LSA’s  became more inclusive at this point, although to hold a tenancy the produce still had to be sold through the pack house so the “compulsory co-operation” was still in place.  The growers themselves sat on the boards of directors, and decided upon the cropping programmes. They pioneered early and out of season production of salad crops using mobile glasshouses, and heated state of the art glasshouses. However at the end of the day the holdings were owned and leased by MAFF and they made the final decisions. 

As the LSA was such a large producer of salads they in part supported the rise of the supermarkets in the UK.  They could  centralise their salad requirements with the LSA co-operative.  The supermarkets also worked closely with the growers to create new products; t Cos lettuce, t “exotic” lettuce we now take for granted,  Gardeners delight tomato production were pioneered at Foxash estate by the growers for supermarket supplies.

Growing up and living  on the holding at  this time has been described by many as “idyllic”. The children had freedom to roam collectively, they could earn money for the things they wanted such bikes and boats. At Foxash the social club hosted the summer fete, the summer show with prizes, bonfire night, football  matches,  and darts nights.  The growers met  up at the stores on a Friday morning for a chat in contrast to many farmers and growers today who are very isolated.

The growers worked collaboratively together sharing knowledge and information about growing techniques because they were not competing with each other. If their neighbour did well then so did they. On the other hand if a grower did not do so well and ran up debts these  had to be borne by the LSA as a whole and these costs of the debt but not the debt itself was carried collectively.

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In 1973 when the UK   joined the EU, cheap imports of food   started to arrived from Spain and the Netherlands, the supermarkets became more demanding and pushed prices down.  The LSAs started to lose their profitability.  Listening to the growers who were producing at that time they spoke of how inefficient the LSA had become with 500 growers supporting 500 staff that ran the organisation and of how many of those staff were not trained in food production and did not really understand it.

In the end the LSA experiment was deemed an economic failure and sold off by Margaret  Thatcher in the early 1980’s.  On detailed discussion with growers around at the time they suggest this is far from the case. They were in a ways victims of their own success, their  initial support of the supermarkets allowed the domineering growth of the 4 big supermarkets that demanded cheaper and cheaper prices. In the long term this created their demise coupled with inefficiencies in selling the crop. These issues began to be addressed but by then the Thatcher government had been voted in.

The sell off was also partially due to ideology and  in early 1982 the announcement was made on the radio before they had even told the tenants themselves. The tenants were given the option to buy their holdings which many did. Some had run up debts because of falling profitability and were unable to buy their holding. The tenants collectively took the government to court and won a settlement for  breach of contract  because of the  fast sell off programme.  

The LSA growers at that point formed their own co-operatives  on each estate.  But the pressures from supermarket and imports continued and in order to stay in business  the growers had to become more efficient and larger.  Today, 30 years on, and the last remaining viable growers are leasing out their glass to ever larger companies that grow for the supermarkets.

As the holdings  gradually went out of business and sold up the holdings stopped becoming productive market gardens.  Now on the  Foxash site out of 80 holdings  there are approximately  4 small scale local/niche organic growers, 7 high tech glasshouse growers all slowly leasing their glass out. The rest are used as gardens or horse paddocks or have become derelict.

These estates will continue to evolve but it is no longer an economically viable prospect to return them to market gardening – the cost of buying one does not stack up against the money that can be earned from running them as market gardens.

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In the next 30 years, however, East Anglia along with the rest of Europe will be facing the duel crisis of peak oil and climate change and a   return to  low carbon local  food production will be inevitable for food security. The Transition Town movement is exploring how to re-localise and de-carbonise food production.   The LSA model created in the 1930s would be ideal way of doing this in practice, allowing younger people access to land and housing without needing huge amount of capital.   Supported marketing to allow people to concentrate on growing and to re-create the local infra structure needed for local distribution of food. This could in turn create a resilient local community with food security. Ironically the issue of how to create resilient communities is an issue being explored currently by the Carnegie trust with the Transition Town movement.

It is difficult to imagine any politician proposing such a radical solution to food security in these times but then I expect the miners in the 1930s might have thought the same. 

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