The single most pressing issue on the Home Front throughout the First World War, in Penge as elsewhere, was food. Britain relied on food imports; if they were cut off, within three months people would be starving. So alongside the naval effort to protect supplies from abroad, a domestic effort took shape, slowly and fitfully, to grow more food at home. And this effort took in not just the countryside but also the cities.
Urban allotments were nothing new in 1914: Penge’s neighbours in Beckenham could boast several allotment sites dating back to the 1890s. But within the boundaries of Penge – which included Anerley and part of Upper Norwood as well as ‘Penge proper’ – there were none.
Enter Edward George Hopper.
Hopper was a florist, a local councillor (‘Independent’, which in those days was code for Liberal), blessed with green fingers and boundless enthusiam. From the summer of 1915 he argued that Penge Urban District Council should take the initiative on allotments, and at a public meeting at the Co-op Hall in August many would-be plot-holders agreed.
Penge was densely housed, but not as densely as it is today. In principle there was plenty of open ground which could be used for allotments, especially in the largely-undeveloped area bounded by Croydon Road, the High Street, Ravenscroft Road, and Elmers End Road. This map from 1909 shows the potential.
But even where land was undeveloped, it was still privately-owned, and the Council had no powers of requisition or compulsory purchase. Some landowners acted voluntarily – Mr. and Mrs. Grose made land available at Chesham Park for allotments – but most didn’t.
Things changed when the Government brought in the Land Cultivation Order in December 1916. This gave local councils not just a right, but a duty, to identify and take over ‘unused’ land and make it available to local residents as allotments; in effect, allotment-holders became tenants imposed on the landowner, under the protection of the local council. Significantly, the Order was introduced under the auspices of the Defence of the Realm Act or ‘DORA’, the catch-all law passed in 1914 which gave the Government emergency wartime powers. In other words, allotments were officially defined as part of the war effort.
In the early months of 1917 Penge Council identified and took over six sites. In Anerley there were two small sites at Stembridge Road and Bourdon Road, with room for 12 plots. In Upper Norwood there was a single 13-plot site at Milestone Road. But the large sites were in Penge proper, in the open area described above: 7 plots at Oak Grove, 41 at Chesham Park and 43 at the ‘Royston Estate’. The whole effort was overseen by the Council, and especially by Councillor Hopper. He presided at monthly Plot-holders Meetings at the Town Hall on Anerley Road, dispensing practical advice to first-time growers; co-ordinated bulk purchase of seed potatoes and other basics; and organised Summer and Winter Shows at which allotment holders could show off their produce.
The Council also negotiated water supplies for the different sites – though this provoked an angry debate about who should pay. Some councillors argued that allotment-holders should pay since they were the beneficiaries. Others argued that their efforts were benefitting the whole community, so that the cost should be met from the rates.
Today there are two allotment-sites within the old Penge boundary, at Upper Chesham, and Lower Chesham. Penge Green Gym’s impressive online history suggests that the modern Upper Chesham Allotments are on the site of the old Chesham Park,
with the further implication that they are directly descended from the First World War allotments donated by Mr. and Mrs. Grose. Lower Chesham Allotments, meanwhile, are a few yards from Royston Road and Royston Field, and clearly within the old ‘Royston Estate’.
All of which suggests that they too owe their existence to the First World War, to Penge Urban District Council, and to Councillor Edward George Hopper.