Growing our own food is something many of us have taken a renewed interest in over the past few months. Allotments often provide a haven of green space and earth in otherwise crowded towns and cities. It is thanks to pioneering woman Mary Ann Gilbert for her inspiring, thoughtful use of land back in the 1830s that the idea of allotments came into being.
In 2018, the Wayfinder Woman group in Eastbourne started a project to find out what role women had played in the development of the town. They came up with a long and intriguing list of women from the fields of literature, music, painting, social activism and aviation, who had quietly helped to shape today’s town. One of the women whose activities changed many lives for the better, not only in Sussex but country-wide, was Mary Ann Gilbert (1776 – 1845). Her willingness to go against the grain and think up a solution to a problem most people of her class and social milieu preferred not to think about makes her one of our county’s true greats.
Mary Ann, who lived for much of her life in Eastbourne’s Gilredge Manor, was born in Lewes. Although having a relatively poor childhood, she was lucky enough to inherit substantial land and property in the Eastbourne area after the death of a wealthy uncle. In 1808 she married Davies Giddy, a Cornish MP, landowner, and chairman of the Board of Agriculture.
Although Mary Ann could have lived a charmed life of indulgence and luxury, she became interested in ways to help the rural poor. The early years of the nineteenth century were particularly hard for rural populations. Between 1770 and 1830 around 6 million acres of common land, historically accessed by anyone and used to graze animals and grow food had been enclosed and therefore made out of bounds by wealthy landowners, giving ordinary people no option but to scratch a living, often as itinerant and low paid workers wherever they could. The introduction of machinery to farming coupled with the plummeting grain prices and oversupply of workers that followed the Napoleonic Wars were creating hitherto unseen depths of poverty and unemployment. In 1830 the so-called ‘Swing Riots’, where disgruntled and desperate workers attacked equipment, such as threshing machines, was sweeping into Sussex from Kent and the East of England.
Unlike many wealthy people, Mary Ann didn’t choose to blame the poor for their own predicament. All they needed, she thought, was a chance to become independent, the opportunity to unshackle themselves from the need for seeking ill paid and insecure work, charity, or poor relief. On a piece of her land at Beachy Head, she hired a number of paupers to create allocated plots of land, or ‘allotments’ and make them fit for cultivation. This she set at an affordable, non-exploitative rent. The people who started to rent the plots of Mary Ann’s land were soon becoming self sufficient, growing a range of vegetables and raising animals. Mary Ann herself made loans available for the purchase of equipment, gave lessons in using spades rather than ploughs to work the land, introduced the idea of water butts to help preserve water and kept costs down by using seaweed and liquid manure as fertilizers. Leading to the allotments, she built an iron gate, the first of its kind in Sussex, with a sign proclaiming ‘Here waste not Time and you’ll not want Food.’ By 1832 almost 200 families were renting allotments from her, growing vegetables and raising animals on their allocated plots of land. Twelve years later that number had doubled. In the 1840s she founded self supporting agricultural schools at Willingdon and East Dean, staffed by teachers plucked from the workhouse.
Mary Ann Gilbert had pulled off the amazing feat of creating a win-win situation. The poor families who had come to her to rent an allotment could now stand on their own feet, dignity restored. Poor relief, paid through rates to the very poorest in the community, always a source of humiliation by the people receiving it and a burden on the people paying, went down. Useful and sustainable skills were being pioneered and passed on, tracts of wasted land was being brought to productivity and Mary Ann was proving, in the face of her many detractors that ‘poor’ wasn’t synonymous with idle and feckless.
A champion of the poor, she constantly stood up for the workers, sending allotment grown potatoes to Lord Liverpool to prove the worth of the experiment, counter prejudice and once retorted there was far more intelligence amongst the labourers than those who questioned them. Not only did her work have a direct impact on her local community and parochial politics, it was cited and discussed in parliamentary reports and government commissions.
Mary Ann had eight children. One was John Davies Gilbert (1811 – 1854) who played a leading role in developing the town of Eastbourne.
Written by social historian Louise Peskett