Saturday, 6 October 2012

The South Essex Plotlands - Smallholdings for Londoners?

I'm fascinated by landscape history and in particular, by lost places e.g. lost and forgotten villages, woodlands, boundaries, lands etc.  Usually, these are from centuries ago, but I was recently reminded of the Essex plotlands - lost settlements from the early to mid 20th century, which were in (what is now) Basildon.  I grew up several miles away from there, but I know some people with connections to this area and I've listened to their anecdotes and memories.  So - having been reminded of the plotlands existence - I wanted to find out more, particularly as they were established by Londoners looking for their own "good life".

The plotland movement was essentially Londoners buying pieces of land to put on huts and cottages for either weekend use or permanent living. The impetus was to escape from the slums of the city for a quiet life in the country where residents could grow a few vegetables, keep animals, forage for food and live a simple life.  Most of their houses, though, were of a very basic construction and didn't have services, such as running water, roads or power.  

Arable land on the edge of the former plotlands area.
This land was known as "three horse land" because it was so difficult to work.
The land for the new plotlands movement had started to become available following the late 19th century agricultural depression, when many farmers had been forced to sell up because of an increase in cheap imports of wheat.  The Essex farmers in this area grew wheat because it was suited to the heavy clay soil (this area became known as "three horse land" because it was so difficult to work).  When the land was sold off cheaply, the speculators moved in and formed companies to buy and sell the land in plots at auctions.

The move into the countryside was also made possible by the development of the railway in this area and the land companies teamed up with the railway operators to set up "champagne auctions" where they seemingly lured in potential buyers by offering special train tickets with alcohol.  The height of the plotlands movement was the 1920s to 1940s (and I don't suppose it's a coincidence that this followed the horrors of the First World War, in which many of the men would have fought.  Nor was it too long after the migration of their fathers and grandfathers from the country to the city looking for work during the agricultural depression).   Buildings were supposed to meet housing and planning bye-laws, but they were often constructed regardless and the local councils would come to regard them as shacks springing up in a rural slum.

The Second World War changed the nature of the plotlands development.  Agricultural land that would have been sold off for more plots was now returned to farming.  At the same time, many people moved to the plotlands to escape the bombing in London.  Once the war was over the "rural slum" nature of the plotlands began to occupy the minds of the local councils and they joined forces with the London councils (which were dealing with a post-war housing crisis) to lobby for a new town in the area.  In 1949 the Basildon Development Corporation was formed and the plotlands were earmarked for development.

The Haven: Once a Plotlands Home - now a Museum.
Many plotlanders were ready to move on from the problems of such basic living to a place in the new town.  As more and more properties became empty, crime (especially vandalism) began to increase in the plotlands area and many no longer felt safe living there.  But many more plotlanders didn't want to leave their rural life; the homes they'd often built themselves and the pieces of land where they'd kept animals and grown vegetables - to move to the high density development of a new town. These people formed residents associations to oppose the building of Basildon New Town and I know from anecdotal evidence that they were devastated by the compulsory purchase of their homes and land and the destruction of their rural dream: "Basildon was built on heartbreak" was a familiar expression.

Today, much of the former plotlands area is under Basildon New Town; some of it has been made into a nature reserve and the rest is now a mixture of housing and arable land.  A small, plotlands museum, a few cottages and a plotlands trail around grassy tracks with the old "road" names are all that's left of this modern, back-to-the-land movement.

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