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The urban back garden in England in the nineteenth century

The urban back garden in England in the nineteenth century

Gardens and gardening are considered today to be central to English culture, but when did this cultural association begin? At what point in history were most English urban houses provided with their own private back gardens?

While the large and lavishly-planted gardens of the urban and rural elites have received plenty of attention, the smaller back gardens or yards of the urban working and middle classes have been largely ignored by historians. This doctoral research project redresses this balance. It assesses the number of houses which had gardens or yards in the nineteenth century, examines the private plot as it appears in public discourse and legislation in the period c.1830-1909, and explores the changing uses and values of the private back garden in urban England across the nineteenth century.

This doctoral project has been funded by the ESRC and the Ellen McArthur Trust.

Drawing: Over London by rail

The project has pioneered a cartographic and census-based technique (using GIS software and the 1881 census enumerators’ books) to assess the number of houses which had private plots, shared spaces, or no outside space at all in the period c.1800-1881. As the first systematic quantitative analysis of garden provision in England (sampling around 2,000 households), it has shown the extent to which plot type and size varied according to the period of house’s construction and the social class of its occupant in five English towns – Sheffield, Bradford, Preston, Northampton, and Dorchester.

Historians have generally assumed that the polluted and overcrowded industrial conditions in nineteenth-century urban areas denied most people the opportunity for gardening, and prevented the provision of garden plots until the last quarter of the century. When gardens did appear, runs the assumption, they were the preserve of middle-class suburbanites; the urban working classes did not have gardens until after World War One. This doctoral research, however, has demonstrated that urban gardens existed for all classes in differing urban areas well before the last quarter of the nineteenth century and as early as the first quarter. The quantitative results provide a compelling picture of heterogeneity where once uniformity was assumed.

In Sheffield and Bradford, the assumptions in the historiography are born out: only eight percent of sampled houses in Sheffield had private plots, although a further 38 percent had plots shared between two or three terraced houses. In Bradford, over 70 percent of sampled houses had no outside space at all; the majority of these houses were built back-to-back. In Preston, by contrast, two thirds of sampled houses had private plots. This figure rises to 75 percent in Northampton. In Preston, these plots were very small across the period: 51% were smaller than 20m², and 96% were smaller than 40m². Plots were larger in Northampton: 17% of plots were smaller than 20m², whereas 44% were larger than 40m². Private plot incidence in all towns increased over time, but plots were provided far earlier than the late nineteenth century, as previously assumed.

Garden map of Sheffield, c. 1880Garden map of Bradford, c. 1893

Garden map of Preston, c. 1880Garden map of Northampton, c. 1880

Sheffield, Bradford and Dorchester followed the class distribution assumed in the historiography. In Sheffield, for instance, only three percent of the skilled working classes had private plots, compared to 55 percent of the upper-middle classes. In Preston and Northampton, however, there is a marked discrepancy between historiographical assumptions and my quantitative results. Even the lowest classes in these towns had access to private plots throughout the period: in both towns, 75 percent of the skilled working classes had private plots from as early as 1800. Plot size increased slightly with social status, but there was variation within this pattern.

The research project demonstrates that urban gardens were not the preserve of the urban elites; nor were they purely a late nineteenth-century phenomenon. The data on the number of households which had access to open space, together with information on the uses of plots over time, contributes significantly to historians’ knowledge of urban conditions in the nineteenth century, and the long-standing historiographical debates over urban standards of living.

In addition to the quantitative analysis, the project examines the uses of gardens and yards in nineteenth-century towns, from the tiny well-like yards of Preston, containing a privy, cess-pit, and a pig, to the long, planted plots of Northampton and Cambridge, with borders and lawns laid out according to the latest issue of Amateur Gardening.

Back garden

Plot plan

The research project also looks at the private plot as it appears in legislation relating to housing and public health in the nineteenth century. It suggests that a now-discredited Victorian theory of disease prevention (miasmata) was crucial to configuring the terraced (and, eventually, semi-detached) house with its own back plot (as opposed to back-to-backs or high-rise tenements) as the English ideal by the end of the nineteenth century.