Ham: Walnut Tree Meadow Allotments

The late Dr Linna Bentley (a doctor of Botany) wrote this history of Ham’s Walnut Tree Allotments (WTMAS) in the late 1990s or early 2000s and we are grateful to Geoff Hyde for alerting us to it.

Geoff Hyde writes: “Dr Linna Bentley had a career as an academic botanist at the Royal Botanic Gardens in Kew. She also had a keen interest in local history, being an active and contributory member of the Richmond Local History Society. Living in Evelyn Road, Ham, she had an impressive plot on WTMAS, where she nurtured endangered species of vegetables and plants. Dr Bentley knew something of the complex origins of WTMAS from her other research, and volunteered to investigate further and produce a report. It is a very thoroughly researched project, and deserves to be kept safely for future generations. She also made wine, and her Red Elderberry, sampled at the barbecues we used to hold, stood comparison with many at £9.99 a bottle; robust and full flavoured, and at least 14 degrees, probably a lot more!

Four hundred years ago, Walnut Tree Meadows Allotments were part of the “Common Fields” of Ham, which were a mix of arable fields and pastures. The arable fields were divided into strips owned and worked by different people and they grew crops such as wheat, barley, oats, rye and flax. Our modern day allotments are also strips worked by different people, so we have somehow echoed those ancient “Common Fields”, though we have smaller strips, grow different crops and work individually. This land has been agricultural all that time.

Ham House was built in 1610 and in 1626 became the residence of William Murray, later 1st Earl of Dysart. The family then started to acquire much of the surrounding land, buying, bartering and exchanging small pieces and consolidating them. Our patch eventually became part of their estate. In 1637/38, in order to enclose their extended garden, they arbitrarily pushed Ham Street on to the Common Fields, away from its straight run down to the river and into its present position, bending to go towards the river from the point near the eastern gate of the allotments. The fascinating story of the Ham Street Bend is told by Evelyn Pritchard in Richmond History 20 (1999).

Our meadow is shown on John Rocque’s map of 1746 surrounded and divided by hedges, with some orchard trees and buildings. This plot, then called Barnfield, was in 1841 part of a farm of 175 acres let to William Hatch. His sons took over the lease in 1897 and the schedule stated that they must not allow cattle to eat the trees and not use the land as a market garden. It was probably in the early 1900s that the field started to be called Walnut Tree Meadow, perhaps a reference to trees that remained from the orchard.

In 1918, Frederick Secrett took the lease of the 212-acre farm for 21 years, but the Dysarts were now into making money from brick fields and gravel pits in Ham and the lease was reduced to thee years, one year and even six months, to allow them to let patches of land for the new uses. Farming was not easy with such leases. In 1921, the farm was let to his son, Archibald Secrett, who had to allow some land to be used for gravel pits. From 1933, some land was sold to the Council for housing, and in 1938, the reduced acreage of the then Ham Manor Farm (60 acres) was let on a yearly basis, and so it remained throughout the Second World War.

More reductions in acreage occurred until farmer Lou Secrett departed for Cornwall in 1957, and the farm that had once included Walnut Tree Meadow came to an end. In the late 1940s, the Dysarts were planning to give Ham House to the National Trust and to sell off most of their houses and land in Ham. The Council had big demands for allotments as wartime dig-for-victory plots were finishing. Also, and more importantly, there existed the Ham Agreement dating back to 14 April 1902, and set out in The Richmond, Petersham and Ham Open Spaces Act, which decreed that:

            Lord Dysart or the owner for the time being of the Dysart Estates shall….if required by the council…

            provide land not exceeding 20 acres in extent as allotment ground…for the use of the villagers of Ham so long as there is a legitimate demand for allotment ground and will not charge a larger rent therefor than sixpence per rod per annum”.

Such land had never been provided for Ham, so the Council approached the Dysarts about allotment land. The Dysarts (now represented by Buckminster Estates) made many, repeated and complicated excuses and finally in January 1950 said they would sell Walnut Tree Meadow, 13.68 acres, to the Council for £1,500 and that it was worth a lot more. The Council felt unfairly treated and in April 1951 issued a High Court writ against Buckminster Estates, seeking damages and compensation because he obligation of the Ham Agreement had been breached. The result was an out-of- court settlement by which Walnut Tree Meadow, plus the three tree-lined avenues around Ham House were sold to the Council for £750 in November 1952. So the astute use the Council made of the Ham Agreement not only acquired Walnut Tree Meadow for them, but also allowed the tree-lined avenues to become public property, though much had to be spent on removing and replacing the many dead and damaged trees.

Mr Secrett continued to farm Walnut Tree Meadow until 1954, when 3.3 acres of it were released for permanent allotments, as area which the Council considered “sufficient to meet the present and foreseeable need for allotment plots in Ham”. The other 10.4 acres became the adjacent Sports Field. The Council accounts show that for the allotments, the costs were:

            Layout £584 5s 6d  Fencing £525 Purchase £100 Total £1,209 5s 6d

The other £650 of the purchase price was attributed to the sports field and avenues. By April 1955, there were 48 newly laid out allotment plots – the modern strips – many of them in cultivation. In the midsummer of that year, the water supply was laid on and the renting to the “villagers” started. The Council continued to organise the allotments until our own management committee was formed in 1990.