Barton Lane Allotments are close to the town centre, tucked behind Gloucester Street. They are well hidden and many residents of Cirencester are unaware of their existence.
It is fairly safe to assume that some form of cultivation has been carried out on the site of Barton Lane Allotments since Roman times and possibly earlier. The presence of easily accessible water from the River Churn, and the close proximity to the town, made the site ideal for growing market produce. The discovery of a Roman coin in the allotments and a garden in Gloucester Street, and the fact that no evidence of buildings on the site has ever been found, certainly suggests activity of a horticultural nature. Dwellings on part of the South side of Gloucester Street back onto the site of Barton Lane Allotments and it is tempting to suppose that, over the centuries, residents would have taken advantage of land available for growing food or farming.
Through an accident of history, the allotments are owned by St. John’s Hospital Trust.
St John’s Hospital in Cirencester was founded by King Henry I in 1133 after completion of St Mary’s Abbey, Cirencester. The Abbot of St. Mary’s won control of the Hospital at the gift of King Edward III in 1348. On the dissolution of the monasteries by Henry VIII in 1539, the Abbey and Hospital were surrendered to the Crown, and the Abbey was demolished. By Order in Chancery in 1609, the minister and church wardens of Cirencester were appointed trustees to govern the Hospital. They were joined in 1631 by the local authority in the shape of Overseers of the Poor who were elected to care for the poor and give them work. This trusteeship has continued to the present day and has now become St John’s Hospital Charitable Trust, the principle activity of which is to provide alms houses for widows, spinsters and couples over the age of 50. The rental for each allotment contributes to the annual income of the Trust.
Leprosy was endemic in England for centuries and it has been recognised in Roman skeletons unearthed in Cirencester. We know of at least one leper colony in Cirencester and a leper hostel was founded at the intersection of Barton Lane and Gloucester Street in 1343 by Edith Biset of Wiggold. It was part of St Lawrence hospital and it is thought that the allotments were once the hostel gardens tended by lepers to provide food for themselves. In fact, Barton Lane allotments were once known as St Lawrence Gardens.
Many artefacts of interest have been found by plot holders over the years in addition to the Roman coin, including shards of pottery considered to be of Roman origin, old bottles, clay pipe stems and bowls, jewellery, silver cutlery, many blacksmith-made items and most recently, a George III silver shilling (a male labourer’s daily wage) dated 1818. Imagine toiling on your plot, then going home to find you’d lost a day’s pay!
We have the record of a ‘numerous and respectable’ meeting from 1833 held in Cirencester town hall, where adoption of a system of ‘allotting portions of land’ to ‘permanently to raise the character and better the condition of the labourer’ was enthusiastically discussed. The 1884 Ordnance Survey map of Cirencester clearly shows St Lawrence Gardens, now Barton Lane Allotments, and the layout is remarkably similar to today. Were the allotments originally founded as a result of that earlier meeting?
There are several other allotments in Cirencester-perhaps the subject of another article in due course?
As one of the current allotmenteers, I am very grateful to Kenneth Wallington for the research he has provided for this article.
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