Land Settlement Association

The return of the unemployed to the land 1934 - 1982



During the 1930s, twenty-ones estates of smallholdings were created by the Land Settlement Association for unemployed men, some of whom were coal miners from the North of England. Two were created in Bedfordshire. These were at Potton and Chawston with Wyboston. At Potton 30 holdings were created on 284 acres of land given by Malcolm Stewart of Sandy Lodge, and Chairman of the London Brick Company. Development started in March 1935. At Chawston and Wyboston 83 holders were developed on 454 acres. Development started in June 1935. The 16 holdings at Wyboston were created for London unemployed.

In September 1939 the scheme for unemployed men was halted and, instead, men with agricultural experience were let holdings in order to maximise food production as part of the war effort. In 1948 the LSA became part of statutory smallholdings policy with the same aim as the County Council statutory smallholding scheme, to provide the “first rung on the farming ladder” for those with agricultural experience. After a turbulent post war history, including two Government Committees of Enquiry, the scheme was wound up in 1982.

Potton estate was inaugurated by HRH Prince George on 9 October 1934. The first men to be settled by the LSA arrived at Potton on 6 March 1935. The first tenancies were created in July 1936 at Potton.

The LSA’s original plan was to settle a few hundred men on estates of agricultural smallholdings based on horticulture, pigs and chickens. In May 1935 the LSA became the main agent for rapidly extending the scheme as part of the Government’s Special Areas policy. Stewart had become the first Commissioner. It was under this policy that the estates at Potton and Chawston were established. By the outbreak of war, nationally, 1,100 small holdings created on 21 estates, in total covering 11,063 acres. 1728 men had been moved to the estates as trainees, together with perhaps 6,500 others, wives and children. For about half it was not a success, but at the outbreak of war 850 men remained (400 as tenants).

The creation of these estates, this extraordinary transfer to men both geographically hundreds of miles and between industrial sectors, raises themes more familiar elsewhere in the world than in rural England: “Back to the land”, land reform and the creation of small farms. The LSA was not, however, a response to spontaneous demands for land. It was promoted by those who believed that post industrial society in the UK meant a permanent “surplus” of men from heavy engineering occupations, coal miners, ship yard workers and engineers. The only alternative to permanent unemployment and perhaps social unrest was a return to the land.

The County Council statutory smallholdings scheme created isolated holdings, as demand arose. The LSA believed that smallholdings could succeed if they were established in estates (also referred to as colonies or groups) focussed on a central farm, to which the settlers were linked by a system of compulsory co-operation.

The experience of the Land Settlement Association estates provides insights for those today who see the creation of smallholdings as a means of intensifying agriculture, re-populating the countryside or as the basis for achieving an agrarian utopian ideal.

Potton Estate 2004


Dr Peter Clarke has had a life long interest in the Land Settlement Association. He lived in Potton from 1961 to 1967. He first picked beans on an LSA smallholding at Potton in 1961. His first academic study of the LSA was in 1969 when, as an undergraduate, he included the LSA in his thesis on smallholdings in East Bedfordshire. He went on to study the LSA at the London School of Economics under Professor Michael Wise, the man who chaired the Government’s Committee of Enquiry into Statutory Smallholdings, including the LSA, (Reports: 1966 & 1967). Peter’s thesis evaluated the LSA’s scheme of land settlement for the unemployed from 1934 to 1948. His particular interest was in its co-operative system of working. He has published several papers arising from his thesis. He first visited Abington in 1972 and was at LSA Headquarters in Cromwell Road in December 1982 when the Government announced that the scheme was to be closed.

He is interested in following through this lecture by publishing a book on the LSA and its relevance to the debate on smallholdings, back to the land and collaborative working. He seeks a sponsor for the project Contact.

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