Urban animals: the growth of city farms in 20th-century Britain
For 50 years, the city farm movement has been making green spaces – and the animals normally seen only in the countryside – accessible to communities in urban Britain. Mike Collins traces the rise of these inner-city sanctuaries
A handful of photographs from the 1970s, though slightly blurry and faded, paint a vivid picture of what appears to be a classic scene from the countryside. A boy in flares pushes a wheelbarrow laden with straw. Nearby, youngsters gingerly marshal a pair of goats, while a woman leads a horse around a muddy paddock. A hand-painted sign advertises a riding school and a chicken club.
On first glance, these images seem to depict a busy stable yard on a farm deep in the countryside. Look more carefully at the outer edges of the photos, though, and the perspective changes. Train carriages overlook the paddock, and Victorian terraced houses loom behind the stables. Look closer still and the straw-littered enclosure looks more like a builder’s yard.
If you’re exploring the family tree of the city farm movement, all the roots would lead back to where these images were taken. Fifty years ago, a derelict site, sandwiched in between two railway lines (barely 3 miles from London’s West End as the crow flies) would become Kentish Town City Farm. It began a quiet revolution that swept across the country, inspiring a new movement rooted in communities.
When Inter-Action, a small arts and drama-based social enterprise, took on this site in Kentish Town, it was intended as a place to store the fleet of vehicles used for educational and community events in west London. “There wasn’t a grand plan to turn it into a city farm,” explained co-founder David Powell, who also lived on the site with his young family. “It’s an idea that grew organically as we discovered the old Victorian stables, spotted an opportunity to use some of the railway embankment to create allotments, and saw this space as a place for young people to come together and hang out.”
The concept quickly proved its worth. Five years after this first city farm opened, a young volunteer told the local paper that “before we went to the farm we were hanging about street corners, smashing windows and picking fights”. Growing food and rearing farm animals such as goats and sheep were essentially the means to an end. The goal was to create newly connected communities that would thrive and feel a sense of togetherness in places that had often lain neglected for decades.
The north London district of Camden was a prime example. Its dense network of railway lines had made it a target for devastating bombing during the Second World War. In the decades that followed the conflict, parts of the borough had been badly neglected. Then, in the late 1960s and early 1970s, people occupied squats in run-down terraced housing. Many of these new residents were buzzing with creativity, and Camden became a hotbed for counterculture ideas. Kentish Town City Farm was a place where they could be put into practice.
Around the same time, in July 1970, the first edition of The Ecologist appeared, sharing the latest thinking on creating more sustainable and greener cities. Together with the founding of organisations such as the Child Poverty Action Group in 1965 and Shelter the following year, this fed into the rise of community activism that sought to tackle the deprivation affecting inner-city areas across the UK.
“City farms provided a blank canvas for the emerging movements of the 1960s and 1970s to put their ideas and thinking into practice,” says Professor Simon Gunn, an expert in urban history at the University of Leicester. “They became places at the frontline of efforts to support people and communities that had slipped through the safety net of the welfare state, giving them new opportunities to transform their lives and flourish.”
Birds and butterflies
The movement grew through the 1970s and into the 1980s. Funding from the Department of the Environment enabled the creation of the city farms advisory service in 1976, providing practical guidance and support to newly established city farms across the UK. One opened in 1981 in Heeley, a district in the south of Sheffield, where the local Residents and Tenants Association newsletter proclaimed that “the idea of an urban farm is to bring a bit of the countryside into our busy cities”. A column in the Sheffield Star lauded the benefits of bringing together “sheep, cattle and hens, as well as trees and flowers to encourage birds and butterflies”.
A year earlier in Liverpool, Rice Lane City Farm breathed new life into an abandoned cemetery. Even earlier, in 1976, Byker Farm – now known as Ouseburn Farm – was established in the centre of Newcastle. It turned a landscape once dominated by the sounds and smells of heavy industry into a place where families could access nature and learn about growing food and looking after animals. And in Edinburgh in 1982, following five years of hard work by volunteers to transform a long-abandoned site, Gorgie City Farm opened.
Another early success story was Surrey Docks City Farm, founded in 1975 in Bermondsey, a dockland area of south London that had seen jobs and hope vanish. “Local people became very interested, and we cut the land up into allotments,” explained founder Hilary Peters in 1977. “Then we brought some goats and poultry in, and the local children came to help look after them. Suddenly all the vandalism in the area stopped: people were too busy helping us. And Southwark Council were so pleased they gave us the land free, because they consider the farm a local amenity.”
Veronica Barry, who worked at the farm and is now a researcher on food policy at Birmingham City University, remembers how much its year-round activities meant to those who visited. “We’d let the children run the farm for the day. By 7.30am they’d be gathering at the gates, eager to get started. They’d let out the chickens, milk the goats and plan the feeding and animal care for the day.”
As one teacher told The Times in November 1977: “When they [local schoolchildren] first come here [Surrey Docks City Farm], they have never had any contact with animals, and they are frightened. But they gradually overcome their fear, and a whole new world opens up for them.”
Today, almost five decades later, that new world is being opened up to communities at more than 50 city farms across the country – from Leeds to Leicester, Bristol to Balsall Heath. Inter-Action’s quiet revolution remains as relevant as ever.
Mike Collins is a communications and engagement professional, and a trustee at Bath City Farm
This article was first published in the March 2023 issue of BBC History Magazine
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