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This blessed plot: British cottage gardens thrive

In Britain, the class system may be alive, but it’s not well. Like the old soldier, it is fading away rather than dying outright, and its loss would probably not be universally lamented. Once strict and immutable boundaries of caste have blurred beyond recognition since World War II.

Before the contemporary shift toward a postindustrial meritocracy, your accent, dress, schooling and background established the tribe into which you would be born and die, and your place in society. Gone are the days, when an applicant for a respectable job is asked, “What does your father do?” It’s not that Downstairs is the new Upstairs so much as that we are all mingling in the parlor, untethered by the ties of the old order.

A century ago, the magazine Country Life was the arbiter of the grandest houses and gardens in Britain, mostly England. To their credit, the editors featured high-design arts and crafts properties rather than the ersatz palaces and villas of the Victorian age. The magazine’s subscribers could survey the familiar abodes of their fellow upper crusts. But this class was already beginning to fragment – some of the best-known collaborations between the architect Edwin Lutyens and the garden designer Gertrude Jekyll were created for patrons who were not aristocrats as such but enlightened industrialists.

The gardens that became the quintessential examples of the finest English horticulture – much coveted on this side of the Atlantic – were more the product of an intelligentsia of the English middle class, albeit on the upper end of that social construct.

And what of those at the bottom rung? This is the largely ignored segment of the gardening population, even if it was the largest. Margaret Willes seeks to redress that omission with her new book, “The Gardens of the British Working Class.” The nature of being working poor changed over the four centuries surveyed in its pages, but the need of successive generations to work the soil and nurture some plants remained strong. Much of it was connected to growing food in the form of vegetables and medicine by way of herbs, but much of it was not. Beauty fed the weary soul, even if that meant a window box of geraniums.

The pride that comes with skilled cultivation was also an enriching aspect of a hard life. Growing and showing tulips, pinks, primroses and, later, chrysanthemums and dahlias became an obsession for gardeners, who formed competitive clubs. With the industrial revolution, the working stiff moved from the farm to the city where, for many, conditions became crowded and squalid, and room for gardening sparse and precious.

In an oral history record from the 1970s, a retired postman recalls his life as the oldest of 11 children of an agricultural laborer and his wife, who lived in a cottage surrounded by a vegetable garden. Writes Willes: “He started to work in the garden from the age of five: “We helped in the garden all the time. If we didn’t do anything in the garden, sometimes we didn’t have very much to eat.’ ” Meat came in the form of snared rabbits.

Politicians saw the need to legislate the allocation of land for community gardens – “allotments” in Britain – not only as a place to grow food and escape the pressures of the tenement, but as a way to keep restive workers more interested in rhubarb than revolution. The allotment movement got off to a slow start in the years before World War I, but that conflict – in the UK and the U.S. – engendered the idea that small, private and community gardens could become mini-farms to relieve agriculture. This Dig for Victory idea became fully realized in World War II. At war’s end, there were 1.5 million allotment gardens.

One generation later, the British public had lost interest in the community garden. The number of plots had dropped to half a million, and one in five went unclaimed.

Another generation on, this has reversed again: Community gardens in Britain, and America, are coveted, and in some cities the waiting list runs into several years. For some community gardeners, fruitful plots offer a source of food in tough times, but for most of us, the enterprise is simply a matter of discovering what previous generations had learned. Having a patch of soil to cultivate offers a place apart from the rigors of modern life.