Land Settlement Movement of the 1920s
‘We have saved the land’
At the end of the First World War the British Government set up a scheme whereby former servicemen could be rewarded for their wartime services by acquiring smallholdings or allotments. In this article Shelley Savage describes how the scheme came about and how it was enacted in Hertfordshire. She then goes on to relate how the scheme affected the lives of three families in Tring.
The Land Settlement (Facilities) Act (1919) is now largely forgotten. At the time, however, its impact was considerable. It required a large body of people and substantial sums of money to put its provisions into effect, and it added greatly to the burdens placed upon the County Councils. It is chiefly mentioned in publications concerned with agriculture, but the legislation was really concerned with compensating soldiers and sailors in the aftermath of the Great War. 

My curiosity about the origins of the Act led me to ‘Hansard Online’ and to the minutes of Parliamentary and Cabinet meetings. I have also been able to collect the memories of two Tring residents who proudly related the stories of how their grandfathers came to be drawn into the scheme. In addition, this article serves to celebrate the centenary of one of the houses built under the provisions of the 1919 Act.
Schemes for smallholder colonies
Throughout his political career David Lloyd George sought to diminish the entrenched power of the aristocracy and promote the well-being of the common man. This was seen particularly in 1909–10 when, as Chancellor of the Exchequer in the Liberal Government, he introduced a    People’s Budget which imposed taxes on the land and income of the wealthy, in order to fund new social welfare programmes. A less well known measure was the Development Fund which Lloyd George established under the Development and Road Improvement Act 1909. This Act sought to encourage economic development by various means, including the support of agricultural education and research.1
The man charged with administering the fund was Alfred Daniel Hall (1864–1942). Hall was a remarkable man. He had a passion for agricultural science and at the time of his appointment was Director of Rothamsted, the agricultural research institute. He later joined the Board of Trade and  during the First World War he worked with Edward G. Strutt (1854–1930), a noted agriculturist, in the development of wartime food and agricultural     planning. The two men also became involved in a Departmental Committee set up in 1915 ‘to consider what steps could be taken to promote the settlement and employment on the land in England and Wales of sailors and soldiers, whether disabled or otherwise.’ Part i of the report was published within six months and put forward a scheme of land settlement involving the creation of smallholdings. Before Part ii was published, certain changes were made in the personnel of the committee and this led in 1917 to the publication of a Minority Report by certain of the members who felt unable to sign the Majority Report.2
David Lloyd George
(1863–1945), c.1911
The Minority Report was to become highly influential. It ran to 192 pages and was entitled: BRITISH AGRICULTURE: the Nation’s Opportunity being the Minority Report of the Departmental Committee on the Employment of Sailors and Soldiers on the Land. It carried an introduction by Alfred Hall and was drawn up by Edward Strutt and two MPs: Leslie F. Scott (1869– 1950), a barrister with a particular interest in rural planning, and George H. Roberts (1868–1928) who was Minister of Labour at the time and would later become Minister of Food Control.

Their report displayed a remarkably sentimental attitude towards country living. Social reformers had found, they said, that although the condition of the rural poor was intolerable, life in the country was basically healthier than in cities. The land could offer men ‘the most natural and honourable labour a man can perform’. In rural areas the children were ‘noticeably superior to the town children in cleanliness, and suffered less from malnutrition, defective eye sight and most diseases.’ One of the early sections was headed ‘The Natural Life’ and was accompanied by such statements as: ‘The cultivation of the soil visibly brings men closer to nature than other  industry. The life of the agriculturalist is a true and honest life.’ It included quotes from Virgil – ‘Nature is indeed a mother; she is a “mother of increase, mighty mother of men” ’ – and from Horace who described the passion of a Roman weaver, Alfius, for ‘country scenes and the joy of farming’. 

Following on from such sentiments, the report drew up a programme for the reconstruction of rural life, so as to provide more food for the country and for more men to live and work on the land. It called for legislation to be enacted before the end of the war so that the new conditions would be in place for the disbanded soldiers and sailors. Its prime recommendation was to establish colonies of smallholdings and much thought was put into what was needed to make these colonies a success. A Small Holding Colonies Act had actually been passed in 1916 and its provisions were to continue in being throughout the post-war period. However, establishing such colonies under the Act was slow and cumbersome, and catered for relatively few men. Another scheme would be needed to cater for the thousands of servicemen discharged when combat ceased.

The creation of colonies of smallholdings was, of course, nothing new. A number of utopian settlements had been established in the early nineteenth century, most notably by Robert Owen who offered socialist communal living around his factory at New Lanark. He went on to help found a similar settlement at New Harmony, Indiana, while his example inspired others to found such colonies elsewhere in the British Isles. They were all short-lived, as were the Chartist settlements established in southern England in the 1840s.3 In the General Election campaign of 1885, the Radical MP for Birmingham, Joseph Chamberlain, put forward an ‘unauthorised programme’ which included proposals for compulsory land purchase to create a body of smallholders – popularly termed the ‘three acres and a cow’ movement – but it was not taken up by either of the political parties. It is notable that the Minority Report made no mention of these earlier experiments in trying to establish smallholder colonies. 
Rewarding ex-servicemen
In the later stages of the First World War there arose a widespread feeling that ex-servicemen deserved some kind of reward for the hardship they had endured during the conflict. This feeling was most eloquently expressed in the House of Lords in April 1918 by the Lord Archbishop of Canterbury who said: ‘To the young manhood of Britain today we owe now, and every coming generation will owe, a debt of gratitude which it is beyond the power of language to express.’ 4

There was also the fear in some circles that Bolshevism and the unrest prevalent in Europe at the time could spread to Britain. At a meeting of the War Cabinet on 3 March 1919 the Prime Minister, Lloyd George, was reported as saying: ‘In Europe we were now faced with very serious conditions. Russia had gone almost completely over to Bolshevism, and we had consoled ourselves with the thought that they were only a half civilised race; but now even in Germany, whose people were without exception the best educated in Europe, prospects are very black… In a short time we might have three-quarters of Europe converted to Bolshevism. None would be left but France and Great Britain.’ 5 He believed that Britain would hold out, but only if the    people were given a sense of confidence – only if they were made to believe that things were being done for them. Sir Auckland Geddes considered that, if we were not prepared to settle men on the land, they would emigrate.

To counter such fears, Lloyd George advocated the kind of policy which had been pursued in Ireland at various times since the 1870s and in more recent times under a land purchase programme, introduced in 1903 by the then Prime Minister, Arthur Balfour. Balfour had found, said Lloyd George, ‘a condition of social disorder, chronic trouble, poverty, and misery, which he desired to ameliorate, and two Acts were passed. He had developed a large scheme for settling labourers on the land. It was not an economic scheme. It involved considerable grants from the State, certainly up to the beginning of the war, if not since. There was no doubt that Ireland had benefited thereby.’ 6 Under this legislation tenants were enabled to purchase land by borrowing from the Government and repaying the loan over 68 years. 

But what were the views of the servicemen themselves? Some attempt was made to answer this question, as revealed in the House of Lords on 26 February 1918, when Lord Ernle, the President of the Board of Agriculture, was asked about the demand for smallholdings among the troops. He replied that a commissioner had been sent out to France, charged with explaining the present proposals to the men in one Army Corps. A few days later their votes had been taken. It appeared that for holdings up to 20 acres, the demand was very small, but 75% of the men had declared for a holding with only an acre or half-an-acre of land attached. They all appeared to realise that a smallholding was a very doubtful means of supporting oneself. They regarded it as ‘a very good crutch, but a very bad leg’.7 Lord Selborne, Assistant Director of the War Trade Department, summarised the findings thus:
I say that the sentiment in the Fleet and in the Army on this subject is extraordinarily strong. What is running through their minds is this: we have saved the land. At the present moment we do not consider that Parliament gives us sufficient access to the land, and we are going to claim as our right an access to the land. That feeling is held with vehemence both in the Fleet and in the Army; and I want to say here – as I know I can – to the men of the Fleet and of the Army that they are going to meet with no opposition from the landowners of this country.8
The scheme which emerged from all these deliberations was aimed solely at assisting the  individual serviceman to acquire a holding; there was no more talk about establishing smallholder colonies. Thus in 1919 the Government fulfilled its promise by enacting two pieces of legislation: the Land Settlement (Facilities) Act and the Acquisition of Land Act. The sum authorised for the scheme was £20 million. 
The general results of the scheme
The early 1920s saw a large number of ex-servicemen take up smallholdings under the various items of legislation. The situation was then reviewed by the Ministry of Agriculture and Fisheries and their findings published in 1925 under the title: Report of Proceedings under the Small Holdings and Allotments Act 1908 to 1919 for the Period 1916 to 1924.9 The total number of ex-servicemen who had applied for land in England and Wales during that period was 25,305, and the number of ex-service applicants approved was 12,447. The area acquired amounted to 161,698 acres, with an additional area of 72,000 acres under consideration.  

The main beneficiaries of the scheme had been the County Councils, who were now the largest agricultural landowners in England and Wales. Their rent from smallholdings was about £1 million per year. The total number of men settled on smallholdings since the Armistice was 20,000.  The Report concluded that:
Of the 22,000 men provided with holdings, about 10 to 12 per cent have left their holdings for financial reasons, and must be recorded as failures. The great majority of the remainder show every sign of making a success of their undertaking, but only in exceptional cases had men with little or no agricultural experience proved a success. On the other hand hardworking men with previous experience of farming generally succeeded in spite of adverse seasons.10
The Report also stated, however, that the scheme had proved a loss financially. 

At present it appears that of the 16 millions capital which will have been expended by 31st March 1926, when the scheme comes to an end, probably one-half will, in some form or another, have to be written off. As against this, Councils have become the owners of    valuable estates which, in less than 80 years, will be freed of all capital charges.11
The Hertfordshire experience
Under the legislation County Councils were able to acquire land for smallholdings and Hertfordshire engaged in this process wholeheartedly. A Committee had been appointed by the County Council in 1909 to administer allotments under earlier legislation and they now took on the task of enacting the provisions of the 1919 Act. Several of the men (it was always men) who sat on the Committee came from the highest echelons of Hertfordshire society and had often achieved high military rank. Colonel Abel Henry Smith of Woodhall Park, Watton-at-Stone, was a former MP, a landowner and Deputy Lieutenant. Sir Charles Hadden, KCB, lived at Rossway Park, Berkhamsted, while Sir Thomas Frederick Halsey of Gaddesden Place, was also a former MP and heavily involved in county affairs. Perhaps the most celebrated figure on the Committee was Thomas Brand, 3rd Viscount Hampden, a Brigadier General and Lord Lieutenant of Hertfordshire.
    Sir Thomas Frederick Halsey
The Committee appointed a Land Agent whose his first task was to identify landowners who could be persuaded to sell or rent land. The Government’s guidance required such land to be of good quality and have proximity to markets and transport facilities and to opportunities for other employment. On 2 July 1919, for example, the Agent reported that: ‘The Hon. Charles Rothschild, anxious to help ex-Service men to settle on the land, has  offered about 18 acres for sale to the County Council at the rate of £32 10s 0d per acre’. The precise area had yet to be agreed, but the land was said to be of ‘excellent’ quality and the house and buildings ‘ample and in good condition’. The County Council offered its ‘best thanks…for the manner in which he has met their requirements in the district of Tring.’ 12 Other  major purchases of land were acquired in Kings Langley while in Baldock a complete reorganisation of the landscape took place, clearing away some of the last remaining ancient strip field systems with commoners’ rights in the county.
Applications were invited from ex-servicemen through newspaper advertisements. Those men who had been exempted from war service were also eligible under the scheme. Selection committees were held all over the county to conduct the interviews. Candidates were asked about their agricultural experience, what acreage they wanted, whether housing was needed, and if they had any funds available. They were also asked about their marital status and family. Once accepted, the man would rent an allotment from the County Council, and the Land Agent would report regularly to a Small Holdings Sub-Committee on their status. 
These reports are now held at HALS and they contain many fascinating details. Applicants were not expected to maintain themselves and their families from the produce of their holding; the land was seen as being an addition to their livelihood. Thus the lettings came to be used for a wide variety of purposes – whether for pasture or arable, or as a ‘stackyard’. Some of the smallholders required accommodation and so houses were built for them, but the terms of the letting clearly stated that ‘no dwelling or building should be used for sale of intoxicating liquors’. The Council undertook repairs, dealt with nonpayment of rents, and changing tenancies. 

By way of illustrating the Sub-Committee’s work, in December 1920 it received a letter from the Ministry of Agriculture and Fisheries which read as follows:
Abel Henry Smith
I am directed to inform you that the Ministry’s attention has been called to the unsatisfactory way in which one of your Council tenants, named Wright, is working his holding at Aldbury. As a result of inquiries which have been made by the Ministry’s District Commission, it appears that in 1919, the land was cropped with corn; that Wright, who entered into occupancy at Michaelmas 1919, planted oats and sold off the straw, and that he has now planted wheat. It is understood that during the whole time that Wright has been in occupancy, the land has not been manured… it would appear desirable that the County Agricultural Committee should take further steps to ensure that the holding is properly cultivated.13
The Ministry of Agriculture and Fisheries subsequently agreed that the matter should be dealt with by the Small Holdings Sub-Committee. Colonel Abel Smith investigated the matter and reported as follows:
On Friday the 18th February I went to see Mr Wright the County Council’s tenant at    Aldbury. I found that he had sown the greater part of his land with wheat, and that it is the thin White straw crop which the land has carried. I do not approve of this practice, but a third corn crop is not infrequently sown by all classes of farmers. The wheat is a good plant at present, but a satisfactory crop can hardly be expected unless the season is exceptionally favourable. As Wright has no buildings in which to make manure, he was not so very wrong in selling his oat-straw. He is now spending some of the money he received for the straw on the purchase of manure for his wheat. I consider Wright is a hardworking and fairly intelligent man, and will follow the advice I gave him as to his future course of  cropping. It would no doubt have been better if he had left a larger acreage for fallow this year, but I see no reason for turning him out.14
Another interesting development was the involvement of the Hertfordshire Agricultural Society, which in 1922 decided to offer prizes for the best cultivated smallholdings in the county. They inspected 21 holdings and made detailed comments under different categories. One conclusion was that ‘the men who in addition to their cropping had some live stock cattle and pigs   appeared to be in a much better position.’ The report said in conclusion that in Hertfordshire as a whole ‘160 men have been settled on the County’s post-War estate. The holdings vary considerably in size, from 1 to 10 acres, and of the remainder … in addition to subdividing and adapting the existing houses and buildings on their estates, the Council have found it necessary to erect as many as 62 new houses and 60 sets of farm buildings.’ 15
The Tring experience
The major landowner in Tring was the Rothschild family and, as mentioned above, in 1919 the County Council approached the Hon. Charles Rothschild to see if he would be willing to sell some of his land. In the event he sold off 180 acres to the Council for £5,110; this was less than the going price because Rothschild retained the shooting rights for ten years. The land had formerly been part of a holding known as Dunsley Farm.

One of the applicants for the land was Mr E.A. Jeacocks, who wanted to set up a plant nursery and fruit orchard. He was a married man of 35 and employed by the Rothschilds as a Head Gardener, and he therefore claimed that he needed to live close to his place of work. He applied for two acres and a cottage. This was granted and the Jeacocks moved in, paying a rental of £30 per annum. However, there must have been water problems, because the 35 foot well had to be dug even deeper, down to a depth of 61 feet at a cost of £1,030 14s 0d.16

The plot and the cottage on Cow Lane are still there in Tring and still being lived in by a Council tenant. The cottage is called Dunsley Bungalow and was one of a number of black weather-boarded
cottages designed by a County Council architect and used all over the county. It was a good design, very practical for a family, and the quality of the construction was excellent. The whole smallholding, the land, cottage and barn has a Grade II listing by Historic England. Since its completion in 1921 it has only been slightly altered to make it more comfortable for modern living.

The barn next to the house was originally divided into a cart shed and piggery. Like the cottage, it is timber-framed and still in excellent condition.
Fig. 1: Tring and its environs c.1920, showing the area occupied by Tring Park and the land acquired by Hertfordshire County Council from Lord Rothschild for use as allotments. The line of circles denotes the position of the modern A41 which forms a bypass to the town. The crossed circle denotes the position of the junction of the A41 with the road into Tring (the B4635) and other local roads.
Fig. 2: A map c.1920 showing the field boundaries within the land acquired by Hertfordshire County Council from Lord Rothschild. It also marks the position of Dunsley Farm, Jeacock’s Cottage (1), and the holding at Kiln Farm occupied by Charles Hearn (2).
Jeacock’s Cottage, Cow Lane, Tring.
Walter James ‘Punch’ Wilkins (1879–1971)
There were two other men in Tring who took advantage of the Land Settlement Scheme. Their grandchildren still live in the area and have been able to tell us something about them. Both men worked very hard and for them at least the scheme was successful, for it enabled them to get a better foothold in life than they would otherwise have had. 

The first man was Walter James Wilkins, known as ‘Punch’ Wilkins. He had been exempted from war service because he was classed as a ‘Soot Operative’; that is, he was engaged in conveying hay and straw to London and bringing back soot. Initially he was given 10 acres on Dunsley Farm under the Land Settlement Scheme. As other tenants dropped out, he acquired their allotments and eventually had a holding of 25 acres, on which he kept cows for milking. In the early 1950s, when there was a further change of tenants, he acquired an additional 25 acres. ‘Punch’ Wilkins was well known in Tring as the local milkman, working seven days a week, 365 days a year. His traditional cart was pulled by a horse which knew the customers and the route. His granddaughter still lives in the farmhouse in which she was born and farms his original Hertfordshire Rural Estates holding. Her tenancy expires in 2022.

The second man was Charles Hearn. He had served in the war and was awarded a smallholding on Oddy Hill, known as ‘Bob’s Meadow’ where he kept pigs, a few sheep and chickens. He too expanded his holding in time. His grandson Stephen Hearn operates the Tring Auction Rooms and has served as Mayor of Tring.
Evaluating the Land Settlement Scheme 
As outlined above, the Government saw the Land Settlement scheme as being one way to ward off the threat of Bolshevism, but also as a way of rewarding ex-servicemen for their wartime services. By the mid-1920s the fear that Bolshevism might take hold amongst the British working class had largely subsided, but so too had the desire to see ex-servicemen rewarded. Amidst the economic challenges of the post-war world, initiatives such as the Land Settlement scheme fell victim to the need for severe economies in public spending, along with the ‘Homes for Heroes’ housing schemes and financial support for the farming industry. Furthermore, the notion of a ‘reward’ for war service had severe limitations. The ex-servicemen were tenants and had to pay a tenancy fee.

The 22,000 men accommodated in England and Wales under the Land Settlement scheme by 1925 represented 0.5% of the total strength of the British Army and Royal Navy at the end of 1918.17 In numerical terms, therefore, the impact of the scheme was infinitesimal. The scheme’s supporters could, however, point to many less tangible benefits. For example, the scheme, being based upon ‘land’, encapsulated a deep-seated belief that being close to the soil was fundamentally good for men’s well-being – that it was the means to better physical and mental health. There was also the notion that what the ex-servicemen wanted was ‘land for saving the land’. As mentioned above, the Government guidance given to local authorities when implementing the Act stated that any land acquired should be of good quality, have proximity to markets and transport facilities, and provide opportunities for other employment. This implies that the individual plot was not expected to provide a living in itself, but rather to supplement other paid work, thereby increasing a family’s income and raising the general level of prosperity. 

Britain was not the only country which sought to reward its servicemen in this way after the war. Several countries, including the USA and Australia, set up schemes to settle ex-soldiers in colonies, but without success. Thus the Report published by the Ministry of Agriculture and Fisheries in 1925 could proudly state that:
In no other country in the world has so great an effort been made by public authorities to settle discharged sailors and soldiers on the land. Nowhere has so much public money been expended on land settlement. Nowhere have public authorities erected permanent dwellings for the occupation of so large a proportion of the men settled.18
And the Prime Minister, Lloyd George, must have taken some satisfaction from the passing of the Act. From his earliest campaigning days as a politician he had railed against the huge land holdings of the aristocracy, and how he wanted agricultural labourers to have the opportunity of owning their own land. He witnessed various attempts to make this happen during his political life, but the Land Settlement Act was probably the nearest he ever came to achieving his ideal. 
Notes and References 
1. Russell, E.J., Alfred Daniel Hall (1864–1942), an obituary published in the Biographical Memoirs of Fellows of the Royal Society, 1 Nov 1942, pp.228-250; published online 1 Jan 1997, p.240 (
2. British Agriculture – The Nation’s Opportunity. Being the Minority Report of the Departmental Committee on the Employment of Sailors and Soldiers on the Land by the Hon. E.G. Strutt, Leslie Scott, G.H. Roberts. With a preface, and appendix on the Reclamation of Land, by A.D. Hall (1917).
3. Harwood, K. ‘The Five-Acre Chartists: The story of the Chartist settlement at Heronsgate’, Herts Past & Present, Autumn 2019, 3rd Series, Issue No. 34.
4. Hansard online, House of Lords, 11 Apr 1918.
5. Hansard online, Cabinet Papers CAB-23-9, War Cabinet 539.
6. Hansard online, Cabinet Papers CAB-23-9, War Cabinet 539.
7. ibid.
8. Hansard online, House of Lords, 26 Feb 1918.
9. Ministry of Agriculture and Fisheries, ‘Land Settlement in England and Wales’, being a Report of Proceedings under the Small Holdings & Allotments Acts 1908 to 1919 for the Period 1919 to 1924
10. ibid., p.52.
11. ibid., p.52.
12. HCC 23/10, p.6.
13. HCC 23/12, p.148.
14. ibid.
15. HCC 23/13, p.121, 4 Oct 1922
16. HCC 23/13, p.29, 29 May 1922. The figure of
£1,030 for sinking the well was more than the cost of the house and would be the equivalent of about £45,000 today.
17. At the end of 1918 the British Army had reached its maximum strength of 3,820,000 men, while the strength of the Royal Navy (including the Mercantile Marine Reserve but excluding the Royal Naval Division) was 415,162.
18. MAF,
Land Settlement in England and Wales (1925), p.5.

Hertfordshire County Council

The author would like to thank Mike Bass for providing the photograph of Jeacock’s Cottage, and Stephanie Wells for the photographs of Walter ‘Punch’ Wilkins.
Shelley Savage has an M.Phil in Social Anthropology from University College London. She has written two publications on local history: Water from Wendover and A Surprising Walk in Tring Park. She is currently Vice-Chairman of Tring & District Local History & Museum Society, and edits their Newsletter.