At the start of the year, you wouldn't have believed we'd now be in a reality where zoos and wildlife parks are talking about the possibility of mass euthanasia. But they've been hit hard by the pandemic, since they rely heavily on entrance fees and visitor donations to feed their animals, and some have had to consider such drastic possibilities.
Vauxhall City Farm in London is hoping to make it through lockdown, despite losing 80 percent of its income overnight. The compact, two-acre patch of green is buried in a tangle of roads in one of London's busiest, most built-up areas, surrounded by housing and metres from Dollar Chicken Express. It's difficult to get a photo of the animals without a jarring background of cars or towerblocks.
The farm is raising money through public donations to help feed the animals in its care – alpacas, horses, pigs, goats, sheep, cows, chickens and many more – so it can survive the lockdown. But there's a spanner in the works. Its most recent project is turning its allotments into a community garden, and the allotment holders are going to war with the farm.
“It will be a huge shame if their petition blights the farm’s appeal. We’re under a huge threat already,” says Monica Tyler, the farm's chief executive.
Since Tyler joined the farm 18 months ago, it's turned over its first profit – profit that, before the pandemic, she planned to invest back into the farm. Despite her short time in the post, she's already getting a taste for the decades' worth of resentment that's built up by the people the farm has left behind as it's grown. People who, as far as its employees are concerned, are now trying to sabotage the farm at its lowest moment.
This is what happens when a city farm turns its back on its humble beginnings, and on those who helped build it.
St Oswald’s Place
In the mid-1970s , Clive Jones, student union housing officer for the Architectural Association, the country's oldest independent school of architecture in London, had his work cut out for him. His job was to find affordable homes for students, but overcrowding was a huge problem across the city, so he decided to take a shortcut.
While walking near the Thames river in Vauxhall, he came across four boarded-up terraced houses surrounded by debris. He peeled off the corrugated tin and wasn't surprised to find that the rooms were full of rubbish and rubble. He got to work clearing the whole house up, so he could invite students to move in.
But while he was clearing it out, a policeman called out to him from the street, and Jones thought the game was up. The policeman held up a photograph and asked him if he'd seen a missing girl. Jones said no, and asked the officer if he was in trouble for trespassing. The policeman shrugged and walked off; apparently, he wasn't in trouble.
With the house in some sort of liveable condition, word spread, and the new tenants were soon knocking through the wall to the houses on either side, so more students could join them. They were all technically squatting, until they came to an agreement with the Greater London Authority for ‘short-life housing'. Julia Tremain lived in the house when she was an architecture student, and remembers her time there fondly.
“It became one big house, and there was a sense freedom that younger generations don’t have now,” she says.
Soon after the houses were cleared, Chris Spicer came to London from the University of Cape Town in South Africa, looking for somewhere to live.
“One dark night there was a knock at the door, and it was Chris looking for a place to live,” Tremain remembers.
Spicer was a refugee from Swaziland; according to his housemates, he escaped the South African government because of his activity in the anti-Apartheid movement. When he moved into the house, he wasted no time. Together with Tish Francis, who’d moved to the house around the same time, he started a community theatre company. They rehearsed in the nearby derelict Marmite factory and performed plays tackling social issues – one was called ‘Rat Catcher’ – everywhere from local pubs to national television.
His housemates remember Spicer as a natural leader, a trailblazer, the kind of person who got things done. But the theatre company was just the first mark Spicer left on the world, despite only living in it for a relatively short amount of time.
Jubilee City Farm
There was another terrace of empty houses just behind St Oswald’s Place that made the perfect playground for children in the neighbourhood. One night, they made one of the rooms into a den and covered it with about a hundred candles that caught fire and burnt the houses down.
The remains were bulldozed, leaving behind a stretch of wasteland that Spicer decided was the perfect land on which to build a city farm, which were starting to pop up around London at the time.
In the spring of 1977, the year of the Queen’s silver jubilee, Spicer scraped together his earnings from the theatre company, hired a bouncy castle and a huge skip, and offered young people a go on the former if they helped to fill the latter with debris from the site.
The community came together to help clear the site, then to dig a pond and plant a garden. By the end of the year, the Jubilee Farm was born, complete with its first residents: a turkey named Adolf, and Basil the fox.
The farm attracted people from the big block of flats across the road from St Oswald’s, who were able to garden and grow plants for the first time, and it gave children in the neighbourhood, many of whom wouldn't have ever ventured beyond London's boundaries, the opportunity to learn about animals and growing food. Tremain remembers the hens coming in particularly useful.
“I remember talking to a young boy who thought eggs came from factories,” she says.
Spicer divided up some land on the farm to make allotments and invited elderly neighbours to use them to grow vegetables and plants.
Once he appointed a manager, the farm took on a life of its own and soon acquired geese, chickens, goats and cats. But Spicer and his housemates stayed involved in the farm as much as possible while they lived in St Oswald's Place, and it was a huge part of their lives there. They couldn't go into the kitchen without seeing bags of goat’s cheese hanging in there from the farm's goats.
Spicer died in his early 30s from cancer in November 1985. Jane Wilson, another resident at St Oswald’s at the same time as Spicer, remembers how important it was to him to involve local people in every decision. He made the farm to serve them, to meet their needs. It was their farm. Their allotments.
“Spicer wanted the farm to be a community. That was his complete raison d'etre,” she says.
Vauxhall City Farm
Prioritising the local community didn’t last. Some say it couldn’t possibly have lasted, if the farm wanted to survive. Jubilee Farm was tactfully named to help it get external funding, and everyone’s best guess is that it later became known as Vauxhall City Farm for the same reason.
London's city farms, many of which popped up around the same time as Vauxhall's, share some common themes. They specialise in educating people, particularly disadvantaged children, on the things they'd otherwise miss out on, such as wildlife and food production. This broad remit is a win-win: it benefits the city, and helps the farm win funding.
Over the last 50 years, Vauxhall City Farm has expanded its remit beyond the borough of Lambeth to the City of Westminster, Hammersmith and Fulham, Kensington and Chelsea, Southwark and Wandsworth. It has a horse-riding school, youth employment programmes and many more animals. It offers class trips to the farm, and has around 25 employed staff. But while the original animals have long gone back into the soil, its allotments have survived – until now.
Not everyone is happy about the farm’s expansion. Where some see a selfless charity doing important work to those most in need, others see a ruthless business with its eye on only one thing. In its most recent annual report, the farm, a ‘company limited by guarantee’, which means it has a chief executive and a management committee, referred to making redundancies as a step to 'minimise expenditure'.
Clare Douglas, chair of Vauxhall Gardens Estate Tenants and Resident Association, volunteered at the farm, which she can see from her window, from 1986 up to the end of the century. She remembers a simpler time, when the farm served the local community, when it was mostly run by volunteers. She remembers a beekeeper being allowed to keep his hives on the farm in exchange for educating visitors about his bees. Now, Douglas doesn’t recognise the farm she sees outside her window.
“Now, you can’t do or have anything on the farm unless you're contributing money. When the farm says 'local community', it means local schools can come and have a tour like all other schools. It’s not a service to the local community,” she says.
“There are people who live close to the farm who live in a different way – they donate to it as patrons of the horse riding facilities because their children get to learn to ride while they’re in the city and away from their country house. We’ve been colonised.”
Paola Piglia, chair of Friends of Vauxhall Pleasure Gardens, also lives above the farm and has seen the same thing from her window.
“I’ve seen the farm change from being a very modest and community-oriented operation to a much larger and business-like venture,” she says. “Its ties to the local community have all but disappeared. The farm operates for its own interests only.”
The farm has funding from Lambeth Council to build the community garden in place of the allotments on its land, which are only accessible to the handful of people who own them. It wants to use the garden to educate young people and families about nutrition, to help tackle the obesity crisis. But this is the final straw for Douglas.
She believes the allotments are the last link between the farm and local people, and has set up an online petition pleading for people’s support to save them, and for Lambeth Council to step in and stop the farm revoking the allotment holders' licences.
“One person was on the waiting list for 17 years for her allotment. Gardening keeps her sane, and now she’ll lose only place that’s hers,” Douglas says.
She says there are alternatives to getting rid of the allotments, such as dividing each one up to create more space, but according to Douglas, the farm wasn’t interested in negotiating.
“If their commitment to the community was genuine, they’d be coproducing the community garden with allotment holders. That’s how things worked in the past,” she says.
Those working at the farm are confused about the fuss. They rarely see anyone on the allotments. Tyler insists her staff discussed the matter with every allotment holder and asked them all to get involved in the new garden.
For Tyler and other employees at the farm, it makes sense that an inner-city farm would benefit from a community garden open to everyone, versus allotments that take up half an acre – a quarter of the farm’s land. Allotments that, she says, that are overgrown and neglected.
“They don’t tend to their allotments, says trustee Sam Norman, “It seems a weird thing to be protesting about.”
But one allotment holder says the reason the allotments look overgrown is because the farm has cut off their water supply, and when an allotment holder dies, the farm doesn't offer it out again.
"Every time an allotment has been left, the plants have been razed to the ground, gradually first one weed would take over, usually bindweed; but over the course of time, an increasingly diverse range of plants, attracting insects and birds... then the whole place razed to the ground again," they say.
Faith Boardman, chair of trustees, lives a seven-minute walk from the farm. She sees it as a no-brainer.
“There are 80 schools who don’t have access to plant-growing areas except through us, as opposed to six people who have an allotment on our land but aren’t willing to share that with others.
“We’ve consulted with them over the last three years, asked if they’d help us teach kids about the things they’re growing, but they weren’t prepared to cooperate. We gave them a long time to think about it but they didn’t want to listen – they’re not thinking about the benefits of other people.”
The pain behind the petition
When Douglas moved to Vauxhall, volunteering at the farm almost every day helped her recover from depression. She remembers it as a simpler, happier time. At first, she liked the farm having a riding school for disabled children. She had a disabled brother who would visit to ride the horses. But when the farm wanted to become a specialist riding school for disabled children with an indoor riding centre and riding therapy centre, Douglas decided it was getting too big for its boots, at the expense of local people.
“People on the management committee who’d been there for a long time started to leave, some felt pushed out,” she says.
In 2002, Douglas says she was pushed off the management committee because she didn't agree with its ambitions.
“The hate campaign the farm drummed up against me hurts even now. I’m still traumatised 20 years on.”
Two years later, when Douglas was bringing up three children as a single mother, when her ex-husband, an alcoholic who she was still close with, was dying, she remembers being asked by a member of the management committee to relinquish the tenancy on her council flat so the farm could expand.
“My flat was falling apart and in winter it was freezing cold to the point it was physically painful. But having that tenancy meant me and my kids were safe, whatever else happened.”
“The council said it was going to build a block of flats and the farm would get some space, and I’d be given the option to move back in – but I wouldn’t give up my tenancy. I think I got in the way of the farm’s plans.”
Many of the students who squatted at St Oswald’s Place in the ‘70s have stayed in touch. They hope to meet next year. Some of them have gone back to visit the farm together – but they’re not happy with it, either.
When the farm set up its website, they say it initially gave a ‘fake history’ and brushed over its beginnings – and it still doesn’t mention Spicer, or go into any detail.
They can only speculate as to why the farm is reluctant to go into more detail, but those who were around when Spicer set up the farm agree he deserves a mention.
“Sometimes, there’s a tendency for new generations to think no one’s ever done anything before. The farm is standing on the shoulders of other people, without getting to know them and the spirit that drives it," says Francis.
Ron Yates, who lived in the house alongside Spicer, has tried to get the farm to honour his old friend.
“They refused to listen to the true history, it's most annoying and very rude,” he says.
Wilson wrote up a short history of the farm, but to her knowledge it was never published.
“I wonder if it was because the management didn’t want the dreaded word ‘squatter’ on there because it might affect fundraising or its public profile,” she says.
But the farm doesn’t share their desire to honour its beginnings.
“It’s not about them,” Norman argues when asked why the farm’s website doesn’t go into the history of the farm more. “What difference does it make?”
The farm’s future
There’s no doubt Vauxhall City Farm is well loved. Its fundraiser has raised over £100,000 since the lockdown began.
This is a conflict driven by hurt, fear of change, nostalgia and money, of different opinions on what a charity should be and, crucially, whether it should continue to prioritise the people it was created to serve.
Right or wrong, inevitable or not, the farm has left behind a detritus of volunteers and locals, allotment holders and former squatters who don’t believe its actions are inevitable of a charity trying to survive. The farm doesn't want to remember how it came to be in the first place, because it's moved on.
Many of the original St Oswald’s tenants don’t live in London anymore - although, many have dedicated their careers to the values they first encountered on the farm. They know the area they briefly called home has changed beyond recognition, and while they don't follow the farm's every move, they can empathise with the volunteers and local people who feel left behind.
“I bet the farm's fraught with power struggles,” says Francis. “I can just shut my eyes and imagine it.”