92 and still digging

IRENE Betts walks out of the back door of her terraced home and sets off to dig her allotment patch.At 92 years old she has rented her allotment since 1936 – longer than anyone else in Ipswich and, possibly, in East Anglia.

IRENE Betts walks out of the back door of her terraced home and sets off to dig her allotment patch.

At 92 years old she has rented her allotment since 1936 – longer than anyone else in Ipswich and, possibly, in East Anglia.

She still single-handedly digs over the plot with a spade, plants, nurtures and harvests her vegetables, fruit and flowers, and returns home throughout the summer and autumn laden with produce.

"Before the war we used to be able to walk out of our back gardens right into the allotment field but they eventually put a fence along the perimeter and we had to go through a gate," said Mrs Betts.


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She came to Ipswich in 1931 on her marriage to her childhood sweetheart, Fred, now approaching his 96th year.

Her father used to rent an allotment in her home town of Ilford and, from the age of ten, she used to help him with simple tasks.

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Two lavender bushes growing on her own allotment are from cuttings he gave to her in 1936.

"My husband worked on the buses and while he was out I did my allotment," said Mrs Betts.

At one time she maintained two other allotment plots on the Bramford Lane field and the second of them was only given up last year.

When she took over her first allotment she had a two-year-old daughter, Joan, and the child used to accompany her to the plot where she had her own small patch.

"We first started walking over there to see the chickens people kept in coops but then I decided to rent my own allotment," Mrs Betts said.

Joan, now 68, a former scholarship student at Ipswich High School for Girls, stills grows her own vegetables – in the garden of her home in California where she lives with her American husband.

Mrs Betts believes her own long life and that of her husband are at least partly due to goodness of the vegetables and fruit she has grown on the allotment, untainted by chemical fertilizers or pesticides.

"Nobody had chemicals in the early days so it has always been natural for me to grow things in an organic way. I must be one of the oldest organic gardeners in the country," she said.

Two peach trees on the allotment have grown from pips from the fruit of an old tree in a house near Mrs Betts' home in Westbourne Road, Ipswich.

This year she grew potatoes, carrots, brocoli, beetroot, shallots, asparagus, raspberries, blackcurrants and strawberries. "They used to call me the strawberry queen of the allotments," she said.

Flowers grown on the allotment include lilies and daffodils.

In 1996 and again in 1998 she was a runner-up in the Ipswich Allotment Holders Association best kept allotment competition.

In the last few days she has been browsing through the seed catalogues ready to submit her order for the spring.

However, she misses the days when there were many more people working in the allotment field – many of them mothers with small children.

"I have rarely bought vegetables or fruit from a shop – it was always a last resort if I had to do that," she added.

There are still 2,000 allotment plots in the ownership of Ipswich Borough Council although only 1,400 are rented each year - by a total of between 750 and 800 people.

The most popular era for allotments was in the 1930s and during and after the Second World War when food was in short supply and many couples relied partly on the produce of their plot to feed themselves and their children.

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