The Evesham Custom of land tenure is probably unique inasmuch as its application appears to occur solely in the Vale of Evesham. Its underlying principle is to give security of tenure and, where appropriate, compensation to tenants of market garden land. It is not known who first used the term "Evesham Custom" but it would seem that it originated within the Borough of Evesham before spreading (possibly about 1880) to Badsey and other neighbouring villages.
Following the repeal of the Corns Laws in 1846, the predicted slump in the price of wheat did not immediately take place, but by the early 1870s farming had become unprofitable. Some farms became vacant and landlords were happy to split them into small market garden holdings, often let to former farm labourers. Markets for garden produce were already accessible, the railway network having reached Evesham in 1852. However, a major problem for those early market gardeners was that their tenancies were merely annual ones, subject to 12 months' notice, expiring at Michaelmas (29th September). Landlords could give notice at will, with no obligation to pay compensation on cessation of the tenancies, so that tenants had little encouragement to improve their holdings by good husbandry or by planting long-term crops such as asparagus.
In practice, however, most landlords were content to allow undisturbed occupation, provided that the land was properly managed and the rent regularly paid. Furthermore, a market gardener wishing to give up his tenancy could introduce a successor, with the amount of compensation payable by the new tenant to the old being agreed between them. This system, originally based on what was no more than a gentleman's agreement, gradually became accepted practice throughout the Vale of Evesham. The name "Evesham Custom" came into common usage. Nevertheless, tenants were still mindful that landlords had no legal obligation to follow the custom.
Parliament first dealt with landlord/tenant matters in the Agricultural Holdings Act 1875, but neither that Act nor its successor, the Agricultural Holdings Act 1883, was particularly helpful to market gardeners. It is true that the latter Act recognised that one of the ways by which a tenant could obtain compensation was by "custom of the country", but in the main it legislated on compensation for improvements carried out with the landlord's approval, whereas under Evesham Custom tenancies most improvements were done without reference to the landlord.
The principle of the Evesham Custom received much clearer recognition when an amendment to the Agricultural Holdings Act 1883, known as the Market Gardeners Compensation Act 1895, came into force on 1st January 1896. It defined the operations which did not require approval from the landlord in order for compensation to be claimed by the tenant on leaving the holding. They were:
- Planting of fruit trees
- Planting of fruit bushes
- Planting of strawberries
- Planting of asparagus and other vegetable crops
- Erection of buildings for the purpose of the trade or business of a market gardener
A further provision allowed an incoming tenant who took over any of these improvements to enjoy the same legal rights as if he had been the original tenant. Possibly the 1895 Act was not worded as well as it might have been and, in particular, it was open to different interpretations on the question of whether its provisions regarding compensation were retrospective or not. Court action ensued in at least one case, concerning 4 acres of orchard land at Aldington, and it was not until 1913 that further legislation removed all difficulties in interpretation of the 1895 Act.
Thus, to summarise the principle of the Evesham Custom:
- A landlord allows his tenant undisturbed occupation, subject to the land being properly managed and the rent regularly paid;
- A tenant may improve his holding, for example by planting fruit trees or building a shed, without obtaining permission form his landlord;
- A tenant who wishes to give up his tenancy is able to introduce a new tenant to the landlord with the amount of compensation, known as ingoing, being agreed between the outgoing and incoming persons;
- If the landlord has good reason for not accepting the prospective new tenant, he must then personally compensate the old one, so that the latter is no worse off.
There is little doubt that the Evesham Custom was a major factor in the development of a prosperous market gardening industry in the Vale of Evesham during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The system assured the tenants of an adequate return for capital and effort expended, thus encouraging well-managed and intensively-cultivated holdings. Today, with a much reduced market gardening industry, demand for land has fallen (some outlying areas have become semi-derelict) and it would seem that the Evesham Custom is probably of less importance. As a separate issue, there are reports that one large landowner in Badsey is currently refusing to recognise its validity.