<< back Ken Sprague loved to use stories to make a political point and rather than give the plain facts I have tried to keep within the spirit of that intention. But nevertheless this story is true and shows how Ken’s art remains powerful and relevant today…

How the minnows repelled a shark

Longwood allotments, near Huddersfield in Yorkshire, is a little oasis of green surrounded by grit-stone terraces, grimy with centuries of industrial pollution. Further down the hill stands the massive disused mill, with boarded-up lower windows, and the upper ones starred by occasionally thrown stones, gutters and signs hanging slack, careless, as the peripheral parts of the building gradually detach themselves from their core. The mill still draws the eye, dominating skyline and space, but its power has crumbled now that the people in the terraces no longer stream down from their houses, summoned by the insistent bells that marked each shift.

Over ninety years ago, so the story goes, the owner of the mill and bought a plot of land for allotments next to the Mechanics’ Institute, built by the workers through their own penny subscriptions. Perhaps he wanted to give some crumbs back to his workers or maybe he thought that it was his duty to encourage a spirit of thrift and self help among them. He probably also felt that they might then think twice before demanding more pay with a sack of spuds in the outhouse.

Whatever the truth of that, the land was divided into plots and used by the locals to grow vegetables and keep chickens. Competitions were held to find the best-hearted cabbage, the juiciest raspberries, the perfect onion. The elected committee oversaw the care of paths and fences, organised the seed pools, encouraged orderly growth. The allotments became a source of pride and independence. But, with the influx of supermarkets and cheap food, they lost their allure and the plots fell into disrepair.

However, one corner of the allotment was used every fortnight by a group of the local Woodcraft Folk, an organisation set up about the same time as the allotments by socialists and trade unionists. On fine days the children would light fires, sing songs, climb the tree at the edge of their plot and build things. Part of their plot was also used to grow potatoes, because they could be roasted, and it was another excuse for a fire! Part of the plot was set aside for a shed to store games and equipment. No one had officially declared that the Woodcraft Folk could use the land, but no one had objected, so they never dreamt that one day they could be evicted. 

Then, suddenly last summer a notice appeared on the gate of the allotment. In studied legalese it ordered plot-holders to quit the land. Apparently a company of developers had plans to build there - the modern equivalent of workers’ terraces but now with built in garages instead of cellars.

Perhaps  we never really realise how much we value something until someone tries to take it away. This notice galvanised the community. The Longwood Allotments Association reconvened and creakily began to flex and stretch until it was alive again, calling packed public meetings, gathering petitions, seeking new people to take over the disused plots, lobbying politicians, renovating the paths and fences. It seemed that every house in Longwood displayed a small A4 campaign poster proclaiming: ‘SAVE OUR GREEN SPACE.’

The Woodcraft Folk too had a stake and campaigned alongside the gardeners. On a hot afternoon a dozen children gathered in the Longwood Mechanics Hall and after a few noisy games settled around in a circle. None was older than 9 years old, shifting on the institutional chairs of the hall, their feet hanging and kicking into space. One of the parents then produced a poster and the children looked at it curiously. It showed a big black fish chasing a shoal of little red fish, all scattered and in disarray. They were asked what do you think the big fish is feeling?

After a while the words came: ‘Angry!’ Hungry!’ ‘Strong’ they said. Then one child frowned and said ‘I think it looks lonely.’ Then they were asked to say how the little red fish felt? ‘Scared’ said one. ‘Bullied said another. The parent laid the poster on the ground and then held up another which showed the little fish all formed together and chasing the panicking big fish. The children laughed and one cheered. Instantly, instinctively they understood Ken Sprague’s iconic image demonstrating the power of co-operation. The children used this idea to make their own giant banner. Each child drew or traced a picture of a fish on coloured sticky backed plastic. As they were placed in position on the banner Sprague’s image once again came to life, but adapted and altered through the participation of many hands, the fish were now all sizes and shapes, a riot of primary colours against a deep blue background. Once the banner was completed they trooped into the sunshine and carried it excitedly down towards the allotments. There they tied the banner to the gates for all to see.

Summer turned to autumn and still Ken’s image of the fishes hung above the allotments, its colours bright, immune to vandals and the weather.         

Meanwhile the campaign to save the allotments was fought with commitmnet and determination. In the end the developers realised the minows were more powerful than they were and, given the amount of public opposition, would never get planning permission to build. So they withdrew the notice to quit. People power had once again been victorious.

Richard Murgatroyd