The phrase was invented by Eli Hamshire in letters written to Joseph Chamberlain and Jesse Collings during the early 1880s. Hamshire did, in fact, own 3 acres (1.2 hectares). Collings used the phrase as a slogan for his 1885 land reform campaign, and it became used as part of the political struggle against rural poverty. He became derisively known as "Three Acres and a Cow Collings."
Chamberlain used the slogan for his own "Radical Programme": he urged the purchase by local authorities of land to provide garden and field allotments for all labourers who might desire them, to be let at fair rents in plots of up to 1 acre (0.40 ha) of arable land and up to 4 acres (1.6 ha) of pasture.
- "Forty acres and a mule", referring to what was granted to some emancipated slaves during the American Civil War.