At the outbreak of war on 1st September 1939 Britain imported approximately 70% of her food from overseas, this equated to 20 million tonnes of shipping each year. A large proportion of Britain’s dairy supplies in particular came from Australia, Canada and New Zealand, as well as much of the supply of fresh fruit. There was a well-founded fear that the people of Britain could starve in the face of a German blockade. This harked back to the chronic food shortages of the First World War caused by U-boat attacks on merchant shipping.
Due to experiences in the previous war, the British government had prepared in advance for this eventuality and ration books were already printed and ready to go when war was declared. By October 1939 the government launched the ‘Dig for Victory’ campaign, the term was coined by a young journalist at the Evening Standard, one Michael Foot who would eventually move on to politics himself. It was a multi-strand campaign that took control of commercial production, encouraged domestic production and freed up shipping for other items.
All sorts of open spaces were requisitioned for allotments, such as the green space around the Albert Memorial in London, Kensington Gardens and even a bomb crater in the grounds of Westminster Cathedral. One notable garden turned over to food production was Vita Sackville West’s legendary Sissinghurst. She found that she enjoyed the cultivation and mused that it could become a career for young women after the war, perhaps even seeing a female director of the Royal Horticultural Society (RHS)! In 2010 her prediction finally came true as Sue Biggs was appointed the first female Director General.
Leaflets and starter kits were sent to every household that was deemed to be suitable by the government. At first this was highly inefficient and led to a haphazard method of identifying the most appropriate households. For example packs were sent to an 80 year old bed-bound gentleman and a 90 year old blind woman, which created much confusion. Eventually the national unity government took greater control of the process and became much more effective at getting communications out.
The RHS and the ministry for agriculture produced detailed guidance on how to start off your plot, including public exhibitions and model plots. The aim was to produce vegetables all year round in order to maintain. A yearly plan was provided to show when to sow and when to Harvest. The Ministry for Agriculture produced monthly guides to aid novice growers and the RHS released a leaflet entitled “The Vegetable Garden Displayed” as a visual aid such as pictorial instructions for digging beds and trenches.
RHS leaflets also gave a list of that year’s crop requirements, the government analysed where likely gaps would be and adjusted their lists accordingly. Brassicas were identified as a crucial crop, as they were needed to provide the vitamins lost due to a shortage of citrus fruits and bananas. This did not always work, however, as was demonstrated by the carrot glut during ww2. Lord Woolton cleverly designed a campaign that encouraged young children to eat more carrots by tricking them into believing that the RAF pilots were eating them to see in the dark. This is no doubt a con that will be familiar to many readers from their childhood. At the opposite end of the scale was the onion crop, 90% of onions were imported from France and Spain, leading to a major shortage. This led to the creation of Onion Clubs, these were groups of between 12 and 20 growers who sold their onion crop back to the government, all proceeds went to the British Red Cross. Seed producers such as Suttons reduced their seed catalogues to encourage efficient cultivation, especially for those with small plots
Allotment growers were not only encouraged to grow crops, they were also encouraged to keep livestock such as rabbits, hens and particularly pigs. By the end of the war there were some 6,900 pig clubs nationally, pigs were a favourite as they could be fed on kitchen scraps, as could hens. Between 1943 and 1944 25% of all Britain’s eggs came from domestic hen-keeping.
After all this effort, just how successful was the campaign? There had been a drive to recruit unemployed men as allotment keepers in the inter-war years so there were approximately 930,000 allotments at the start of the war. According to ministry figures this rose to 1.4 million by 1943. Imperial War Museum records show that allotments were producing 2 million tonnes of food by 1943. The Dig for Victory campaign was centred around patriotism and making one’s family self-sufficient by keeping them well fed. However, there are some debates about how accurate figures are as we know that they were amended by the government to ‘acceptable’ or ‘believable’ figures.
Some experienced growers were happy to share their knowledge, others were insulted by government campaigns and not all allotment holders stuck to the proscribed lists of crops. Some working-class communities refused to attend exhibitions as they were, ‘not for the likes of them’ and were often held in venues that were deemed to be for educated middle class people, such as museums. The boom continued post-war as vegetables were off ration, and food rationing in general continued well into the 1950s. As urban pressures for building sites and other uses squeezed allotment sites, many were turned back to their original use or were built on and so started the decline in allotment use in the late 20th century.
If you enjoyed reading about the history of allotments, then we suggest reading The Allotment – ‘originally published in 1988, is the classic study of allotments. Encompassing the oral recordings of plot-holders alongside descriptions of regional variations on the plot itself, such as pigeon-fancying, seed collecting or leek competitions, it looks at British society and history through the prism of allotments. With a new introduction by Olivia Laing, this is a story that is just as relevant today, and is essential for those interested in social history, land ownership and gardening in twenty-first century Britain.’ You can buy it now on Amazon.