When the First World War ended a century ago, nobody expected another catastrophic global conflict to take place less than 20 years later. It’s 80 years now since the onset of World War Two.
The fear of starvation in both conflicts was real. In the 1930s, Britain imported 70% of its food, which required 20 million tonnes of shipping each year. It was recognised by the UK’s adversaries that cutting off such imports could lead to mass starvation, so Britain was forced to act. In this article, Arbor Deck, who supply decking boards used on allotments around the country, investigate how growing your own food helped the country during these hardest of times.
At the start of 1940, the UK had introduced a rationing system, so the public’s food and commodities were fairly distributed when they were limited. A typical weekly food ration for an adult included:
• 4oz margarine
• 1 fresh egg and a dried egg allowance
• 2oz butter
• 4oz bacon and ham
• The equivalent of two chops (monetary value of one shilling and two pence)
• Three pints of milk
• 4oz cooking fat
• 2oz tea
• 12oz of sweets every four weeks
• 8oz sugar
• 2oz cheese
• 1lb of preserves every two months
Even though the war ended in 1945, rationing wasn’t abolished until 1958, and was looked upon as a way to regulate food production and usage.
New Zealand was responsible for a quarter of butter imports and half of cheese imports, which required a long ship journey. Eighty percent of fruit was also imported. This led to the Dig for Victory campaign being launched by the Ministry of Food in October 1939, one month after the outbreak of the war. Professor John Raeburn, an agricultural economist who was recruited by the Ministry of Food led the campaign until the end of the war.
The grow your own veg campaign was set up to try to get the public to transform their garden spaces into vegetable plots. Its aim was to replace imported food with locally grown produce in a bid to free up shipping space for more valuable war materials, and also replace goods that were sunk in transit – German submarines were responsible for Britain losing out of 728,000 tonnes of food by the end of 1940.
The public parks in cities were transformed into allotments, while even the lawns outside the Tower of London became vegetable patches. The campaign proved to be a roaring success, with it estimated that home gardens were producing over one million tonnes of produce by 1943.
Come the end of the conflict, Britain had almost 1.4 million allotments, according to the Royal Horticultural Society. By 1945, around 75% of all food consumed in Britain was locally produced. It’s estimated that 6,000 pigs were kept in gardens and back yards, chicken coops and rabbit keeping also became popular as Britain attempted to grow their own source of protein.
Women’s Land Army
The Women’s Land Army – set up during the First World War – became very important with so many allotments appearing around Britain. Here, females would help farmers and market gardeners by replacing male workers who had been sent to war. By 1944, over 80,000 women were in the British Women’s Land Army, before it was eventually disbanded in October 1950. Without this workforce, Britain would certainly have struggled to continue its harvesting.
With the idea of ‘growing your own’ coming back to the forefront as we begin to realise its cost and health benefits, it’s nostalgic to see how allotments and grow-your-own patches played a vital part in keeping the country nourished during the war. Indeed, in recent years, the government urged Britain to return the Dig for Victory campaign in a bid to combat possible food shortages and the ‘disastrous’ consequences it could bring.