In WW2 Britain, times had never felt so tough. With the scream of German bombers wheeling ahead and the continued destruction of homes, businesses and lives, it was clear that the war had reached Britain’s shores. The people were afraid – and hungry: just years before, 75% of Britain’s food had been imported by ship, but the German blockade meant that these food imports had been halved by millions of tonnes.
Rationing came in small increments – first bacon, butter and sugar then meat, tea, biscuits, cereals. By August 1942 all food was being rationed apart from vegetables and bread, which were in incredibly short supply. In some places, even domestic fruit like apples were restricted to one per person, and it wasn’t unheard of for grocers to only sell oranges to children and pregnant women.
Then, in 1939, Agricultural Minister Professor John Raeburn set up the Dig For Victory campaign. Men, women and children across the country were encouraged to grow their own produce in a bid for self-sufficiency and to ensure that all families had enough food to go around. The campaign was a famous success and across the country people took to their gardens to fill the gap that was left by strict rationing.
The effect the campaign had on the common allotment was electric. In 1939, when Raeburn first set up the programme, there were 815,000 allotments across the UK. By 1943, there were around 1,400,000. Gardens across the country were transformed, flower beds replaced by vegetable plots, petunias swapped for potatoes. People were even encouraged to grow their own food on top of Anderson Shelters – the corrugated steel structures designed to withstand the impact of bombs.
It wasn’t just fruit and vegetables that started to fill residential streets: people were encouraged to raise animals too – pigs were particularly popular as they could be fed with table scraps, and chickens and rabbits reproduced quickly and provided families with meat during rationing and shortages. Keeping chickens was especially encouraged by the government, and you could exchange your egg ration for chicken feed – a good trade off for chickens laying eggs virtually all year round.
The well-stocked and dug-up garden became a symbol of British resilience. Known as Victory Gardens, they were a way for those at home to feel like they were part of the war efforts. Soon, it wasn’t just home and family gardens that were dug up for produce: almost every available green space was transformed into one of these Victory Gardens. Grassy verges on the sides of roads, playing fields and cricket greens were replaced with rows of vegetables. Bombed out playgrounds were ripped up and replaced with allotments, homes that had been turned into rubble were transformed into vegetable patches. Even the moat around the Tower of London was filled with vegetables. There were demonstration patches in London Zoo, pig clubs were set up around the country and national gardening societies and competitions shut down to encourage members and contestants to turn to growing food, not flowers.
From the smallest children to the elderly, everyone was out with their spades. Tending to fruit and vegetable patches became a part of the school day as children worked in what used to be their playgrounds. In Scotland, children volunteered picking potatoes and were encouraged to make it part of their schooling, getting teachers involved and requesting trips to local farms where they could help gather the harvest. Many people were keen to do their bit, and hundreds of young people headed to Harvest Camps where you could volunteer for a week or more working outside harvesting vegetables or flax. The work was hard going and while those attending these camps did often receive pay (1/6d per hour) no one who attended them was there to make money.
Raeburn himself said it best – “We want not only the big man with the plough but also the little man with the spade to get busy this autumn. The matter is not one that can wait. So let’s get going. Let ‘Dig for Victory’ be the motto of everyone with a garden and of every able-bodied man and woman capable of digging an allotment in their spare time.” Propaganda at the time showed a kind of duality – it aligned the British people who were putting so much effort into growing their own food with those fighting on the front line while also reminding them that they weren’t gardening because they had to but because gardening was a pleasurable and relaxing experience. Gardening wasn’t just necessary – it was fashionable.
In fact, Dig To Victory led to one of Britain’s first true gardening celebrities – Cecil Henry Middleton (popularly known as just “Mr Middleton”). Mr Middleton hosted a Sunday afternoon radio show on the BBC Home Service where he guided listeners on how to best tend their garden. By 1940, Mr Middleton had 3.5 million listeners and around 70% of people with wirelesses tuned into his show every Sunday.
To make the campaign even more appealing, two mascots were introduced – Dr. Carrot and Potato Pete. Potatoes and especially carrots were easy to grow almost anywhere, and were the vegetables which were in most plentiful supply. The characters featured heavily in posters and even had their own songs to get children and families interested. They were in surplus supply, so it looked likely that the populace would soon get sick of eating them: the government had to make sure that didn’t happen. Carrots especially were praised for their versatility – not only were they a staple vegetable, they were also sweet, so were turned into jams, spreads and even drinks. Praised for their nutritional benefits, a hugely successful propaganda campaign told families that carrots helped you see in the dark, and that the British pilot’s victories over the german Luftwaffe was thanks to their improved eyesight from eating so many. This was, of course, a myth: but one that still lives on today.
After the war ended, allotments began to drift back out of fashion. With supply-lines reopening, growing your own food was no longer a necessity – soon, gardens that had once been full of chickens and potatoes had turned back to lawns and flowerbeds. Land which had been transformed into vegetable patches was used for building houses. The post-war climate was very different: the television saw a massive boom in popularity and how people chose to use their leisure time changed. Gardening was popular but the allotment started to seem old-fashioned and, dare I say it: uncool. By the late 50s, allotment funding was withdrawn.
After a long period of disinterest in the grow your own movement, the trend appears to be slipping back in. A 2011 survey of around two thousand people showed that one in six adults had started to grow their own food, and half saying that they would consider doing so if food prices continue to rise. On the whole, however, gardens still seem to be dominated by immaculate lawns, flower beds and the odd trampoline. With the threat of increased food prices on the horizon and the need for more sustainable living practices, perhaps it’s time we took a leaf out of our great-grandparents’ books and returned to the spade to dig for victory once more.
Lotti works with the Primrose Product Loading team, creating product descriptions and newsletter headers.
When not writing, Lotti enjoys watching (and over-analyzing) indie movies with a pint from the local craft brewery or cosplaying at London Comic Con.
Lotti is learning to roller skate, with limited success.