Growing your own, eating seasonal fruit and veg, cutting back on food miles and waste, composting and recycling – all good advice. But it’s not from the Department of Health 2010, rather the Ministry of Food 1940.
The enemy may have changed. Today it’s global warming and threats to food security. 70 years ago it was the German navy targeting British ships bringing in precious supplies of food. But the demand to grow our own seems to call on a peculiarly English passion for getting out and getting our hands dirty.
Earlier this year Hilary Benn, the then environment secretary argued passionately that Britain must grow more of its own food, saying: “Food security is as important to this country’s future wellbeing, and the world’s, as energy security. We need to produce more food. We need to do it sustainably. And we need to make sure what we eat safeguards our health.” If Benn’s successor, Caroline Spelman, manages to get Britons doing anywhere near as well as their grandparents back in the forties, she’ll be working a miracle.
Until now there’s never been a full account of the extraordinary effort East Enders put in to keep Britain fed during the Second World War. That’s set to change, as Isle of Dogs author Daniel Smith has been commissioned to write the history of Dig For Victory, from its genesis at the heart of government, through the stories of local people involved. The book is to be published in Spring 2011 and Daniel is keen to hear from anyone who has a story to tell about those days – whether you turned over your back lawn to onions, or helped dig up Victoria Park to plant cabbages.*
The Government wasted little time after the outbreak of war in mobilising Britain’s home front. In their way our gardeners were just as formidable as our servicemen and women. The initial campaign ‘Grow More Food’ was launched in September 1939, and was soon renamed the snappier ‘Dig for Victory’.
The British public was urged to grow vital crops in their back gardens or in newly-available allotments in a bid to keep bellies full and free up the merchant navy for other vital work. It became one of the most successful and popular campaigns ever undertaken by a British government and, by the end of the war, small gardeners and allotment-holders were responsible for 10% of the nation’s total agricultural output.
Prime Minister, Neville Chamberlain, expressed just how important the campaign was to the nation’s well-being, saying: “This war depends just as much upon what we can do to produce more food at home as it does upon the more conspicuous explits of our fighting men on the seas or in the air or on the land.”
Though “Dig for Victory” was the creation of the Ministry of Agriculture and Fisheries, it was Lord Woolton, the Minister of Food, who became its public face. A popular, avuncular figure, he even inspired a dish, Woolton Pie, which was designed to make best use of the vegetables available to all those fighters of the “Kitchen Front” (it was horrible apparently). Gardeners and cooks received a steady stream of advice not only from official government posters and publications, but also via films ashown at the cinema, articles in magazines and newspapers, radio programmes and popular songs.
By 1945, there were some million-and-a-half more allotment holders than at the War’s start and the national diet was healthier than it had ever been. Crops were grown on every spare piece of land, from wastegrounds and railway sidings to sports grounds and London’s royal parks. Bethnal Green was often cited as an example to the rest of the country for the way in which it absorbed the shocking destruction wrought by German bombers and fought back by converting bombed sites into makeshift vegetable patches. Bernard McCarthy, a local schoolboy at the time, remembers the transformation. “First the parks lost their railings, then the grass was dug up for allotments. And you heard lots of chickens in people’s backyards.” Lots of local children had never been to the countryside, though many would soon be evacuated there. Now the countryside came to them.
Between March 1942 and November 1946, more than 200 Ministry of Food short ‘Food Flash’ films were shown in British cinemas, each one with an estimated audience of 20 million. The Ministry of Agriculture was particularly concerned by what appears to be a black market trade in dodgy tomato plants: “Some amateurs have been taken in every year by unscrupulous people who sell them tomato plants far too early for planting outside.” This may seem small-fry compared with the threat of enemy invasion, but planting your tomatoes before the end of May was one of the biggest mistakes a gardening novice can make, as plants left out in the cold will turn a “dark, unhealthy colour”. Advice just as sound today as it was then. For Bernard McCarthy, the early lessons in self sufficiency have lasted a lifetime – he’s a keen gardener to this day. As for the rest of us, we might do well to learn from our forebears, and start digging for victory once again.
* You can check out those public information films at the Imperial War Museum’s dedicated website, which accompanies its Ministry of Food exhibition. The Exhibition, a must see for Londoners interested in the city’s past, is now on and running until 3 January 2011. Were you there or maybe you have a parent’s tale to pass on? You might even have old diaries or photos you’d be willing to share? If so, contact Daniel by email on email@example.com. Or if computers aren’t your thing, you can send your memories to us at East End Life.