Digging for victory in wartime London

As the price of fresh food goes through the roof, many East Enders are heading for the shed and digging out long forgotten trowels, spades, rakes and … what exactly do you call that thing with the hollowed-out triangle on the end. “Why not grow our own?” we think. And so we set off to create something as uniquely English as pie and mash or saucy seaside postcards – the kitchen garden.

There is history here of course. Watch any film purporting to depict East End working class life during World War II, and sooner the later the father of the house will roll up his shirt sleeves and head to the backyard with his spade. But all those Jack Warners and Stanley Holloways were only the onscreen versions of real East End dads. The destruction of the Blitz had an unexpected side effect: there weren’t just plants growing among the cracked concrete, the good people of Whitechapel, Stepney, Bow, Poplar and Bethnal Green were planting their own gardens in the rubble.

The Dig for Victory Campaign had been launched in xxxx by a Government terrified that Britain was about to run out of food. Rationing had been introduced in 1940 as German U-boats began to threaten merchant vessels bringing in essential foodstuffs. Britain, declared the Ministry of Agriculture, had to go self sufficient. The result was one of Britain’s most successful propaganda drives. Dig for Victory encouraged every man, woman and child to turn their garden, or even the grass verge in the street, to fruit and veg. By 1942, half of us were taking part and even the Royal Family had grubbed up the Buckingham Palace rose beds for onions (or at least they’d had a man do it for them).

David Cotterill was a Bethnal Green schoolboy when war broke out. He remembers the shock at hydrangeas and hyacinths making way for carrots and cauliflower. “Gardening wasn’t new. All these little terraced houses with front doors direct onto the pavement [David grew up near Columbia Road] had roses and beans in the back garden. People used to go behind the brewery and the milk carts, pick up the horse’s mess to put on the roses.” What was new was those precious flowers making way for utilitarian vegetables. “My mum wasn’t happy losing her flowers. I remember her saying we had to grow peas intead of sweet peas.”

Front gardens were dug up too, casting aside the strict hierarchy of the English garden. Angela Canty lived in slightly leafier Bow. “My parents had been very proud of having a front garden. It was a status symbol I suppose, in that they’d done quite well and moved out from Whitechapel before the war. But then all the gardens were getting planted with runners, carrots and lettuce … it looked very peculiar but you couldn’t live on the stuff you got from the shops.”

Of course, some crops needed a bit more space than you’ll find in a terraced garden. And so the public spaces of London were thrown over to the Dig for Victory campaign. David remembers allotments being laid out in Victoria Park, while the destruction of the German bombs opened up gap sites that were often swiftly planted up.

The campaign was a huge success and by 1944 the Ministry was no longer calling for more land to be planted up – rather it was looking for efficiencies in agriculture. The Government, with brilliant marketing and posters that still look good on a study wall today, had mobilised the innate keenness and love of the outdoors of Londoners. But, as so often in English history, Londoners’ gritty response to the call concealed an amateurishness on the part of the authorities. East Enders had long been keen gardeners – some historians have put it down to the Industrial Revolution and our early move away from the land. Perhaps all those pocket gardeners in Shoreditch, Wapping and the Isle of Dogs were subconsciously tapping in to the race memory of their great great grandparents back in the field of Essex, Yorkshire or Ireland.

Whatever the reason for our love of tilling and sowing, we’d been here before. The roots lay in one of the first mass conscriptions, for the Second Boer War in 1898. London recruiting sergeants were appalled at the physical specimens emerging from the tenements of Whitechapel. A 70-hour week in a sweatshop wasn’t conducive to good health of course, but nutritional scientists such as Boyd Orr petitioned the Government for a coherent food policy. Much of the enthusiasm for growing your own during the early years of the 20th century came from the lack of decent fresh fruit and veg to be had. That famed English love of roses (with many tons of manure freely provided by the thousands of London dray horses) was perhaps more about a craving for beauty in the heart of a very grubby city. And during World War I it became painfully obvious that rural England wasn’t providing enough to feed urban England. The allotment craze took off, and there were 1.5m of them by the end of the war. By 1936, the number had halved.

But, just in time, the people stepped into the breach. And of course, with rationing persisting well into the 1950s, there was still a compelling reason to grow your own. That withered as affluence grew in the sixties and seventies and more of us moved away from the land and towards the pre-prepared foods section of the supermarket. The seeds have always been there, lying dormant and waiting for the right climate perhaps. It’s hard to imagine another country’s national television broadcasting an hour of gardening programming at prime time on a Friday, as the BBC does with Gardeners’ World. A crop of other gardening programmes flourish across the schedules, there is Gardeners’ Question Time on Radio 4 and the Chelsea Flower Show seems to push major world events off the headlines come the summer. Meanwhile, gardening books fight with cookery books for pride of place in the best-seller lists – the English, it’s fair to say, love their gardens.

And that famous English amateurism? As we’re threatened with £1000 fines for using a hose, the Environment Agency reports that every day more than 3.3 billion litres of treated water – 20 per cent of the nation’s supply and 234 million litres a day more than a decade ago – are lost through leaking pipes in England and Wales. The water lost would meet the daily needs of 21.5 million people. East End gardeners may be forgiven for ruefully looking at their patch and thinking of the bonuses leaking into the bank accounts of Thames Water bosses. But it’s spring and the last frost is (hopefully) gone. So hosepipe ban notwithstanding, it could be time to scrape off those rusty tools and start digging for victory once again.

About John Rennie

Writing about East London history. Sub at Daily Express. Teaching journalism at City University London. One presented a TV show called the Unsellables and the BT Walletwatcher blog. West Ham fan. Native of Basildon
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One Response to Digging for victory in wartime London

  1. Eatie Gourmet says:

    A delightful article, thoroughly enjoyed!

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