After the First World War ended, no one expected the same scale of war to be rekindled just twenty years later. The Second World War lasted six years and left millions dead, and not only on the battlefields. The risk of starvation was all too real — back in the 1930s, Britain relied on imports for 70% of its food, which totalled around 20 million tonnes of shipping each year. Naturally, our enemies could cut off such supply leaving Britain to starve.
Britain needed to implement measures to prevent this, and the idea of growing your own food rose to vital importance.
At the start of 1940, Britain used a rationing system to ensure a fair distribution of food during a time in which food supplies were low. A typical weekly food ration for an adult included:
1 fresh egg and a dried egg allowance
4oz bacon and ham
The equivalent of two chops (monetary value of one shilling and two pence)
Three pints of milk
4oz cooking fat
12oz of sweets every four weeks
1lb of preserves every two months
It doesn’t seem like much, does it? Well, that’s because it wasn’t! And while the war ended in 1945, rationing wasn’t abolished until 1958. It was looked upon as a way to regulate food production and usage.
A push to grow your own
Around 25% of butter and 50% of cheese imports had to be shipped from New Zealand all the way to the UK. 80% 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 campaign was intended to encourage people to transform open spaces, such as their gardens, into vegetable plots where they could plant their own seeds to grow. 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 any 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.
Even public parks and the lawns surrounding the Tower of London became valuable 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. By the end of the war, there were nearly 1.4 million allotments in Britain according to the Royal Horticultural Society. By 1945, around 75% of all food consumed in Britain was locally produced as Pig Clubs – it’s estimated that 6,000 pigs were kept in gardens and back yards in this year, chicken coops and rabbit keeping also became popular as Britain attempted to grow their own source of protein.
The invaluable Women’s Land Army
The Women’s Land Army, set up during the First World War, grew to be crucial during the Second World War. Here, females would help farmers and market gardeners by replacing the workers who had gone 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 have struggled to continue their harvesting.
The idea of ‘grow your own’ is coming back into the public eye, with people embracing the benefits in cost and health from growing fruit and vegetables. People are transforming their gardens, with decking boards and grow bags, to both provide places to entertain as well as supporting a healthier kitchen. So much so that 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.