Dig for Victory

Dig for Victory.
One major ploy of the enemy was to starve the population and U boat attacks on the Merchant Fleet were horrendous. As elsewhere Cotmanhay had allotments on which we grew our own food. This was called the Dig for Victory Campaign. At the top of Wesley Street across to Ash Street were allotments. Just below where Truman Street joins Bridge Street was a shop and nearer the bridge an old Smithy (With all the Blacksmiths forge and bellows). Between the Smithy and the Laundry was a track leading to allotments which reached from behind the Bridge Inn to those reached from Richmond Avenue. These latter were bounded by Bennerley Rec. Most are now the schools playing field. Potatoes were a staple crop along with cabbage and peas, rhubarb, celery, lettuce, runner beans, black currants, leeks and one year my Dad grew something called sweet corn which everybody watched come to fruition – though it tasted nice it was eaten with some suspicion because we hadn’t a clue what it really was. Each year the mayor or some such character came to judge the efforts of men who worked, fire-watched, and Dug for Victory. Prizes I cannot recall but Dad had several red 1st prize cards and we got something to eat of course.
Various livestock had always been kept in the back gardens to provide eggs and a cockerel for Christmas – though the murder, feather plucking and disembowelment of one of my friends leaned me heavily towards vegetarianism at an early age! It is not that people were cruel necessity demanded it. We also had a pig but the end of her I leave to the imagination. Apart from some ancient fantail pigeons my favourites were Banties (Bantams). Each day I went to the top of the garden with my Mam to feed them in their wired run. On Wesley Street a telegraph post stood next to the first houses above Len James` garage. Wires from it crossed the end of our garden to a post in a garden of a house on Milton Street and from that post to one in Milton Street itself. I remember it was a bright sunny day and Mam was throwing feed to the black bantams strutting and clucking in their run. I cannot accurately describe the noise, a kind of scream combined with a monstrous roar and a German plane just cleared the top of the house, went overhead and out of sight over the houses in Wesley Street. Immediately afterwards was a high pitched screaming roar as a British fighter plane came after it. In my memory is the sound, the dark shapes, the panic stricken cackle of the bantams hurtling themselves upwards and my Mam clutching my shoulders. It was a moment of total and absolute terror in which we were powerless. Later Mam told Dad, Grandma and her brothers that both planes went beneath the telegraph wires and the bantams seemed to have reached as high as the planes. (I have gone cold and tearful writing this now —realisation as to what might have been I suppose.)

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h2g2 The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy: Earth Edition

The Dig for Victory! campaign was instigated in Britain as soon as World War II started. The government realised that the population would go hungry if the war was to last longer than a few months. The result was that formal gardens, lawns and even sports pitches were transformed into allotments, large and small, and everybody on the home front was encouraged to become a vegetable gardener.

The Need for Dig for Victory!

Before World War II, Britain imported over 55 million tons of food a year – much of it from Canada and the USA. After the outbreak of war, merchant vessels carrying provisions into Britain, especially those coming across the Atlantic, became targets of the German navy and food imports were under threat. At the same time the British government recognised that the merchant ships were required for the transport of troops, munitions and even aeroplanes to the theatres of war. Our reliance on imported food needed to be reduced. This was dealt with in three main ways:

Farming was modernised and the Women’s Land Army was set up to provide labour for the growing agricultural sector.

Rationing was introduced, which involved every householder registering with their local shops and the shopkeepers were provided with enough food for their registered customers, through a system of ration cards with points.

The government recognised that rations needed to be supplemented and in 1939 the Ministery of Agriculture launched one of the most memorable campaigns of the 20th Century: Dig for Victory!

The Campaign

Lord Woolton was appointed Minister of Food. He was a charismatic man with great business acumen, which ensured that the Dig for Victory campaign succeeded and the British public did not starve during or after the war.

The whole of Britain’s home front was encouraged to transform private gardens into mini-allotments. Not only this, but parks, formal public gardens and various areas of unused land were dug up for planting fruit and vegetables. Kensington Gardens dug up its flowers and planted rows of cabbages. The government also encouraged people to keep a few chickens or ducks for eggs. Some communities set up pig clubs, feeding the pigs on kitchen scraps and sharing the pork when the pigs were slaughtered. Hyde Park had its own piggery. Goats were kept for milk and rabbits for stews.

Education and Publications

Woolton believed that the public should be educated and helped to grow vegetables – being shown how to grow compost heaps, for example – not just instructed to get on with it. During the course of the war the Ministry did many things to promote the importance of growing your own. In addition to posters and leaflets, radio broadcasts were heard in the form of food flashes and new advertisements introduced Dr Carrot and Potato Pete. Anthems were even sung to encourage people to enjoy growing their own food.

Dig for Victory! posters are still well-known today. The picture of a booted foot pushing a spade down into the soil, with the slogan above, is probably the best-known, but many others were also printed and displayed in prominent places such as billboards, tube stations, shops and offices.

The Ministry published and distributed a series of leaflets showing the public how to grow fruit and vegetables of all sorts, including.

  • Cropping Plan for a Ten-Rod Plot (250m2)
  • Onions and Related Crops
  • Peas and Beans
  • How to Make a Compost Heap
  • Seed Potatoes
  • How to Sow Seeds
  • Pests and Diseases in the Vegetable Garden
  • Preserves from the Garden

They also distributed a monthly Allotment and Garden Guide in the latter part of the war, full of handy tips such as:

If the weather be fine in February, we shall be anxious to get onto the vegetable plot. Never work the soil when it is too wet and sticky…seeds sown in cold, wet soil will rot instead of germinating. Remember when ordering your seeds that half a pint of runner beans will sow a row 50ft long.

Dig for Victory anthems were played on radio broadcasts, to encourage people to grow their own.

Dig! Dig! Dig! And your muscles will grow big
Keep on pushing the spade
Don’t mind the worms
Just ignore their squirms
And when your back aches laugh with glee
And keep on diggin’
Till we give our foes a Wiggin’
Dig! Dig! Dig! to Victory

Dr Carrot and Potato Pete

Carrots were one vegetable in plentiful supply and as a result were widely-utilised as a substitute for more scarce foodstuffs. To improve its blandness people were encouraged to enjoy the healthy carrot in different ways by the intruction of Dr Carrot in a series of magazine articles and posters. The slogan Carrots keep you healthy and help you see in the blackout was used. Culinary delights such as curried carrot, carrot jam and a homemade drink called Carrolade (a combination of carrot and swede juice) were suggested by the Ministry.

Potatoes were promoted heavily as a good source of protein and energy. Potato Pete had his own song sung by Betty Driver. The recording was a great success in amplifying the message that potatoes are good for you. Potato Pete recipe books were written to give home cooks suggestions and advice on how best to serve potatoes. For example, scrubbing instead of peeling potatoes was recommended, to cut down on waste. Traditional nursery rhymes were adapted to give a Potato Pete theme. For example:

There was an old woman who lived in a shoe.
She had so many children she didn’t know what to do.
She gave them potatoes instead of some bread,
And the children were happy and very well fed.

To promote the use of foods that people were less used to harvesting and preparing, recipes for the free food found in the countryside were published, such as crow pie, braised sorrel and squirrel-tail soup. Housewives were advised to make jams, chutneys and pickles to ensure that there were good-tasting foods in the home through the winter. Preserves were made from everything, from onions to rosehips.

The End of the War

The British government realised, even before the war ended, that people would still need to grow their own well beyond the cessation of hostilities. In a well-publicised speech in late 1944, Lord Woolton said:

We can justly congratulate ourselves in what we have achieved. But we must on no account relax our efforts. The war is not yet won. Moreover, even it were to end in Europe sooner than we expect, the food situation, far from becoming easier, may well become more difficult owing to the urgent necessity of feeding the starving people of Europe. Indeed in many ways it would be true to say that our real tasks will only then begin. Carry on therefore with your good work. Do not rest on your spades, except for those brief periods which are every gardener’s privilege.

He was right. The campaign continued and people relied upon their home grown food for years after the war. Rationing did not finally come to an end until 1954, when meat was the last foodstuff to come off the ration list.

A Lesson for Today?

Dig for Victory was a hugely successful campaign exceeding all expectations. Between 1939 and 1945 imports of food were halved and the acreage of British land used for food production increased by 80%. It was estimated that over 1.4 million people had allotments by 1945.

In today’s global culture of cheap, abundant and ready-prepared food, it is hard to imagine a situation when the whole nation faced such severe food shortages, when even the least experienced people ended up keeping pigs, or digging up their lawns for potatoes and cabbages, in order to survive.

Let us hope that the country never faces such extremes again. However, it is now realised that the home population never ate so well as during and after the war. This was thanks to the strict rationing of shop-bought goods and the amount of fresh vegetables that people ate.

There is a simple message for the 21st Century’s increasingly obese and under-exercised populations. Take up vegetable gardening, keep chickens and give up the car while you’re at it!

The Dig for Victory campaign is in danger of being lost to history, the Royal Horticultural Society (RHS) has said, as it puts out a plea for pictures of wartime vegetable patches.

The campaign has been celebrated throughout history as an example of the British grit and stiff upper lip during the Second World War.

It was set up during the war by the British Ministry of Agriculture, and men and women across the country were encouraged to grow their own food in times of harsh rationing in order to maintain the amount of fresh fruit and vegetables in the British diet.

According to the War Cabinet’s records, annual food imports had halved to 14.65million tonnes by 1941. The campaign’s tagline “Spades not ships!” encouraged citizens to start planting on all available land.

The people of Britain gamely set about digging, with open spaces transformed into allotments. Public parks were turned into vegetable patches and even the lawns outside the Tower of London were turned into vegetable patches. The Royal Family sacrificed their rose beds for growing onions.

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