Children's Voices of the Second World War - An extract by Christina Rex
Food was a constant preoccupation during the war. As small children, we were not directly aware of this, but we lived constantly with the exhortations of the Dig for Victory posters, with the knowledge that food should not be wasted and with (in the towns) the ever-present pig bins in almost every street for vegetable peelings and any food scraps to go to the nearest pig farm to help with the swill.
Even before the war, this country imported more than half the food needed to feed the population. On the outbreak of war, merchant shipping, which transported the foodstuffs, became a target of the U-boats, so the country had to maximise agricultural production, especially of the staples, wheat and potatoes, to save seamen’s lives, shipping space and use of precious oil for other purposes. A 50% increase in crop-growing land was achieved on farms by ploughing pasture, draining marshy tracts and planting on hillsides. Inspectors from the various Ministries involved “encouraged” the farmers to increase their arable land as far as they were able, but the public were expected to “do their bit” as well.
The public responded by digging up flower beds, lawns and tennis courts (if they had them) for vegetable and fruit plots, and municipally-owned parks and sports facilities soon became allotments. Even the moat round the Tower of London was used for vegetables, while sheep grazed in Hyde Park! (Domestically, the soil covering Anderson shelters was almost always turned into a plot for cucumbers, strawberries, or anything edible which would grow there.) Anyone travelling by train saw the embankments near the station had been dug and were growing potatoes, beans, peas and other vegetables. The honesty of people in respect of these allotments was amazing – the big London parks and open spaces boasted innumerable plots, as did the other cities, yet there was little theft of produce. Those people who later shared some of the vegetables and fruit were very pleased with it. Shortly after the war started, about 1.5 million people had taken these allotments – and the land surrounding fire and police stations was enthusiastically dug up and cultivated by the station occupants. By 1943, more than a million tons of vegetables were being produced annually by these “domestic” growers, on its own no small contribution to the war effort.
In an age when refrigeration in the home was virtually unknown (and domestic freezers unheard of!) preserving the produce was a major concern. The season for any fruit or vegetable was quite limited so it was necessary to preserve today’s glut for tomorrow’s famine, which was done by “bottling”, in “Kilner” jars for fruit, or salting of vegetables (and preserving eggs in water glass), quite apart from the making of jams, jellies and chutneys.
From Children's Voices of the Second World War:
We didn’t “dig for victory”. My parents were no gardeners and we didn’t have a compost heap or grow our own veg. We did, though, have a metal “pig bin” in our street where we put our vegetable parings for regular collection and distribution to the ad hoc pig keepers of the area.
The median strips in the roadways were dug up and things like potatoes grown; vegetables seemed to be grown on every spare patch of ground. The National Provincial Bank sports ground was ploughed and hay and crops grown. Us kids were encouraged to toss the hay around and jump in it, probably to get it dry enough to make into a haystack.
After D-Day, mother and I returned to Catford, London, to live with my grandparents. Grandfather kept chickens but obviously didn’t feed them properly because the eggs all had soft shells! We seemed to eat cabbage most days – my grandmother made me drink the hot cabbage water. I think that is why I’ve had such good health all my life!
At the beginning of 1941 mother decided we must get away from the Blitz for a while so we joined her sister and family who were in a small village on the Norfolk/Suffolk border. We stayed as paying guests with a Mr & Mrs Gould, an elderly couple. The Goulds kept rabbits and chickens in their back garden to help with the meat ration. I was overjoyed to find lovely rabbits in hutches. I helped to feed them and cuddled them. One was my favourite but one day I couldn’t find him. At lunch, we were eating a very tasty casserole and I asked what the meat was. Mrs. Gould told me it was my beloved rabbit! I turned white, refused to eat my dinner and have never eaten rabbit since.
Children's Voices of the Second World War - Doodlebugs, Gas Masks & Gum by Christina Rex is available for purchase now.