Allotment Tales: Battles on Home Front changed landscape

Dig For Victory posters from the Second World War. Picture: Getty Images
Dig For Victory posters from the Second World War. Picture: Getty Images
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The centenary of the Battle of the Somme, the bloodiest of the First World War, is being commemorated this year. As the conflict dragged on, a stark realisation that the war was going to be a long, drawn-out affair dawned. Germany was nearly self-sufficient in home-grown food compared with only 45 per cent of UK food being home-produced. The Dig for Victory campaign is associated with the Second World War, but providing home-grown food was just as important in the First World War as German U-boats targeted food supply ships.

Since 1892, local authorities had been obliged to provide allotments whenever six or more ratepayers requested them. However, a surge in the provision of allotments came during the First World War. The Board of Agriculture obtained powers under the Defence of the Realm Regulations, ‘to enter on land for the purpose of cultivating it or using it for the keeping and breeding of livestock, poultry or bees, or arranging for its cultivation”. Some of those allotments are still in existence. My own allotment site in Musselburgh dates back to that time, although no longer on its original site. Glasgow’s Beechwood site dates back to 1917 when 31 plots were established with an annual rental of 4s.3d each. The owners of the Kirklee site resisted, arguing that the ground was unsuitable, but nonetheless it was converted to allotments. With the men fighting overseas, it fell to the women to get involved in producing food. In 1917 the first branch of the Women’s Rural Institute was founded in Longniddry, East Lothian to help them rise to the challenge.

Glasgow’s Beechwood site dates back to 1917

At the Oatridge Campus of Scotland’s Rural Colleges (SRUC), horticultural lecturer George Gilchrist and his students have created an allotment demonstrating some of the gardening methods and varieties used by people during the First World War. It’s recently been displayed at the Royal Highland Show. Some of the potato varieties grown then, such as Kerr’s Pink, are still popular.

Classes in an old show schedule from Musselburgh Allotments give an idea of the crops grown. They are a mixture of vegetables for immediate consumption together with others which would store well, including six different brassicas and three kinds of turnips. There was a prize for the heaviest shaw of potatoes which was harvested under the watchful eyes of the judges. Self-sufficiency is less of an issue today. I often give space to crops which would not have seemed sensible a hundred years ago. n