In 1914, when the First World War broke out, Britain imported over 60% of its food and 80% of its wheat. In the forty years prior to the War, this had made sense: the cultivation of the vast American plains and the falling costs of transportation by steamship meant that prices for grain were low. Many British farmers had switched from arable farming to producing dairy and meat, which promised higher profits.
But as the War went on, German submarines targeted commercial shipping and Britain's reliance on imported food led to shortages.
With the men and horses who previously worked the land away at war, there was no way to meet demand and prices rose, which disproportionately affected the poorest.
How to solve this problem, which was bad for people's health and for their morale?
‘Every available square yard must be made to produce food’.
David Lloyd George, in one of his first speeches after becoming Prime Minister in December 1916.
Photo: A poster showing the challenges of keeping Britain fed © Imperial War Museum Art.IWM PST 6547
The solution: growing your own
For those not fighting abroad, posters, newspapers and political speeches made it clear that their patriotic duty was to secure Britain’s food supply.
Even those with tiny back gardens were encouraged to grow their own vegetables.
But how to get started?
Many city dwellers had little or no idea how to go about growing.
Photo: Schools girls in WW1 with their home grown veg. IWM Q31154
‘The most urgent need for all who are not in the fighting line and who have land is to make the utmost use of it’.
Walter Brett in War-Time Gardening: How to Grow Your Own Food, 1915
The model allotments at Regent's Park and Kensington Gardens
To help novice gardeners make a success of their adventures in food growing, ‘model allotments’ were set up in Regent’s Park and Kensington Gardens in 1917. Here, an experienced horticulturist was on hand to demonstrate how a small area could produce a succession of fresh vegetables throughout the year.
The focus was on growing bulky crops with high nutritional and calorific content which were easy to grow. Gardeners were not advised to grow fruit, probably because trees only begin to produce after several years.
In many ways, the 1917 model allotment was the precursor of today’s allotment in Regent’s Park, which re-opened in 2010. Staff and volunteers work to inspire and train people to grow food, while providing advice on organic food growing techniques.
Allotments at Greenwich Park
Renting an allotment was one way of alleviating the food crisis for a family. During World War I, around 4% of Greenwich Park was turned into allotments.
Allotments in Greenwich Park were affordable, costing 7s 6d a year, compared to the weekly allowance received by a wife (with no children) of the lowest ranked soldier (12s 6d) or the minimum weekly wage for a woman doing skilled ‘male’ work (20s) - though in practice women were often paid less than this.
In addition to the cost of renting the plot, allotment holders had to pay for seed, tools, fertilizer and the cost of securing and improving the ground.
At a time when local Greenwich shopkeepers were selling milk diluted with water and overpricing their canned meat and coffee, it must have been a pleasure to eat your homegrown vegetables, knowing exactly where they came from.
'Allotmentitis' - the catching condition that is growing your own vegetables - significantly eased the food crisis in the First World War and paved the way for the creation of allotments across the country after the war ended. The success of allotments also paved the way for the Dig for Victory campaign in World War II.
Find out more about our project to bring the wartime allotments back to life.