Before the Second World War started Britain imported about 55 million tons of food a year from other countries. Understandably, the German government did what they could to disrupt this trade. One of the main methods used by the Germans was to get their battleships and submarines to hunt down and sink British merchant vessels.
With imports of food declining, the British government decided to introduce a system of rationing. This involved every householder registering with their local shops. The shopkeeper was then provided with enough food for his or her registered customers.
The government also introduced a Dig for Victory campaign that called for every man and woman in Britain to keep an allotment. Lawns and flower-beds were turned into vegetable gardens. Over ten million instructional leaflets were distributed to the British people. The propaganda campaign was successful and it was estimated that over 1,400,000 people had allotments.
People were encouraged to keep chickens. Others kept rabbits and goats. Pigs were especially popular as they could be fed on kitchen waste.
15th July, 1943: On the edges of American airfields and between the barracks of troops in England it is no unusual thing to see complicated and carefully tended vegetable gardens. No one seems to know where the idea originated, but these gardens have been constantly increasing. It is fairly common now that a station furnishes a good part of its own vegetables and all of its own salad greens.
The idea, which had as its basis, probably, the taking up of some of the free time of men where there were few entertainment facilities, has proved vastly successful. The gardens are run by the units and worked by the groups, but here and there a man may go out on his own and try and raise some strange seed which is not ordinarily seen in this climate. In every unit there is usually some man who knows about such things who advises on the planting, but even such men are often at a loss because vegetables are different here from the vegetables at home.
The things that the men want to raise most, in order of choice, are green corn, tomatoes, and peppers. None of these do very well in England unless there is a glass house to build up sufficient heat. Tomatoes are small; there are none of those master beefsteak tomatoes bursting with juice. It is a short, cool season. Green corn has little chance to mature and the peppers must be raised under glass. Nevertheless, every care is taken to raise them. Men who are homesick seem to take a mighty pleasure in working with the soil.
The gardens usually start out ambitiously. Watermelons and cantaloupes are planted and they have practically no chance of maturing at this latitude, where even cucumbers are usually raised in glass houses, but gradually some order grows out of the confusion. Lettuce, peas, green beans, green onions, potatoes do very well here, as do cabbages and turnips and beets and carrots. The gardens are lush and well tended. In the evenings, which are very long now, the men work in the beds. It does not get dark until eleven o'clock, there are only so many movies to be seen, English pubs are not exciting, but there does seem to be a constant excitement about the gardens, and the produce that comes from them tastes much better than that purchased in the open market.
Typical of Ministry of Food ingenuity was the campaign when we had a glut of carrots at a time when other vegetables were scarce. Lord Woolton got rid of the carrots, minimized the effects of shortage of other vegetables, and helped people to tackle the miseries of the blackout at one and the same time by stressing that carrots improved night vision.
His master stroke was to spread the report that the night fighter and bomber aces of the R.A.F. were eating carrots to enable them to see in the dark. The new airborne radar, and for that matter the powers of the older ground station radar detection, were at the time top secret. Success in bringing down enemy bombers at night was increasing, thanks to these radar devices, and the public was naturally asking how it was done. Some at least were quite convinced that it was all done by carrots. Admittedly, in common with everyone else, the aircrews did have carrots and scientifically the carotene did help night vision, but perhaps Woolton's propagandist eulogies were a little optimistic in this regard. However, the glut of carrots was sold and eaten instead of wasted, and everyone was more or less happy about the scarcity of more palatable vegetables.
By 1943-44, domestic hen keepers were producing about twenty-five per cent of the country's officially known supplies of fresh eggs, and by the end of the war the Domestic Poultry Keepers' Council had over one and a quarter million members owning twelve million birds. Pig keeping was another craze - there were eventually six thousand, nine hundred 'Pig Clubs' with hundreds of thousands of members, feeding their beasts on kitchen waste.