Mr Hubert Hall at work in the gardens around Chancery Lane
Food shortages and rationing brought by naval blockades during World War One meant producing home grown food became an essential part of life on the home front. City dwellers had their part to play in this, and Londoners were no exception, creatively transforming their civic spaces into productive places to aid “the growing of vegetables for victory”. Here, using recently uncovered material from the archive, we take a look at how weekly magazine, The Graphic covered the sometimes rather incongruous conversion of well-known London spaces into fruitful Edens.
In September 1917, the gardens around the Public Record Office in Chancery Lane were turned over to the production of vegetables, and The Graphic was there to document it. Mr Hubert Hall, resident officer of the Public Record Office, was responsible for tending to the grounds, which had brought forth an impressive range of vegetables, including artichokes, carrots, parsnips, marrows and tomatoes. Under the direction of the Superintendent of Regent’s Park, Mr Hall took over the duties of the official gardener in war time, the work for which was patriotically all done before or after office hours. Though the soil was thin, as it reportedly barely covered the foundations of the Old Rolls House, better ground elsewhere was utilised, namely the spacious garden belonging to the master of the Rolls House, which extends to the back of Fetter Lane. The Graphic reports that this ground is credited with saving the Rolls House and Chapel during the Great Fire of London in 1665; it could be that this ground was once again a protector of London in her hour of need, though the danger this time related to food security, rather than fire.
Left: Women gardeners digging in gardens in Fleet Street
Above: Soldiers in the gardens of the Natural History Museum
The gardens of the Natural History Museum in Kensington were also turned over to vegetable cultivation, tended by staff and convalescent soldiers under the guidance of the Superintendent of Hyde Park. The Graphic noted in October 1917 that “Great skill has been shown in utilising all available space…The potatoes grown in these gardens are particularly fine, and completely do away with the idea that soil in the heart of London is not suitable for the growing of vegetables.” French beans, artichokes marrows and many other green vegetables were reported to have done extremely well in this environment.
Compulsory rationing would be introduced the following year, accompanied by a flurry of Graphic articles, celebrating food production in the capital. In March 1918, it reported that at Clissfold Park in north London, hundreds of policemen were given plots of land to cultivate, accompanied by pictures of disused brickfields that had been converted into cabbage fields. School children from Stroud Green were pressed into service, pictured harvesting Brussels sprouts and wielding gardening tools, with the playground at Stationers’ School even being turned into cultivatable land.
Three months later, The Graphic published a trio of images in July 1918, showing King George and Queen Mary visiting small allotments in south London. In one, the monarch inspects an enormous cabbage, whilst in another, Queen Mary can be seen beaming as she is proudly shown a piglet, held aloft by a delighted producer.
In August 1918, a page was devoted to showing how the area in front of the Victoria Memorial at Buckingham Palace had been converted into a potato patch. Also pictured were flower beds at Finsbury Park in north London, which were planted with beetroots, with plots divided up for parsnips.
Wartime necessity meant that the underutilised internal resources of the capital had literally to be dug into, and whilst spare food may have been scarce, initiative and creativity was not.
The very earth of the city was nurtured to bring forth not just much needed sustenance, but arguably used to bring about community and fellowship amongst growers from many different walks of life. From school children to office workers to policemen, the growing of food for Londoners by Londoners was seen as newsworthy by The Graphic and something to celebrate. The Graphic doesn’t dwell on the therapeutic aspect of being part of the process of cultivating your own food, but there is a taste of the joy of home grown in their pictorial celebrations of the growing of food in the most unlikely of urban settings.
To see these & more images on WW1 vegetable gardening follow this link https://www.maryevans.com/lb.php?ref=35922