Did even the Government in 1914 believe ‘it would be over by Christmas’? For two years it lamentably failed to address our greatest strategic vulnerability – the dependence on imported food for 60% of the nation’s diet. In 1914 we produced 19% of our wheat (today 83%). The Germans had imposed duties of 33% on cereals and livestock, whilst we remained committed to free trade. Germany, therefore, became 90% self-sufficient.

Travelling by train you may inadvertently spot some of the archaeology of the First World War: the railway allotments. My grandfather, retired policeman and formidable gardener, had a narrow strip of railway allotment at the foot of a towering embankment on the GWR line from Birmingham to Stratford upon Avon. While standing on the Shrewsbury-bound platform at Craven Arms station, the 08.56 ‘Boat Train’ to Holyhead pulls in and my thoughts turn to Feeding the Nation in the First World War. From the platform I can see three apple trees, all that remain today from a period when any waste land may have been converted into railway allotments.

For the first two years of the War the authorities were remarkably ineffective. Naïve reliance had been placed on ‘the market.’ When wheat prices rose by two thirds above pre-war levels, the country’s leaders expected the farmers to respond. They responded to a limited extent; by sowing an additional 379,000 acres of wheat during the autumn of 1914.

What they did not do was plough up the pastures; most of the increase in wheat was at the expense of barley. It was the same the following year. Conditions in autumn 1915 restricted sowings of wheat, and land went back to barley the following spring. There was little change again in 1916. Perhaps the farmers also believed in Santa Claus. The War would not last forever, better to stick to the balance of produce they knew.

Until the summer of 1916, the weather was kind. Any increase in the home supply of flour and wheat was achieved by Mother Nature and in part by suspending the rotation of the crops – necessarily a short-term measure. A poor harvest in 1916 and increased sinkings by U-boats brought on the crisis – stocks of wheat were down to six weeks from eighteen at the outbreak of the War.

Germany’s effective U-boat campaign “intensified over the course of the war and almost succeeded in bringing Britain to its knees in 1917.” (Amanda Mason – curator and historian at the Imperial War Museum). This is not, however, the story of how the authorities’ eventual resort to the Ploughing Up Campaign reversed the decades of the Agricultural Recession and transformed two and a half million acres pastureland into arable. That was the preserve of the farmers and the Department of Agriculture. The Craven Arms’ apple trees are part of the amateur response to the crisis; by 1917 one in four merchant ships in the Atlantic were being sunk.


It took the bad harvest in 1916, the shipping losses and Lloyd George’s new coalition, which had swept aside Asquith’s Liberal government, to bring the nation out with their spades.

When the War began there were about 580,000 allotments; in early 1917 a wave of “allotmentitis” swept the country and membership of the VLCS (Vacant Land Cultivation Society) grew quickly to 8,000. To help new gardeners, model plots were set up in Kensington Gardens. By the end of the War the number had risen to 1.5 million, of which holdings under the Defence of the Realm Act 1914 amounted to 276,355. Local authorities provided 47.5% and owned 24,930 acres. Private landowners provided 52.5%, including railway allotments.

Plots were needed to grow basic crops such as potatoes. Under DORA the Ministry of Agriculture and Fishing gave local authorities powers to take over unused plots of land for allotments. In places local byelaws were suspended and people were allowed to keep pigs and chickens on their plots. The Yorkshire Gazette saw the allotment as a feat of arms: ‘We do not hesitate to say that the man who, knowing how to grow potatoes does not at once ask for land and get to work, will be as blameworthy as would the corporal who, seeing a chance to capture an army of the enemy, put off the effort until it was too late.’

Plan for Castlefields Allotments, 1917. Shropshire Archives ref. DA5/790/317

Plan for Castlefields Allotments, 1917. Shropshire Archives ref. DA5/790/317

The above plan shows a local response to the growing need to produce more food. It was drawn up by the Surveyor for Shrewsbury Borough  in January 1917 and makes provision of over 90 plots in the Castlefields are of Shrewsbury.

The new National Government passed the Cultivation of Lands Order, 1917 (No. 2), which provided for the cultivation of vacant plots by means of spare-time labour. Under the Cultivation of Lands Order, 1917 (No. 3), the County War Agricultural Executive Committees had power to enter on land and arrange with parish councils, or other bodies, for its cultivation in small plots or otherwise.

The Great Western – allotments were a great success

Responding to the national call for the cultivation of unused land, station gardens were turned over to the growing of food. At the end of 1916 the GWR made available for rent any suitable line-side land with the first two years being rent-free. Where line-side land was unsuitable, land owned by the company beyond the fences of the line was offered. Before the War 7,653 men had one of their allotments and when peace came there were 13,059. The company was proud to have played its part in tackling ‘one of the most threatening crises in the history of this land.’

The North Eastern Railway – Goats and potatoes

There were lectures and classes about horticulture, in which the railway companies played an active part. The North Eastern Railway, with its 5,000 miles of track, set a prime example. Its magazine in early 1917 laid it on the line. “It is imperative, therefore, both for his own, as well as the country’s sake, that every man who can should cultivate an allotment.”

The company would deliver carriage free to any station on their network, a hundredweight of seed potatoes. It had been providing allotments for many years. At the outbreak of war it had some 7,000 on company land. By February 1917 a further 1,150 had been added. Goats were particularly encouraged; ‘there are few animals so profitable and also few animals so little appreciated.’ A stationmaster started a regular column ‘Goat keeping by railway-men.’

Local people were able to use their produce to support charitable causes. There were other changes. Allotments had been an adult male preserve, now women and Boy Scouts were also digging for victory. In the country houses the flower beds were given over to vegetables.

THE BOY SCOUTS ASSOCIATION IN BRITAIN, 1914-1918 (Q 30597) Boy scouts cultivating vegetable allotments in the United Kingdom during the First World War. Copyright: © IWM. Original Source: http://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/205214697

THE BOY SCOUTS ASSOCIATION IN BRITAIN, 1914-1918 (Q 30597) Boy scouts cultivating vegetable allotments in the United Kingdom during the First World War. Copyright: © IWM.

‘War-time Gardening’

The Smallholder (offices in Covent Garden!) produced in 1915 a helpful 66 page guide How to Grow Your Own Food by Walter Brett. The illustration opposite the title page is captioned ‘This is how the small garden should look in war-time. Vegetables ought to adorn the beds instead of flowers.’ Such industrious gardeners would adorn their beds with broad beans, carrots, peas, early and main crop potatoes, spinach, turnips, tomatoes, lettuce and radishes, onions and shallots. As if that were not enough readers were enjoined “The country has appealed to all who cannot share in the fighting to see that our food supply is secured. This book tells you how to do it.” I am a fan of the Jerusalem Artichoke and was pleased to see that Walter Brett squeezed in a couple of rows.

The Win-The-War Cookery Book, price twopence, published by the Food Economy Campaign was less fun. You were exhorted to Complete Victory – YES IF YOU EAT LESS BREAD.

The aftermath

In 1918, the final year of the war, it is estimated that there were 1.5m plots, almost two-and-a-half times the pre-war figure. There was a little tidying up to do; the Land Settlement (Facilities) Act 1919 “to make further provision for the acquisition of land for the purposes of small holdings, reclamation, and drainage, to amend the enactments relating to small holdings and allotments, and otherwise to facilitate land settlement” included provision that land was made available to all rather than just the labouring poor. It was primarily a way of assisting the returning service men. The end of hostilities required that land requisitioned for use as wartime allotments be returned to its former use or intention; London County Council withdrew areas in parks and gardens at the end of the 1919 growing season.

John Howe, who compiled and wrote many articles for the North Eastern Railway Magazine found space to put the allotment saga to bed.”Even though the dawn of peace is upon us, it is still the duty of each allottee to produce as much foodstuff as possible. There will still be a scarcity of food for a few years throughout the world.”