Fighting with fork and hoe in St Albans in the First World War

Photo:First World War ration books included messages urging holders to 'grow more food'

First World War ration books included messages urging holders to 'grow more food'

Copyright: St Albans Museums

How local people, armed with gardening implements, did their bit to win the war

By Elizabeth Rolfe

Despite protests in 1914 that ‘the country will become one vast cabbage patch’ the then minister, and later prime minister, Lloyd George’s enthusiasm for allotments gave everyone at home the opportunity to help with the crucial task of feeding the nation. Areas of St Albans did indeed become a patchwork of allotments, as revealed in our new book about the city: St Albans: Life on the Home Front, 1914-1918.

St Albans had long had allotments, some 65 acres provided for ‘respectable working men’ by the Verulam Estate in most areas of the city. Now more were needed.  ‘War plots’, administered both privately and municipally, popped up across the district. 

St Albans City Council lobbied for land, advertised for tenants and initiated a competition to reward successful growers. A renewed German blockade escalated need. In January 1917 the council recorded 154 new plots which by May had reached ‘about 1,000’, besides areas in private hands. Plots were available on sites all around the Rats’ Castle on Hatfield Road and in Woodstock and York roads, Victoria Playing Fields and Kingsbury Farm; even on St Peter’s Street.  The Midland railway company made over acres of embankment land.  Besides ordinary citizens, Girl Guides, school children and Belgian refugees rallied to the cause. By the close of 1917 the Revd Barff at St Paul’s Church could claim that St Albans might not ‘use the bayonet’ but it could ‘use the spade to dig mother earth’.

Mother earth was not always compliant, however; having a plot did not guarantee success. At Cunningham Hill new ground was so flinty that an area had to be designated for a stone mound. Good farmland was difficult to fence for lack of men and materials and invasions of stock and the general public became a nuisance for allotment holders.

Disease and deficiencies dogged the grower despite the council’s potato spraying programme and the availability of manure from the equine patients being treated at the Army Veterinary Hospital on Holywell Hill. Seed merchant Samuel Ryder procured seed for the new army of cultivators by risking the transatlantic crossing to buy stock on the West coast of America.

Through the war his company’s priorities changed. Sweet Peas made way for cabbages. Innovative ideas for the dining table followed.  Crops such as sweet corn, previously for chicken or cattle, were now marketed at people. Ideas for serving them were crucial; white sauce made swede palatable; their protein content made beans the new ‘super foods’! There was even advice on how to deal with the flatulence they caused.

The nutrition and reliability of beans was important but crop storage and plant size also affected people’s choices. Root crops were invaluable and both Clarence Park and the Friend’s Memorial Garden in Victoria Street had beetroot and carrots in the borders. Tomatoes were a ‘luxury crop’, sprouts took up more room than they justified, fruit was rarely viable on a ‘war plot’. The humble bramble was prized and, according to the Clarence Park superintendent David Simmons, could be trained over a garden shed. 

Simmons’ advice reached everyone, on allotments and in gardens. He gave public lectures, wrote a regular column for the Herts Advertiser and cultivated a demonstration plot in Clarence Park. He was the go-to man for all horticultural advice and wore out his bicycle in the town’s service.  

By the time he was called to serve king and country on the battlefield, in July 1918, Simmons’ efforts had resulted in over 3,000 tons of wartime fruit and vegetables being produced in St Albans.

Eventually the enthusiasm of ‘allotmentitis’ waned. The army was hoovering up the last of the able-bodied men, leaving heavy digging to exhausted widows and wives. Refugees were returning home. Some plots became neglected. Nonetheless post-war shortages were relentless and allotmenteers doggedly shouldered hoe and fork for years to come.

 


This article was originally published in October 2016 in the Herts Advertiser newspaper in a series of articles contributed by members of the SAHAAS Home Front research group. We are grateful to the newspaper's editor for his permission to republish it here.

This page was added by Jonathan Mein on 18/11/2016.

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