THE war years
Food shortages were not seen as a concern for the British government upon the outbreak of the First World War, but this soon changed once German U-boats began sinking merchant ships that were transporting supplies into the country. In late 1915 Surrey County Council formed the County War Agricultural Committee to encourage people locally to grow their own food - Surbiton Council declined a request to consider forming a similar committee.
As the war dragged on, the situation continued to worsen as poor weather damaged harvests, and by 1917 Britain found herself with a critical food shortage. The first ever national movement to get the country growing its own food was launched and, in an act of solidarity, King George V turned the flower beds outside Buckingham Palace over to cultivation.
The number of plots in Britain grew from 450,000 to 1.5 million across the duration of the war, although in Surbiton the authorities refused to break up the local recreation grounds in populated areas, opting instead to try and secure private land for allotments. While demand decreased in peacetime it did not disappear completely - a national scheme was launched to give plots to returning soldiers and amid the 1920s post-war depression many continued to rely on allotments as a stable source of food.
As Europe was once again plunged into warfare in 1939, the British government immediately passed the Cultivation of Lands (Allotments) Order, allowing local councils to take over unoccupied land and open up temporary allotments wherever possible. Contrary to the Great War, Surbiton jumped immediately into action and a September 1939 town council meeting agreed that the Borough Surveyor would research potential new allotment sites.
500 posters advertising the need for allotment sites went up in the Kingston borough in 1940, while a loudspeaker van circulated the area broadcasting the appeal. Eventually the council selected 48 sites, covering over 105 acres of land; together with the pre-war permanent allotments and private allotments established for the war effort, over 70 separate sites in the area were cultivated in the war period.
The national government’s campaign to encourage people to cultivate their own crops was initially given the uninspiring title of ‘Grow More Food’ - this changed upon the outbreak of fighting, as a September 1939 Evening Standard article written by a young Michael Foot instructed readers to:
“Tell your neighbour and remember yourself that the order is to dig. The spade may prove as mighty as the sword. DIG.”
In a follow up article by the same author the phrase ‘dig for victory’ was first used and ultimately became the official name of the campaign.
Dig for Victory aimed to provide support for growers through official pamphlets, local talks and demonstration plots. The Ministry of Agriculture began issuing certificates for growers who demonstrated skills in cultivation, with recipients also given practical prizes such as gardening supplies and war savings certificates - a great help to those suffering from periodic seed and fertiliser shortages.
Surbiton set up a number of its own demonstration plots, but the town’s most famous contribution to the campaign was a local resident. A number of instructional radio programmes were broadcast by the BBC, with the most popular hosted by Surbiton local Cecil Henry Middleton, or ‘Mr Middleton’ as he was known on air, famed for his gentle manner, sound advice and encouraging words. Meanwhile stores in the area, such as Bentalls in Kingston, used the local press to advertise a wide range of gardening equipment and products they had in stock, while social events were organised by the Surrey Allotments Council so that allotment holders could ‘exchange useful experiences of mutual benefit’.
Following the war’s conclusion a 1945 survey by Surbiton Municipal Council found that 598 out of 654 people asked wanted a permanent allotment after the war, and by 1949 the Surrey Allotment Bulletin was claiming that 1,700 people across the county were awaiting an allotment, a trend reflected across the nation. But Britain’s enormous post-war housing crisis led to desperate claims on land for the purposes of new homes, and as such it was difficult to justify the continuation of temporary allotments. In 1945 it is thought there were almost 2 million plots on Britain - but by the 1970s this had fallen back to its pre-First World War levels of around 500,000. Locally, the Tolworth and District Allotment Holders Society increasingly played a key role in the community in the postwar years, opening a hut to sell supplies on the Tolworth Main site and hosting an annual produce year that became a major event in the Tolworth social calendar.