Dig For Victory: RHS Reveals Stunning Wartime Gardening Pictures

Published on October 7th 2019
A group of people in a garden
An eye-opening exhibition about the astonishing wartime campaign Dig For Victory is to tour four Royal Horticultural Society (RHS) gardens this month.
Displaying artefacts and never before seen photographs, the exhibit is a window into the world of a gardening movement that gripped the nation during World War II.
Pre-1939, the UK was heavily reliant on imports. It was an Achilles heel put under duress repeatedly during the terrifying conflict. So, as the clouds of World War II gathered over Europe, Britons faced the very real prospect that they might run out of food.
A close up of a book
Supply lines were under threat on the continent. Enemy U-boats lurked beneath the waves for ships passing in the Atlantic Ocean and the North Sea. Many supply vessels making the journey did so slowly in convoy. The idea of dwindling food stores cast a shadow almost as terrifying as the Luftwaffe planes that would later fill the skies.
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Now a new showcase by the RHS gives gardeners and history buffs the chance to learn more about that time and the efforts by Dig For Victory gardeners to ease wartime food concerns.

Dig For Victory

An old photo of a person
The early propaganda win was dreamed up by the Ministry of Agriculture. Together with the RHS and other organisations, it urged people to dig deep and grow vegetables.
Dig For Victory became a media machine, involving radio, posters, pamphlets and planting kits. It yielded garden songs, pushed Cecil Henry Middleton into the realm of the celebrity gardener, and doubled allotment numbers to 1.4 million by 1945.
The campaign is credited with promoting unity at a time when morale was low. Importantly, it also boosted nutritional awareness.
A man and a woman looking at a bird
During the campaign, information on food and growing techniques reached people previously uneducated in the matter. Guidebooks such as the 'RHS Vegetable Garden Displayed' and 'Simple Vegetable Cooking' steered citizens towards vegetables at a time when bombings were hitting frozen meat reserves.
Ultimately, Dig For Victory encouraged people, who would not be required to pick up a weapon, to instead wield a shovel. As soldiers dug trenches in Europe, men and women at home took to the land by growing veg, planting seeds and supplementing their ration-book diets. The initiative saw yards, sports fields and even Kensington Gardens become makeshift plots for the likes of carrots, cabbages, green beans and potatoes.

RHS sowing the seeds of history

A person standing in front of a building
Antonia Harland-Lang is an exhibitions coordinator with the RHS. She said Dig For Victory is an integral part of RHS and British history.
Many historical artefacts, like original RHS pamphlets and travelling garden boxes, make up the exhibition in London. A particularly intriguing part of the exhibit is the Dig For Victory photos - some previously unseen - submitted by members of the public.
The new exhibition seems like a chance to educate a new generation while honouring the RHS's contributions to an iconic chapter in British gardening.
An old photo of a house
"The public element, where we issued a call for people to share their wartime garden and family photographs from the Dig For Victory campaign, was such an important part of the exhibition," Antonia said.
"Even though we do have some amazing material from that time, we don't have as much in the way of social history - photographs of what individual people were doing across the country. So that's been a really exciting and unexpectedly successful part of the exhibit."
A man standing on top of a grass covered field
The Dig For Victory exhibit certainly provides an incredible snapshot of life at the time. Stand out images include Isabel Beech digging in front of the Albert Memorial, Geoffrey Stearn and his father tending to an allotment in Ilford, as well as Hilda and Lillian Hosier busy in their Birmingham garden.
Eighty years on, the RHS is playing its part in keeping the memory of Dig For Victory alive. The WWII campaign and slogan - coined by future Labour leader Michael Foot - may now motivate a new cohort of impassioned gardeners.
A vintage photo of a man and a woman posing for a picture
"We've been delighted with the response," Antonia said. "Dig For Victory is something that really seems to inspire people. Gardening and growing vegetables remains such a hot topic. It's something people are still passionate about."
Steeped in horticultural history, the RHS garden display does also include insights into future community gardening projects. For those interested, the exhibition is currently housed at the RHS Lindley Library, London. But from October 14 - 17 November, keen gardeners will have a chance to catch parts of the display for free at four RHS gardens: Hyde Hall, Wisley, Rosemoor and Harlow.
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