The Lost Gardens of Orkney, 3: Allotments

Allotments are rented strips of land mainly for growing vegetables and fruit. They are excellent for those who have no gardens or need more space. During both World Wars the growing of fresh vegetables was an important part of the war effort.

The Dig for Victory Campaign in World War 2 was an effective way to keep people fed when everything else was rationed. Before the outbreak of hostilities in 1939 the UK had imported 55 million tons of food.

By the end of 1940 it was recorded that there were 3,500,000 gardens and 900,000 allotments but that an additional 500,000 allotments would be needed. Every community was expected to take part in the drive to feed the people.

Orkney was no exception. At the end of September 1939, Kirkwall Town Council announced that they had a considerable portion of ground available for allotments at Manse Park, New Scapa Road and Carter’s Park. By the 1st of November, however, they had to report that only a few applications had been made.

In Stromness, Contractor, William Harvey, offered land at Ness Road for allotments. Grateful for the offer the Stromness Town Council advertised the land but no one applied. The land was used instead for temporary huts for war related construction work.

Throughout the war years the Kirkwall Town Council repeatedly advertised allotment space. The islands were even visited in May 1944 by the Scots War Gardens Van. This was a roadshow organised by the combined efforts of the Scottish Gardens and Allotment Committee of the Department of Agriculture for Scotland, the Ministry of Food and the Scottish Women’s Rural Institute.

Meeting in the Hall of Kirkwall Grammar School members of Orkney’s SWRI watched a film about fruit bottling and a demonstration on cooking vegetables. There was also a talk about the practical aspects of gardening stressing the importance of growing vegetables.

The Government provided people with a lot of advice about what to grow, when and how – to encourage everyone who could to grow food for their families and distribute excess to those who couldn’t. Slogans like ‘Vegetables for Victory’ and a series of leaflets gave advice and information.

The Scots War Gardens Leaflet no. 6 provided a comprehensive planning guide.

Cropping Plan for 300 Square Yards( 10 x 30) Sufficient vegetables for a family of 4 for 1 year.

  • 1 stone early potatoes, 90 sets, 3 drills, 2ft between the rows
  • 2 stone 2nd early potatoes, 180 sets, 6 drills, 2ft between the rows
  • 1 stone maincrop potatoes, 90 sets, 3 drills, 2ft 3in between the rows
  • 1 pint early peas, 2 rows, 2ft apart
  • 1 pint late peas, or broad beans, 2 rows, 3ft apart
  • 60 early and 2nd early cabbages, 3 rows, 2ft apart
  • 60 late cabbages and savoys, 3 rows, 2 ft apart
  • 60 early and late cauliflowers, 3 rows, 2ft apart
  • 50 brussel sprouts, 3 rows, 2ft 3in apart
  • 1/2oz early turnips, 3 rows, 1ft 2in apart
  • 1/2oz late turnips and swedes, 3 rows, 2ft apart
  • 100 onion plants, 3 rows, 1ft 2in apart
  • 100 leek plants, 3 rows, 1ft 2in apart
  • 1/2oz early and late carrots, 4 rows, 1ft 2in apart
  • 1/2oz parsnips, 3 rows, 1ft 2in apart
  • 1oz beet, 3 rows, 1ft 3in apart
  • 1/2os parsley, 1 row, 1ft to edge of plot

Between the rows of peas, beans, cabbage – plant spinach, lettuce, radish etc.

Schools were also expected to grow food. In March 1942 the Scottish Gardens and Allotments Committee received garden seeds for distribution from the USA. 50 cases were sent to Scottish schools. Each case contained 160 cartons of mixed seeds weighing 1 1/4 lbs. One case was sent to Orkney and Shetland for sharing between the two islands.

Gardeners were also given special reduced rates for purchasing soil improvers and advice sent out on how to increase the fertility of plots.

There was a loosening up gradually of licensing laws. A retail sales licence had been required from the local Food Control Committee to sell any excess food produced. This was changed during the summer of 1940 so long as the sale was not for profit or to maintain a person’s livelihood. The general licence covered fresh fruit, vegetables, honey, eggs, poultry and rabbits.

As well as concern about waste if people produced too much, there was also strict control over the prevention of crop disease, in particular restrictions were issued about which variety of potatoes could be planted.

The Dig for Victory campaign brought much land which was once waste into cultivation. Public parks were also brought into use and gardens moved over from flower growing to vegetable production.

After the war, there were still food shortages and rationing was to continue for some products until 1954. The focus on fresh vegetables and fruit, as well as the activity of maintaining allotments, had improved the health of people up and down the UK.

The post war housing project saw many areas which once were allotments, now built over, but in many new schemes gardens were still attached to the homes. Public parks, however, returned to their lawns and bedding. The Ministry of Agriculture issued a plea to the London Parks Committee for the retention of allotments. The Ministry recommended that the temporary tenure of allotments in parks and open spaces be gradually ended. 1,500 allotments in London were built over.

Kirkwall Town Council was still striving in 1948 to encourage people to take up allotments and proposed to set off part of Buttquoy Park for this purpose.

Today Kirkwall has 50 allotments: 38 at Kelliequoy, Victoria Street, and 12 at Papdale. There are 8 allotments in Stromness at Alfred Terrace. There is a waiting list and due to the lack of allotments the Stromness Community Garden was set up. To get started they were provided with land by Orkney Housing Association Ltd (OHAL) and some equipment. A ten year lease for land at Brownstown Road was signed in July 2013.

Today we are again facing a Food Security issue which in turn is affecting the health of many who either cannot access or afford to buy fresh fruit and vegetables for their families. It seems what could be done by a government in 1939 and by local councils, is needed again.

Fiona Grahame

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5 replies »

  1. When my parents retired they went to live in a small flat with no garden, so my Dad applied for and was allocated an allotment. He was from farming family and even when living in Bradford had always had a garden in which he grew vegetables. Though the neighbours had flower gardens, he had vegetables!

    When he first retired, he went a bit ‘down’ – sat looking out the window a lot. When he started working his allotment, he picked up again – back to himself. The being outdoors and the exercise did him good, and he also liked it that he was providing food when they were living on their pensions.

    They then moved back to Ireland where they lived with my sister in a small house with a big garden – and he set about teaching his grandson how to work it.

    The allotment filled a gap and worked well all round.

  2. Fully agree with this. During the war it was shown what can be possible with growing as much food as we could. This is possible again with the right support and land. As well as the veg being healthy and full of fresh goodness. There are other benefits to gardening.

    Helping to keep fit.
    A social activity to help with loneliness and mental wellbeing.
    Can be a new hobby or interest.
    A way to help others through gifting any excess produce.
    Encouragement to learn new ways of cooking and storing cooked veg and fruit.
    A strong sense of achievement at the end of a productive season.

    It’s win win all around.

  3. That reminds me – at one time my friend was living in a flat in a city – got an allotment and started to grow her own food. She also made her own shed from bits & pieces scavenged from skips.

    She grew the usual varieties of veg, but also took it into her head to research, source and grow old varieties which have gone out of fashion and are no longer commonly grown – and also how to cook them. I wish I could remember what they were – she’s since passed from this life so I can’t ask her. It was an interesting experiment.

  4. My conclusion is

    The Dig for Victory Campaign during World War II was a crucial initiative to ensure food security amidst rationing. It led to a surge in gardens and allotments across the UK, involving every community in the effort to feed the population.

    Orkney, like the rest of the UK, actively participated in this campaign, offering land for allotments. Despite initial challenges in garnering interest, the campaign’s impact was significant.

    The government provided extensive guidance on what and how to grow, encouraging self-sufficiency. Slogans like ‘Vegetables for Victory’ echoed this sentiment.

    Schools also played a role in growing food, receiving seeds for distribution. Gardeners were supported with reduced rates for soil improvers.

    The campaign brought previously unused land into cultivation, including public parks. It not only addressed wartime needs but also improved the overall health of the population.

    After the war, the focus shifted, leading to changes in land usage. While some areas saw a return to pre-war activities, the importance of allotments remained.

    Today, the need for food security and access to fresh produce continues to be a concern. The legacy of the Dig for Victory Campaign serves as a reminder of what can be achieved through collective effort and government support in times of crisis.
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