I recently moved to a new office with the day job, just a minute’s walk from the Imperial War Museum in Lambeth. It’s a big domed building with an enormous gun out the front, and fortunately it’s not dedicated to our wars of imperial conquest, as the name might suggest. At the moment it’s hosting a rather good exhibition, The Ministry of Food, and I’ve popped in over two lunch breaks this week.
The Ministry of Food is all about how Britain fed itself during the Second World War, faced with sudden shortages and the urgent need to be more self-sufficient. It’s a period in our history that gave us the ‘dig for victory’ campaign, land girls, and ration books. It was also a time for pioneering ideas like recycling, which is now common, and reducing imports, which soon will be.
In 1939, Britain was heavily dependent on food imports, growing just one third of its food. When the Second World War started, that became a real weakness, and one the enemy deliberately exploited. German u-boats patrolled British waters, targeting the ships bringing in food, rubber, metals, and raw materials. Running food supplies into the country became a front line occupation, one that took the lives of over 30,000 merchant navy seamen.
The Battle of Britain is generally remembered as an air conflict, regaining control of the skies and preventing the axis forces from getting a strategic advantage. As the exhibition here describes, it was just as much a ‘Battle of the Land’. Holding out against invasion would mean becoming as self-sufficient in food as possible, and it was the Ministry of Food that led the charge. Pastureland was ploughed, 10,000 square miles of it, and planted for food crops. This was more efficient – an acre given to sheep or cows would feed one or two people. Given to wheat, that same land could feed 20 people, and 40 if it were planted with potatoes. Workforces on the farms swelled, with 80,000 women taking jobs on the farms, and thousands more prisoners of war put to work in the fields. Within just six years, Britain had doubled the number of people it could feed.
The Ministry of Food exhibition tells this story, in a series of themed rooms. There is a greenhouse, a grocer, a kitchen, a canteen, and the walls are lined with posters and flyers from the time. It was essentially a huge public education initiative, reskilling the population in nutrition, growing, composting, planning crops and storing them at harvest to last the winter. There were rabbit clubs and beekeeping clubs, and almost a million and a half allotments. Six million families were growing their own food, 1 million families keeping chickens. It required new skills, but it also needed a change in culture. Growing your own food in your back garden was considered “a vulgar thing to do” at the start of the war.
There is much to enjoy about the exhibition. I love the design ethic of the era, the inspirational graphics and slogans. There are little curiosities, like the tin of ‘snoek’ – a South African fish that the British public did not develop a taste for, or a note about eating hedgehogs. The obligatory gift shop has replica cookbooks and ration cards – in fact, the nostalgic abundance of the gift shop is a rather ironic contrast to the shortages the exhibition explores.
Wandering through the exhibition, I was grateful that I didn’t have to live through it, that I was born in such easy times. But I was also aware of how relevant it all is, how necessary these kinds of measures could become again. Although it may lack the urgency of war, we will need a similar drive to greater sufficiency. Asparagus from Peru and lamb from New Zealand will no longer be possible, and farming will become a valued career choice once again. The ‘use spades not ships’ poster here is just as pertinent today as it was in 1939 – not because the ships are being torpedoes, but because of the CO2 emissions of shipping, and the rising cost of oil.
The Ministry of Food exhibition runs until January at the Imperial War Museum, London, and costs £4.95 for adults.