My recent Bugle article about youngsters helping on the 1940s Home Front has triggered a response from reader Peter Hubbard.
Now living near Crewe, Mr Hubbard recalls some pretty hard graft during his own teenage years in wartime Wolverhampton.
He says: “Referring to your article about helping the war effort and the mention of parks and playing fields in the Dig for Victory campaign – I clearly remember helping my parents to clear a plot of ground in West Park, Wolverhampton.
“The area was close to a section of the pool and street access was from Devon Road gate. At that time the park’s railings were still in situ, later to be removed for the War Effort.”
At that time, every spare scrap of ground was being commandeered for growing food, and metal salvaged for weapons production.
Everyone was expected to do their bit and the Hubbard family certainly put their backs into it.
As Mr Hubbard recalls: “Bringing a plot of turf land into arable production was very hard, back-breaking work.
“However, my father, who was from country stock, wasn’t satisfied with the soil, so we swapped that plot for one the other side of the park, near Connaught Road gate.”
As time went by, the family were cultivating the equivalent of four plots, mainly for spuds.
“I say the equivalent because some men would only cultivate half or a quarter of their plot, so we took over the remaining portions,” he continued.
“Everything went well but, one year, we had so many cabbages, pointed hearts, savoys, caulis, sprouts, there was a glut. I should think every single plant took.
“Now, although the women in Bright Street, where I lived, were grateful for these extras, it seemed that there would be a lot of plants left to waste.
“However, my father walked over to the nearby Women’s Hospital in Connaught Road and spoke to Matron – apparently they knew each other from younger times.
“Arrangements were made for me to take a sample of cabbages etc to the hospital, in a heavy, wooden wheelbarrow, for Cook to inspect.
“Everything turned out acceptable and we supplied them with greens until they ran out. I think the last visit was close to Christmas, when my father and I practically stripped all the sprouts from their stalks for the women’s Christmas dinner.
“As ever, it was frosty – have you ever picked sprouts on a frosty day? It’s good for the flavour of the sprouts, but not so good for the hands!”
Happily for young Peter, there was a well-earned pay-out. On the plus side, the Cook used to give me Spam sandwiches which went down nicely.
Incidentally, the potato crop was good and was gradually harvested. Each sack-full was barrowed from park to home, approximately three quarters of a mile.
“What with the weight of the barrow and the spuds, my arms felt as long as an orang-utan’s.”
But, it didn’t end there, as Peter recalls.
“On reaching home, the spuds had to be sorted for sound ones, busted or forked ones, and small ones. These were plonked into a large, cast-iron pot (on the boil), after washing, and eaten that evening.”
Peter also reminds us that “all butter was imported in half hundredweight casks that were lined with greaseproof paper. My mother used to scrounge this from the shop next door and place it in a tin, inside a warm oven. The resulting melted butter was either used as a dip for the small potatoes or used to make a cake.”
As for the size of the family’s plot in West Park, Mr Hubbard reveals that it was “One chain (22 yards) long and a Rod, Pole and Perch (5 and a half yards) wide.”
I can remember being baffled by those old-fashioned measurements when I was at school. A real blast from the past there!
Peter concludes: “I’d be about in my early teens, back then, and it was hard graft in those years. I grew up quickly.”
I’m sure many readers who recall those times would agree with him. Many thanks to Peter Hubbard for sharing his memories of Digging for Victory. And, if anyone else has similar stories we always love to receive them.
To help housewives make the most of meagre wartime rations, from 1940, the Ministry of Food published leaflets giving hints, tips and recipes. Like Mrs Hubbard getting a bit of extra butter from heating the greaseproof butter paper, war-time housewives became expert at making something from nothing.
The Government campaign encouraged people to grow and eat more vegetables, creating recipes like the famous Woolton Pie, named after the wartime Minister for Food, Lord Woolton.
The pie filling was made entirely of mixed vegetables, and was actually created by the chef of the Savoy Hotel. The main ingredients were potato, carrot and swede, with the addition of onion and cauliflower when available. Inevitably, people made their own versions depending on taste and what was at hand.
According to information I discovered on the World Carrot Museum’s website – yes, there is one, and it’s a mine of fascinating information – carrots were especially promoted during wartime. Not only were they versatile, they tasted good, and had very important health benefits. During the blackout, you needed good eyesight, and carrots were well known for helping you see in the dark.
Hence the slogan: “Carrots keep you healthy and help you see in the blackout.” RAF pilots, in particular, were encouraged to eat plenty of carrots.
Carrots could also be used as sweeteners, in the absence of sugar, and were used extensively in cakes and puddings. So important were these vegetables during the war, the Ministry of Food targeted children, knowing how they often needed some gentle persuasion to eat up their veg.
So, in 1941, cartoon characters, Doctor Carrot and Potato Pete arrived, to do their bit on the Kitchen Front. The humble spud was also a lifesaver, and these vitamin C packed beauties were promoted as ‘Home guards of health’.
The Ministry of Food also gave regular Kitchen Front broadcasts. Here’s a recipe for Woolton Pie from a 1941 broadcast, transcribed by the World Carrot Museum and reproduced on its website.
1lb King Edward potatoes; 2lb carrots; 8oz mushrooms; 2 spring onions; 1 leek; 2oz margarine/chicken fat; salt/pepper; nutmeg & chopped parsley.
Peel potatoes and carrots and cut into slices the size of a large penny. Wash them well and dry on a dish cloth. Fry them separately in a small amount of chicken fat. Do the same with the mushrooms, adding the sliced onions and leeks. Mix them all together and season with salt and pepper, nutmeg and coarsely chopped parsley.
Fill the pie dish with the mixture, placing the bouquet garni in the middle. Moisten with a little giblet stock or water. Let it cool before covering with pastry made with half beef suet or chicken fat and half margarine. Cook for an hour and a half in a moderate oven.
As you can see, the original vegetarian pie has been beefed up with suet and chicken fat, not something that all housewives could easily obtain during wartime.
No doubt, Mrs Hubbard would have put her melted butter to good use here. So, for purists, here’s the Official Woolton Pie Recipe as appeared in The Times April 26, 1941.
“Take 1lb each of diced potatoes, cauliflower, swedes (rutabaga) and carrots; three or four spring onions; one teaspoonful of vegetable extract and one teaspoonful of oatmeal.
Cook all together for ten minutes with just enough water to cover.
Stir occasionally to prevent mixture from sticking. Allow to cool; put into a pie dish, sprinkle with chopped parsley and cover with a crust of potatoes or wholemeal pastry. Bake in a moderate oven until the pastry is nicely brown and serve hot with brown gravy.”