Food shortages of 1917

The First World War began on 4th August 1914. It was not until December 1916 that Local Authorities were given powers to take over unoccupied land for allotments; up to this point the government had not realised the effect that war would have on food supplies.

The UK was heavily reliant on imports – in 1914 we were importing 70% of our cereals, 70% of our cheese and 100% of our sugar. When the German U-boat blockade began in February 1917, food supplies were terribly under threat. U-boats sank 500,000 tons of merchant shipping in the Atlantic during February and March and 860,000 tons in April alone. The UK only had six weeks until wheat supplies ran out and just four days’ worth of sugar left!

Rationing and gardening

From February 1917, voluntary rationing was introduced. Families were asked to limit themselves to 4 pounds of bread, 2.5 pounds of meat and 12 ounces of sugar per person each week. This did not work! So from January 1918 sugar was rationed, closely followed by meat, butter, cheese and margarine. Home food production had to be increased and allotments were opened so that people could grow their own fruit and vegetables.

King George V opened up vegetable beds at Buckingham Palace and Windsor Castle to set an example. The Archbishop of Canterbury even authorised plotholders to work on Sundays. Before the war, this could have led to someone being evicted from their plot!

Allotments in Glasgow

Across Scotland, 42,000 allotments were opened on 2,400 acres of land supplied for the war effort. In Glasgow, 33 council allotment sites were established with 4,054 plots and by 1920 there were 5,280 plots.

Despite continued demand for allotments after the war, including from returning veterans, sites quickly disappeared as land was reclaimed for new developments like housing and football fields. In 1918 there were 77 plots on Glasgow Green, but they were all gone by 1921 and by 1928 only 1,111 plots remained across the city.