War Time gardening

I have copies of The Royal Horticultural Society Journal; ‘The Garden’ going right back to the second one published in 1934. It was actually called ‘My Garden’ in those days. They make fascinating reading, especially those published in the war years and directly afterwards.  They have a combination of serious and informative articles by such writers as A. T. Johnson and Will Ingwerson and toe-curlingly whimsical ones by people such as Beverley Nichols. They are all liberally sprinkled with awful poems: ‘A garden is a lovesome thing, God wot’ sort of thing.

The adverts were for Chilprufe vests, (featuring a very martial-looking toddler) and for biscuits made in ‘clean modern factories’. There were plenty of adverts for tonics and bizarrely for rabbit care.  Smoking Players Cigarettes seemed to be patriotic for some reason.



Most of the adverts though, were for things you couldn’t have because of the war: Ford cars, batteries and films which were needed for the war effort. Adverts announced that Peak Frean’s biscuits were unavailable at the moment, but would be back after victory. Even Chappie Dog Food   was only available for a few privileged dogs, ‘the dogs would say: “sorry fellars, there’s not enough Chappie for all of us” and the advert urged everyone to save their dogs’ bones for salvage. This is taking recycling to a level unimagined by the greenest of us.


Here are a few more war-time adverts.


Contributors to these early editions include Captain W. E. Johns of  ‘Biggles’ fame. In 1944 he told how he was at a loss as how to recycle an embarrassing number of wine bottles. He feared that after five years they were a monument to his depravity. He solved the problem by burying them under his terrace.

Other contributors were F.C. Puddle, and the appropriately named F.A. Bush who, in 1934, without any sense of irony explained which were the best shrubs to grow. A good example of ‘nominative determinism’

There was a great deal of worrying about how gardens would be replanted and managed after the war. In 1944 the editor, Theo . A. Stephens, bemoaned the fact that the minimum wage that was £1 a week for gardeners before the war, may go as high as £3.5s. He suggested that all wages paid to gardeners should be deducted from employer’s gross   income before assessment for income tax.

The thought of having to start so many overgrown gardens from scratch must have been daunting but Theo Stephens took comfort from the fact that there would be many new chemical aids to gardening after the war such as DDT. (Brilliant for keeping pests off your veg.)

The big concern for gardeners though, must have been the vast loss of plants when flower gardens were dug up or abandoned.  The difficulties for nurserymen to keep things   going at times of austerity must have been immense. Some contributors to the Journal were sympathetic to their problems, others complained about the high cost of plants.  Captain Johns accused a nurseryman of ‘rank profiteering’ when he had to pay seven shillings for a cyclamen. But how were they to make a living when everyone was growing nothing but turnips?

For those of us who adore roses, it is sobering to think how very close to losing many of our favourite old fashioned ones we came when the fashion was for the biggest and brightest hybrid teas.  And indeed how many were in fact lost forever.

It is heartening to read Walter Easlea putting in a plea for the charm of single roses in 1944. He wrote of the delights of two of my favourites, R. ‘Dainty Bess’ and R. ‘Mrs. Oakley Fisher’.  In another article in July, 1944 titled, ‘Hold on to the Old Roses’,   he suggested readers should look after the old varieties because they may become unavailable. This was a very real risk at the time, and it is good to realise that people like Easlea and later Vita Sackville West were championing these beauties which we now value so highly.  Easlea listed 30 varieties which he believed to be particularly at risk. He urged his readers to take particular good care of them. Of these 16 are well known and loved today, but 14 of them are unknown to me and they are not listed in The RHS Dictionary of Roses.  These are R. Prince de Bulgare, R.Laurent Carle, R. Lieutenant Chaure, R. Lady Alice Stanley, R. Pharisaer, R. Sachsengruss, R. Viscountess Folkestone,  R.Grace Darling,  R.Tosca,  R.Antoine Mari, R.Gorgeous,  R. Mrs. Foley Hobbs,  R.Mrs. Wemyss Quin and R. Gustave Regis.

I would be interested to know whether anyone knows of any of these roses, some of which I presume were early Hybrid Teas, but all considered by Easlea to be garden-worthy.

In October 1944 W. Slinger replied to the article with one entitled “WHO Wants the Old Roses?’ He said that as a nursery man he found that these roses were simply not in demand. He had offered them because of their wonderful perfume but no one bought them. He admitted that there might be a case for stocking old roses but nurserymen simply could not afford to carry dead weight. It is sad to think how many lovely roses have been lost to us because of our grandparent’s and parent’s love of the horrible, scentless stiff hybrid teas such as R. Piccadilly and the awful R.Super Star. Many of these awful garish plants have no right to be called roses at all.  Thank goodness that most gardeners now appreciate the gorgeous, opulent shapes and perfumes of old roses.

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22 Responses to War Time gardening

  1. Annette says:

    How interesting! And odd to see how gardening and media have changed through the years. Biggles and Nichols make for great reading – I have all of Beverley’s books and never do I chuckle as much as when I’m in bed with one of them (books that is!) 😉

    • Chloris says:

      You are right, gardening articles were quite homespun and amateurish back then. I too have all Beverley’s gardening books and I re-read them. often. He was funny and could be lyrical but on occasion he could be a bit twee and sentimental. Especially when talking about his cats. I’m not a big fan of whimsy. But I love his waspishness when talking about the dreaded Mrs. M. and Undine wilkins.

  2. Pauline says:

    This is my childhood you are talking about! I remember Chilprufe vests and Liberty bodices and Players cigarettes were the ones that my father smoked all his life. My parents weren’t really into gardening so I have no recollections of the roses that were around then unfortunately, but Biggles was a favourite of my brother.

  3. Chloris says:

    I have to point out, Pauline, that although I have journals going back to 1934, I didn’t collect them personally. That would make me about 100 years old. They belonged to a friend’s Granny. Although I was born after the war, I do remember Chiplrufe. vests and green school knickers with pockets in them..And Biggles of course.

  4. Sarah says:

    What an interesting post – I’d never thought about the effects that the dig for victory campaign must have had on the variety of flowers available to gardeners. Thank you for sharing a part of your magazine collection!

    • Chloris says:

      Thank you for reading my post Sarah. I love these old gardening magazines. it’s like a peep into a different world. As somebody once said (I can’t remember who) ‘The past is a foreign country, they do things differently there’.

  5. elaine says:

    How times change eh! Especially concerning the old rose varieties, I don’t know anyone who likes hybrid T’s any more. It seems gardening has evolved – thank goodness – although I do have quite a few very old gardening books that do give sound advice.

  6. Chloris says:

    You are right old gardening books do give sound advice. Although I am baffled by the advice in one old book of mine. It recommends something called ‘bastard trenching’. I’ve never been quite sure what it was but in my early gardening days I used to worry that I wasn’t doing it. Whatever it was.

  7. Your comment about gardeners’ struggles to keep things going during times of austerity really puts it in perspective. These ads and your description help to paint a picture of how truly difficult it must have been.

  8. Chloris says:

    Thank you for reading my post and thank you for the comment. It is great to get comments, otherwise you feel you are talking to yourself.
    You are right, it must have been so hard to be a gardener in wartime.

  9. Anna says:

    Oh those old journals fascinating reading material Chloris. I wonder what happened to the roses that you mention – would be most sad if they have disappeared without a trace.

  10. Chloris says:

    I think those roses must have disappeared. It is a good thing that there were at least a few gardeners who kept on growing the old roses even though it was not profitable.

  11. debsgarden says:

    What an interesting post! I love the old roses, and it is sad to think some were casualties of the war, perhaps a fitting symbol of the greater losses suffered. Your old journals must be a treasure trove of information and a fascinating look at history!

  12. Chloris says:

    Thank you for leaving a comment, Deb. Yes, of course the loss of a few roses was not really significant in the context of the horrors of war. My old journals are wonderful, full of useful information but at the same time a glimpse into another time. We are so lucky as gardeners being alive now with the amazing variety of plants available to us..

  13. This was so interesting….what a fun read! 🙂

  14. Chloris says:

    Thank you Deb, and thank you for reading my blog.

  15. Those ads are fantastic! A lesson in how our preferences change … nothing like cookies from ‘clean modern factories’! Far better, surely, than anything baked in Mom’s messy old kitchen.

  16. Chloris says:

    yes, Jason, I find the ads as interesting as the articles. The war time ones show women doing all the work; mowing and hedge-cutting etc, but after the war it is always a man of a certain age with a pipe in his mouth who is the gardener.Whatever job he is doing he never removes that pipe.

  17. Christina says:

    I really enjoyed this post. Yes it is sad about the roses, but sadly fashion affects everything even what plants we like or not. So interesting too that chemicals seemed the answer to every problem and now we think we carefully before using any, or I hope everyone does! Christina

  18. Vivienne Hawken says:

    I enjoyed reading your article especially about the roses. Walter Easlea is my great grandfather and indeed the war saw the end of their nurseries and the rose growing. Vivienne

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