Published by City Farmer, Canada's Office of Urban Agriculture


Victory Gardens

The Garden Warriors of 1942

3 marching

by Shirley Buswell(C) Copyright

This article is reprinted
from a 1980 issue of City Farmer
(Vol. 3, Number 2),
a newspaper we printed in the early days
before WWW publishing.

(Other reference: The Original Victory Garden Book - first published as Food Gardens for Defense - M.G. Kains, 1942, A Scarborough Book, Stein and Day/Publishers/ New York, Briarcliff Manor, N.Y. 10510)

When Charles Barber, MLA, remarked recently on the immediate necessity for officialdom to take the idea of urban gardens seriously and to encourage us to grow as much of our own food as possible, he at one stage drew a parallel with the "Victory Garden era".

City Farmer has long held the opinion that those wartime Victory Gardens were in essence created by people who thought much as we ourselves do - that urban gardens have the potential for making a valuable contribution to our food supply, and that they may one day become a necessity rather than a hobby. But what we didn't know before we began extensive research into the subject was that for the first three years of the war, Victory Gardeners faced a severe test of their sincerity. Officialdom, it appears, greeted their ideas not merely with apathy, but at times with downright hostility.

City Farmer sometimes encounters a story which requires research into many scattered sources. What follows has been pieced together from public archives, and from the files of the Vancouver Sun, Province, the Victoria Daily Times, Saturday Night, Canadian Home Journal, and Canadian Horticulture and Home. Our special thanks are due to Terry Cook (Archivist, National Resources Records) of the Public Archives of Canada, and to Ainslie Helmcken, Archivist of the City of Victoria.

Think back, if you can, to life in Canada in 1942. Imagine, then - in the phrase of the time - a country involved in "total war".

A country at war is, as we can easily understand, a country which suffers commodity shortages and demands a great deal of personal sacrifice on the part of its people. What most of us who have grown up in postwar years would have found hard to accept, had we been adults in the 40's, is the extent to which, in time of war, the normal process of democratic government is suspended. This is done so that leaders may take charge of the country's entire output, and may direct it totally toward the achievement of victory.

In such a situation, individual voices have difficulty making themselves heard: in 1942, many of those voices belonged to British Columbia's urban gardeners.

During July, 1942, the "Victory Garden Brigade" of Victoria began petitioning J.G. Gardiner, Federal Minister of Agriculture, for governmental support for the Victory Garden movement. Victory Gardens were needed, they said, to offset labour shortages in the food industry, and to release food supplies for shipment overseas. They asked their Member of Parliament, R.W. Mayhew, to intervene on their behalf. Mr. Mayhew's efforts met with rebuff.

H. Barton, Deputy Minister of Agriculture, replying to Mayhew on behalf of Gardiner, enclosed a pamphlet entitled "Home Vegetable Gardening". City Farmer was not able to obtain a copy of this pamphlet, but from references made to it in correspondence now in the Public Archives in Ottawa, it is clear that its tone was similar to one issued that same year by the Ontario Department of Agriculture.

"Unless conditions are favourable," warned this later pamphlet sternly, in a section set off in boldface type, "a vegetable garden should not be undertaken. We cannot afford to waste seed, fertilizer, equipment and energy unless location and soil are suitable and the gardener is determined to follow through to harvest and use."

The admonitory tone was softened a little by advice on what tools to buy, what to plant and where to plant it in a garden "where only" (the pamphlet's words) a space 20' x 30' was available.

Such halfhearted support did not impress Victoria's intrepid Victory Garden Brigade.

Together in October 1942, Emily Schofield (president) and Elizabeth MacKenzie (secretary) wrote again to Gardiner.

During the month of April, 1942, the women pointed out, only #3 grade potatoes had been available in local markets. At one stage, onions had been unobtainable. The year's mainland potato crop had been reduced 50% by late blight; carrot supplies had suffered due to carrot fly. These disasters, added to a vegetable shortage caused by the now-famous relocation of coastal Japanese (the traditional market gardeners of the area) and to various transport difficulties facing the food industry, had jeopardized B.C.'s urban food supply.

Then the women expressed their patriotic feelings. Archival records take no sides, make no comments. What is there to speak for itself? Almost forty years later, no musty filing system can stifle the personalities of Schofield and MacKenzie, two women who refused to be daunted by red tape or silenced by official handouts, even in time of war. They wrote:

The pamphlet further says, "Could I help the war effort by planting a vegetable garden?" Ans. "If you have not had one before, and have not had previous experience, it is not urged that you plant one this year." (1942) In Victoria we have proved that amateur gardeners, even on land newly broken, have been able to keep themselves in fresh vegetables for the last two or three months, to have some for winter use and some to give away. In addition, the money saved has been used to buy War Bonds, or put towards increased taxation. The general verdict has been "Well worth while". But every citizen must endeavour to grow more vegetables in order to make an appreciable difference in the situation that confronts us, and we claim that this is a war effort of primary importance.

City Farmer took the matter to Ainslie Helmcken, Victoria's archivist. Did any of Victoria's official records show official discouragement of the Victory Garden idea?

Helmcken was surprised at the question. As grandson of Dr. John Helmcken, coastal pioneer (who gave his name to streets in both Vancouver and Victoria), his knowledge of the city is privileged and extensive. In World War I he had been a pilot in the Royal Flying Corp.; World War II found him working for Yarrow's shipyards. He remembered the enthusiasm with which employees and their families created Victory Gardens from the yards of the small houses that were quickly built for them.

"It seems now that everyone had a Victory Garden in those days," Helmcken said. He added after reflecting a moment, "But it wasn't a new idea. Those gardens go back to World War I."

He found for us, in the Mayor's Annual Report of 1917:

Early in 1917, in view of the world-wide shortage of food stuffs, an active campaign was inaugurated by the City Council to stimulate production by means of cultivation of vacant lots and backyards. Briefly, the campaign was extremely successful; the response of the citizens generally was beyond expectation, and, in addition, many individuals freely gave their time and services in connection with the various committees. The campaign also had a stimulating effect upon production in the country districts adjacent to Victoria.

...Much greater necessity exists for increased food production during 1918. All authorities agree that the world supply of food is reduced to famine conditions in many countries, and to within a fraction of the famine line in the most favoured localities. "Every little bit counts," and it is earnestly to be hoped that in response, in Victoria, of the "Back-yard and Vacant Lot Brigade," during 1918, will greatly exceed the excellent record of 1917.

Hopes for 1918 were justified. The following year, the Mayor's report stated that "The patriotic response of such large numbers of the citizens of Victoria has been most gratifying." In this year, too, the City Council had persuaded the Provincial Government to pass "The Greater Food Production Act." This Act, described as "a radical and progressive departure in legislation", enabled cities and municipalities to take possession of vacant, unused tracts of land for cultivation purposes, without paying compensation to the owner. Such an Act was also passed in Ontario that year.

After we left him, Helmcken considered the matter of World War II. He called back. "You need to talk to Herb Warren," he said. "He was Superintendent of Parks in the 40's. He'll remember something of interest, I'm sure."

Warren now works for Butchart Gardens. He does indeed remember those wartime years.

The city, he recalled, had kept sheep in MacDonald Park at one stage. In Beacon Hill Park, the "Bantams" (a battalion formed from men who hadn't met the Army's original standards of weight and height, but who were physically fit) had had their parade ground ploughed up for potato fields.

"Then the city offered concessions to people who wanted to grow gardens on vacant lots," Warren added. "The rent was $5 a year and water was supplied at half normal rates."

City Farmer returned to the records for details, but was surprised to read, in the Parks Report for 1942:

The desirability of cultivating home vegetable gardens was strongly urged throughout the year in the press, on the radio, and in addresses to organizations. Lots were made available, ready plowed and cultivated, for $5, but ... the response on the whole was so poor that a contest for the best Victory Garden had to be abandoned. There should be no doubt to the value of growing vegetables at home in these times. Every effort will be made in the coming year to encourage and facilitate cultivation of Victory Gardens.

This made us wonder - because of grave national emergency, Ottawa had assumed powers over many areas in which the individual would normally make his own decisions. Where you would live, what you would eat, what kind of work you would do was in many cases no longer up to you. Had people actually begun to think that unless Ottawa said so, Victory Gardens should not be planted? The war was entering its fourth year, and still, it seemed, in spite of the successful examples of British, United States and Australian Victory Garden campaigns, no one in Ottawa cared very much for the idea.

But there were always those who, like Schofield and MacKenzie, didn't mind what level of officialdom they tackled, what ministerial pronouncements they scorned, when they believed their cause to be justified.

Austin Spencer, Vancouver Sun garden columnist, CBC radio broadcaster and, by his own definition, one who spoke "to the working man and the small gardener in his own language, not like a professor but as one working stiff to another", had been trying to persuade the Minister of War Services for over a year that he should sponsor a Victory Garden campaign, particularly in large urban centres. Mr. Justice Davis, Acting Deputy Minister, had supported the programme, but it had been rejected at the departmental level.

In December, 1942, Spencer took his suggestions to another Department. Like Schofield and MacKenzie, he wrote to Gardiner. In 1941 he had suggested the Sun sponsor a Victory Garden Competition, and there had been over 500 entries. He answered 20,000 letters a year on garden problems. He had wanted air time for a Victory Garden programme, but had been told that in wartime people wished to hear only about "music, literature and art." He refused to believe this. He placed his expertise at the Minister's disposal.

"Yours for winning the war by every method possible, including getting people to grow their own vegetables." he concluded.

And Barton replied to him, as he had done to the women from Victoria, that no Victory Garden Campaign was contemplated at this time. Spencer's offer to help with it was rejected, because the Department had "a number of officials who are qualified to undertake such a campaign, should one be decided upon."

But the year ended with a slight ray of hope for people like Spencer, Mackenzie and Schofield. The matter, Barton added, was shortly to be reviewed.

Article continues in

Garden Warriors of 1942: Winning Through in '43

Victory Garden Information on the Internet

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Revised January 19, 2003

Published by City Farmer
Canada's Office of Urban Agriculture