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7 Jul 2009

Insights on Resilience from the Recent History of Totnes. 1: Back garden food production

totneshistory1Over the next few days I will be sharing some of the output from the oral histories I have been doing in Totnes and its surroundings, as which will make up part of the introduction to the EDAP and also part of my research.  I did about 15 interviews, and have condensed the outputs from them into subject areas such as food, skills, energy, transport and so on.  The period covered is from the 1930s until the early 1960s.  Interviews were recorded and transcribed.  Images are courtesy of the Totnes Image Bank, to whom I am very grateful. I have shortened names to initials to preserve anonymity.


Food was by necessity, until recently, a far more local affair than it is today. Most people, apart from the wealthiest, would have grown some of their own fruit and vegetables, and would have had a far deeper connection with where their food came from than our supermarket-focused generation of today. This arose, in the main, from necessity. Rationing was, after all, still in place the mid 1950s. VP recalls in the late 1950s the first time she became aware of the idea that food was something that could actually come from further afield than the local area, when she was asked to do a school project which involved collecting the paper sheets that oranges came wrapped in at that time and compile a list of where they had come from. Until that point, she told me, the idea had never occurred to her.

Attitudes to food were very different. AL describes the attitude of the generation who had lived through the war. “My grandmother’s attitude to food was if it is put in front of you, you must eat it. You had no choice. You must not leave a crumb. Food was very precious and most of it was vegetables. It was a good healthy diet, proper, fresh food”. Similarly, VP remembers being made to stay at the table for long periods of time until she had finished eating all of her meal. “If you didn’t eat it”, she told me, “it was back again for the next meal. I was very envious of friends who had dogs, and could feed them bits under the table!”

The production and processing of food was also a far greater generator of employment than it is today. Three of the town’s main employers, Harris’s Bacon Factory, Tuckers Sweet Factory and the Milk Factory, were food producers, and a far higher proportion of the town’s shops were food shops.

Home growing/allotments

People growing their own food was commonplace until the mid-1960s. Most people interviewed remember the town itself having a diversity of food gardens, allotments and small livestock. MA, whose parents ran the bed and breakfast in Bridgetown in which she grew up, recalls the garden behind the house, managed by her father, which grew the large majority of the vegetables used by the family and by their business, as well as their chickens and fruit trees. As part of the legacy of the Dig for Victory campaign in the war, food was still being grown in some unusual places. For example, ML recalls living, just after the War, at Weston House near Berry Pomeroy, and having an allotment on what had been, before the war, a grass tennis court.

For most people, growing some of their own food was just a fact of life, a skill acquired almost by osmosis during childhood, and the landscape of the town reflected this. IS, who grew up in Collapark, recalls his father’s passion for food growing, a passion he never himself came to share. At the bottom of his garden were allotments, of which his father had two, as well as a large garden, similarly dedicated to food production, but focused on fruit, whereas the allotments grew vegetables. VH’s father had, during her childhood in the 1950s, two allotments situated along the railway to Staverton, the line on which he worked as a ‘lengthman’ (a person whose job it is to maintain a particular length of railway line). One was outside Totnes, and the other near Staverton. The vast majority of the vegetables the family ate came from his allotments including kale, which she hated; “horrible stuff with a really bitter taste”.

VP, who grew up on Sparrow Road, remembers every garden in the street being used to grow food, mostly done by the men of the households. “Dad grew all our food in our garden”, she told me. “Potatoes, runner beans, beetroot, carrots, onions, raspberries and strawberries”. Gardening was, she recalls, the main topic of conversation for the men of the street who would “stand around, leaning on their forks, and telling each other they were doing it all wrong”.

MV moved to South Brent to live with her husband and mother-in-law in 1947. Having spent many years previously in India where she had servants and had little to do in the way of housework, she had never done any gardening or growing, but was soon initiated into the art by her husband. It turned out to be an art she kept when she moved into Totnes years later, and for many years she kept a garden.

Small livestock was also common. AL estimates that one in ten homes kept chickens, recalling “there was always someone with a big wire netting chicken coop”, but MA remembers it as being even more than that, closer to being every third house. Pigs were also kept in the town. KG, who ran one of the three market gardens in the town, kept three sties of pigs, whose manure fertilised the garden. AL recalls one of the ways by which the pigs were kept fed. “As a child at the Church School, me and another child had to take a metal bucket of swill down past Leechwells, past the Kingsbridge Inn, down to a Y junction and in front there was a gate and they would take the pail and give you an empty one to take back. She would take that and feed the pigs”.

Heath’s nursery (see tomorrow’s post), also kept pigs, and David Heath, son of George Heath, recalls one time when they were trying to move the pigs to the bacon factory for slaughter. “When they went to the factory, you had to get them down to the door onto Leechwell Lane. That door is now cemented up. We had to drive them up Leechwell Lane, using sheets of corrugated iron to direct them. One time one escaped, and we didn’t catch it until it was down on The Plains!”

He also recalls a big trade in seeds and seed potatoes through his father’s nursery in the early Spring. George Heath took pride in his slogan “Heath for Seeds to supply your needs”. David told me “I remember the seed potato delivery when a huge delivery of sacks of seed potatoes came in. They were delivered in one hundred weights in hessian sacks. I helped with the weighing out of the potatoes into thick brown paper bags of 7lbs and 14lbs. Most of these were delivered out in the van all around the environs of Totnes. I remember labeling up all the varieties that were available …..Arran Pilot, Arran Banner,Sharpes Express, Home Guard ,Catriona, Epicure and many more which reflected the keeness in ‘growing your own’ at the time”. Val Price remembers her father buying his seed potatoes from Heath, as well as runner bean seeds.

In the more rural areas around Totnes in the 30s and 40s, visits to Totnes were a weekly or even fortnightly occurence. Villages and farms tended to be more self-sufficient, as DM in Staverton (who recently passed away shortly after his 100th birthday in Staverton and who still slept in the bedroom he was born in), recalled;

“Looking back, practically all our food came from this area. We had a couple of house pigs that ate the rubbish. A local chap would come by, cut their throats and cut them up, and make bacon and hams. We used to preserve it in saltpetre, the wives would make a salt solution and baste it every 2 days, then it was put up on hooks in the dairy to dry. I still have the hooks out there now. I suppose we might have had an orange on very special occasions. Our main meal was lunch, not supper, if the husband worked at home. Evening meals were a professionals’ thing. Lunch was normally roast beef, mutton, hot or cold. Hot or cold chicken, stews, potatoes and veg, peas and beans, potatoes baked or boiled. We ate meat every day, hot or cold, depending on how the husband and wife were getting on! For tea we had bread and butter, jam and cream. For breakfast it was bacon and eggs. Supper was just a snack meal, bits and pieces of what you liked. For fruit we had apples, pears and plums. Apples could be kept all year round. They were kept in a cellar under the house. Certain kinds of pears could be kept. We had greengages and plums; we usually made those into jams”.

In the late 1960s, the need for productive gardens began to diminish, and the new generation began to see it as boring and unnecessary. AL, whose father was a keen gardener, and who initially kept an allotment at Coplands Meadow (now housing), and subsequently a very productive third of an acre home garden at the top of Barracks Hill, told me “we used to consider gardening to be something you did because he’d caught you! My generation was the one that broke the link with gardening. It was much more fun to take your bicycle to bits, put it back together again and go off racing around the countryside”. Similarly VP recalls never being taught to garden, as gardening was “something Dads did”, and that by the early 60s it had become something that young people only did if they had to, most seemed to agree that with the beginnings of pop music and teenage culture they had far better things to do.

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Shane Hughes
7 Jul 8:53pm

I found reading this quite soothing and relaxing. Especially, being a male, sentences like “the men of the street who would stand around, leaning on their forks, and telling each other they were doing it all wrong”.
I guess you’re going to integrate this into the EDAP as part of a successful vision. I think it’s a very powerful idea.

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