Tower of London: Poppies and Digging for Victory

The major art installation Blood Swept Lands and Seas of Red at the Tower of London marks one hundred years since the first full day of Britain’s involvement in the First World War. Created by ceramic artist Paul Cummins, with setting by stage designer Tom Piper, 888,246 ceramic poppies have progressively filled the Tower’s famous moat over the summer. Each poppy represents a British military fatality during the war.


tower poppies


The poppies now encircle the iconic landmark, creating not only a spectacular display visible from all around the Tower but also a location for personal reflection. The scale of the installation was intends to reflect the magnitude of such an important centenary creating a powerful visual commemoration.

Now step back to World War II London where the moat of the Tower of London was used for allotments to grow vegetables – part of the ‘Dig for Victory’ initiative. The ‘Dig for Victory’ campaign was set up during WWII by the British Ministry of Agriculture. Men and women across the country were encouraged to grow their own food in times of harsh rationing. Open spaces everywhere were transformed into allotments, from domestic gardens to public parks – even the lawns outside the Tower of London were turned into vegetable patches.  Leaflets and posters, such as the one shown below, were part of a massive propaganda campaign aiming both to ensure that people had enough to eat, and that morale was kept high.

The current recession, as well as a new awareness of ‘food miles’ and climate change, has increased the demand for vegetable growing plots and the trend is supported by new, comparable government initiatives. Allotments have been seen as the precursor to urban agriculture – the practice of cultivating, processing, and distributing food in or around a village, town, or city.  In the global north urban agriculture often takes the form of a social movement for sustainable communities, where organic growers, ‘foodies,’ and ‘locavores’ form social networks founded on a shared ethos of nature and community holism. These networks can evolve when receiving formal institutional support, becoming integrated into local town planning as a ‘transition town’ movement for sustainable urban development. In the developing south, food security, nutrition, and income generation are key motivations for the practice. In either case, more direct access to fresh vegetables, fruits, and meat products through urban agriculture can improvefood security and food safety.

tower poopies

 A gardener tending the vegetables growing in a moat at the Tower of London, June 1940. Source: Getty Images

Dig for Victory was a response to a wartime problem of food shortages.  Before the Second World War Britain imported approximately 55 million tonnes, or 3/4 of the country’s food by ship each year. When the Second World War started in September 1939 shipping was attacked by enemy submarines and warships. Cargo ships were also used for war materials rather than food transportation. This resulted in food shortages.

In October 1939 the Government launched ‘The Dig for Victory’ campaign. People were urged to use gardens and every spare piece of land, such as parks, golf clubs and tennis courts, to grow vegetables. Even the moat at the Tower of London was used to grow vegetables.  Dig for Victory was very successful. From 815,000 allotments in 1939 the number rose to 1,400,000 by 1943.

land army2Now and then. View of moat from river side.

The Ministry of Food encouraged people to eat healthy things. Potatoes and carrots were easy to get hold of. A campaign was launched with the introduction of characters called Potato Pete and Dr Carrot.  With the country at war and all able-bodied men needed to fight, there was a shortage of labour to work on farms and in other jobs on the land. The government wanted to increase the amount of food grown within Britain. In order to grow more food, more help was needed on the farms and so the government started the Women’s Land Army.

land army



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