This story appeared in the 2 July 2009 issue of Northwest Weekly.
An English Rose Remembers Her Plot
Local gardener recalls wartime garden
Story and photograph by Pamela Price
First there was the White House organic vegetable garden and beehive, an effort by Michelle Obama to spark interest in good nutrition. Then in June came word of a new veggie plot at Buckingham Palace, Queen Elizabeth’s own nod to the current “grow your own food” trend.
Of course, there have been high-profile kitchen gardens in Washington and London before. In WWII, then-Princess Elizabeth was photographed gardening at Windsor Castle as part of the United Kingdom’s “Dig for Victory” campaign, an effort to shore up nutrition that was similar to the American victory gardens espoused by Eleanor Roosevelt.
Closer to home – in Leon Springs to be precise – is an English-born woman who helped tend a North London garden during the Blitz. And though Joyce Hartley now lives thousands of miles away from her native land and prefers to cultivate flowers to raising potatoes, she carries with her vivid memories of raising food during hard times.
Today in her home’s spacious study on the edge of the hot, hardscrabble Texas hill country, Hartley keeps a scrapbook that includes images and text related to her family’s life in England. Sitting down with her to review the book is an invitation to witness history through one woman’s eyes.
At the start of England’s involvement with WWII, Hartley was 11 years old. She and a younger sister, Peggy, were evacuated along with thousands of other school-age children to Walton-on-Naze, on the English coastline.
“Why on earth would they send us to the east, where we could see France?” Hartley wonders.
In a dramatic twist, the nearby town of Clacton became the first place a German bomb landed, when a bomber was shot down on April 30, 1940, killing two and injuring dozens more.
“I saved my milk money to buy a stamp. And then I stole an envelope, so that I could write a note to my mother to come get us,” she says. “Mum came very soon and took us away.”
Returning to the family’s home at 2 Rayleigh Road soon after the incident, Hartley found her parents, Edward and Florence Carter, engaged in a grassroots effort at survival.
“That’s what we did to some degree even before the war,” she says. “We raised plants, food. Tom (Cahill, Hartley’s long-time significant other) and I talk about that often now, about how it was just a different time when we all had to do that back then, in England and America.”
With the war came the need for greater self-sufficiency. Because England was highly dependent upon imported goods, Italy and Germany sought to starve off the country by attacking ships bearing cheese, sugar, fruits, vegetables and other goods. To address the shortages, the government created a rationing system.
But the rations could only go so far. Even after the war and as the nation struggled back onto its feet, English residents would receive rations for several years, into the mid-1950s. When Hartley married her late husband, Gordon Hartley, in 1949, clothing was rationed, so the bride wore a borrowed dress and veil.
Hartley keeps an old food ration booklet from the ’50s with her scrapbook. She recalls that during the war the government provided a bit of meat and one egg per week. No vegetables were provided, hence the garden. Hartley remembers vividly what her family grew in their vegetable plot. They raised all the usual suspects: peas, beans, lettuce, potatoes. There was even a bit of protein. In her scrapbook, she writes that her father “bought fertile eggs, took a drawer out of our chest of drawers, fitted it up with electric light bulbs, and waited for them to hatch. Within just three weeks, we had a drawer full of chicks. Dad built a large chicken house at the end of our garden and after a few months we were getting eggs. … Dad could never kill [the chickens] himself and usually got a neighbor to do it for him.”
There was something else in the family’s suburban garden. An Anderson air raid shelter with a corrugated iron top provided cover for the family at night.
“The shelter went down several feet under ground,” recalls Hartley. “It held two bunk beds and one double bed. From above, you could just see a mound of earth with flowers on top.”
Hartley moved to America in 1958 and became a U.S. citizen in June 2004. Today she is pleased by the recession-induced interest in home gardens in the wake of a worldwide recession. From the back window of her suburban home, she casts an admiring glance at a neighbor’s large vegetable garden.
“Oh, I think it’s wonderful to see people gardening again,” she says. “We were just so much healthier back then, because we only had to eat what was good for us.”
Red, White & Grew readers will recognize Joyce Hartley from a post made last year. It was great fun to re-interview her for this story. If you read my MySA.com blog, then you’ll recognize the photo from an entry regarding fun garden history projects.