1941 the grimmest year of the war? Sowing saved seed, solving shorthand clues and editing wartime diaries for the World War Zoo gardens project at Newquay Zoo

1941 – the grimmest year of the war

 “1941 was the grimmest year of the war for Britain. On land, Allied forces were defeated in every theatre of war in which they were fighting.”

quoted from Juliet Gardiner, the Blitz, (Harper, London, 2010, p. 267)

Seed saving: Saved Broad bean seed from our wartime allotment 2010 and wartime gardening magazines. "Food Production is Vital ...as Vital as the Guns!"

I have spent the quiet winter moments in the wartime zoo garden at Newquay Zoo editing several wartime pocket diaries, as there is not much to do in the winter garden in late December, except  planning next year’s crops and early planting.

I’ve sowed saved seeds from last year’s crops such as the Sutton broad bean noted (a pre-war 1923 Sutton’s seed variety of ‘Exhibition Longpod’ , according to Christopher Stocks in Forgotten Fruits, Windmill press, 2009, one of my Christmas presents). We saved some pods but used the others – as animal food. Last year, spare salad in glut months went to everything from rare tortoises to the zoo cafe and barbecue!

Newquay Zoo’s  animals, especially our rare ‘Yaki’ Sulawesi Macaque monkeys, enjoyed shelling these broad bean pods and eating the entire plants. We will be celebrating a new birth amongst these rare monkeys and our Selamatkan Yaki conservation programme at Newquay Zoo this year (see our Yaki monkey events and webcam on our page on the Newquay Zoo website. Newquay Zoo closes only on Christmas day so no zoo visitors that day, but I was otherwise too busy with family to plant on Christmas Day or Boxing Day. This was probably a traditional escape route of allotment gardeners to avoid relatives and get some peace. 

These beans have been sown undercover in ‘recycled’ cardboard tube planters to get a head start, the date of planting noted in a small pocket diary for garden notes for 2011.

Not all our wartime garden allotment produce was saved for seed last year: rare Yaki Sulawesi macaque monkeys at Newquay Zoo tucking into fresh Broad bean pods (photo: Jackie Noble, Newquay Zoo)

Hopefully keeping such a diary with its tiny daily entry space will give me an insight  into the often anonymous lives of the diary keepers. Sometimes there are clues, inscriptions and addresses mentioned to give in these brief Twitter length entries to give some clue to the writer’s age, gender, work and family life.  

The war was entering its 17th month when Eileen’s pocket diary starts in January 1941. It was to be a grim year for Britain. Eileen worked in the Civil Service in London, possibly for London Transport or the GPO General Post Office but  late in 1942 transferred to the Post Office Savings Bank. Engaged in September 1941, it seems likely that she married young, aged around 20 / 21  – however her diary finishes in December 1942.

January 1941

1 Wed       Was in bed when New Year came.

2 Thur       Went to Commodore with Freddie. Air Raid but very quiet. Beautiful clear night.

5 Sun         2nd Great Fire of London. Blazes all round. Cornwall Hse hit. Hilda will not have to go to work.

6 Mon        Hilda sent home, sending for her when needed.

9 Thur      Hilda starts work again.

10 Fri         Hilda goes to Wren House for the day. More incendiaries & HEs. Dad driving and dodging oil bombs.

Many histories of the Blitz note that mercifully after a short Christmas truce, the weather was bad or cold enough for thirteen nights in January to see no Luftwaffe bombing.

30 Thurs    Work as usual. Told we are to do night duty at office for fire duty. Air Raid Imminents all day.

31 Fri         On duty all night. No raid alerts during evening. Played darts & table tennis till 12pm …

The air raids got worse again throughout March 1941.  This raid (mentioned below) is known in London Blitz terms simply as ‘The Wednesday’ with over 1,180 people killed, especially in the ARP services, and 2230 injured – part of a terrible week including ‘The Saturday’.

March 1941

16 Weds   Worst Blitz of the War. Land Mine at Cranmer Court. 3 bombs in Sydney St. & Womens Hospital. Hit Chelsea Old Church down to ground. Pensioners hit again …

1941 – a year of Blitz, defeat and new allies

Not much is said about the war overseas in Eileen’s diary, which focuses mostly on the Home Front, bombing and life in wartime London. Occasionally friends are reported ‘missing’ on active service.

1941 was a difficult year for Britain and the Allied troops. Overseas in late 1940, Britain and Allied forces had fought successfully against the Italians on land and sea in Greece, Egypt, East and North Africa.  Early in 1941 as the diary begins, Germany begins to reinforce its unsuccessful ally Italy with German troops in Greece, Yugoslavia and North Africa, leading to a series of victories over British and Allied troops which continued into late 1942.

 It was not until Germany invaded Russia in June 1941 that Russia became an ‘ally’, followed late in December 1941 by America, when the USA was bombed by Japanese planes at Pearl Harbor in Hawaii on December 7th. Britain and USA declared war on Japan the next day. The USA declared war against Italy & Germany (and vice versa) on the 11th December 1941.  Japan successfully began its invasion of many British, US and Allied colonies and islands in South-east Asia throughout December 1941.     

Eileen’s diary is not all doom and gloom – it is full of an eighteen year old’s social life, family events and everyday jobs. What makes this diary more interesting is the sense of the routine, mundane everyday tasksbirthdays, cinema trips, holidays as an important and familiar “investment in normality became crucial …unlike soldiers in battle, for civilians ordinary life in familiar surroundings went on in the intervals between raids”  according to Juliet Gardiner, the Blitz, (p. 183)

July 1941

7 Mon        Another lovely day. Sin to be at work. Went over the allotment in the evening.

There are many other references throughout Eileen’s diary to food. 1941 was the year when the famous “Dig For Victory” poster appeared with the hobnail booted foot of Mr W.H. McKie of Acton, London (in the area where Eileen lives or  works).

“Dig For Victory” allotments have been  recreated in various forms here at Newquay Zoo, at Trengwainton (National Trust, Penzance, Cornwall) and in preparation at Occombe Farm, near our sister zoo at Paignton in Devon. You can read more about this national campaign in Twigs Way and Mike Brown’s new Dig For Victory book on wartime gardening (2011) or in Jane Fearnley-Whittingstall’s Ministry of Food book to accompany the rationing exhibition that has just closed  at the Imperial War Museum. 1941 saw further restrictions including clothes rationing introduced in June, important enough to be noted in a teenage girl’s diary.

“Food rations were lower in the first months of 1941 than at any other time during the war … meat rationing fell from 2s. 2d in autumn 1940 to 1s, 2d in January 1941 and hardly rose again for the rest of the war, while the cheese allowance plummeted to one ounce per person and jam went ‘on the coupon’ …” quoted from Juliet Gardiner, the Blitz, (Harper, London, 2010, p. 268)

The last weeks in Belfast and Northern Ireland have seen frozen water supply problems. This was common in wartime Britain alongside   low gas pressure from damaged gas mains and a shortage of coal and wood for domestic use and cooking. All this made  everyday  wartime life difficult for many British families.  Juliet Gardiner notes that freezing conditions made life difficult for bombed-out families and firemen in Britain with hoses freezing, most famously pictured on 3rd January 1941 in Bristol. Mercifully after a short Christmas truce, the weather was bad or cold enough for thirteen nights in January to see no Luftwaffe bombing.  Bombing was also shifting to ports like Bristol (3rd January) and Cardiff (2nd January).

So this puts into perspective the recent cold snaps of 2010 that once again destroyed or damaged lots of our early crops in the World War Zoo gardens. Cloche gardening was a relative novelty in the 1940s, leading to one company producing the strangely titled wartime booklet Cloches versus Hitler. We were  thankfully spared the obvious ‘Cloches versus Boches alternative title. It might not have seemed so in 1941, but the cloches were to win. Glass itself was in short supply (as many repairing bombed botanic gardens and zoo enclosures found) with the urgent need to repair wartime damage, although I’m sure wrecked windows were reused to make cold frames by enterprising wartime gardeners.

What next for 2011 and the World War Zoo gardens project at Newquay Zoo?

Patrol diary summary page of the Blitz activities of a London scout group based in Rotherhithe at St. Katherine's church (destroyed in the London Blitz) Copyright: World War Zoo gardens project, Newquay Zoo

We have a London woman’s 1944 diary of The Little Blitz and life on her allotment, already typed up and being edited to match Eileen’s diary. There are also passages from a young scout patrol leader’s diary of London 1939 – 40, including the Blitz. We’ll then start work on a Merseyside girl’s diary for 1939 – 1943 (which has sections in shorthand to decipher first), to match a Mersey River Pilot’s diary of his pilot-boat work in the Liverpool docks and stormy love affair with a WREN throughout 1943.

Newquay Zoo being built on former wartime farming land, it’s also appropriate that we’re also working on a wartime Farmer’s diary from the Sunderland area from 1944 to 1946 and excerpts from many civilian wartime letters.

We hope to produce a version of each of the diaries for use in the classroom with teaching notes and suggestions, as well as an adult / general reader version.

We look forward to announcing a publication date in future when sections of Eileen’s Blitz diary and also the Little Blitz 1944 diary will be available to buy from the zoo by post, all profits going towards the ongoing wartime garden and schools workshops, amongst our other conservation and education work such as the Gems of The Jungle Aviary and Selamatkan Yaki .

For further details of the wartime garden, publications, schools workshops or  comments, contact us via the Newquay Zoo website.

You can subscribe for further blog posts on this blog page, and also find on Twitter.  

Wishing you all a Happy and Peaceful New Year!

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One Response to “1941 the grimmest year of the war? Sowing saved seed, solving shorthand clues and editing wartime diaries for the World War Zoo gardens project at Newquay Zoo”

  1. 1941 grimmest year of the war 75 years on | Worldwarzoogardener1939's Blog Says:

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