Digging for Victory

Carts at Park End Farm in 1937

In 1941 The Radleian reported that the boys were digging up Pups’ Field ready for the new potato crop. This was just part of a large area of the grounds which were under ‘boy cultivation’ as part of the national ‘Dig for Victory’ Campaign. An Ordnance Survey map of the estate shows the pitches marked out ready for different crops. With the grounds staff and many dons called up for active service, it was the boys who took on the work of preparing the ground for agricultural use, including forestry and ditching. Fuel shortages also brought farm horses back into service to pull ploughs and carts.

The school threw itself into the ‘Dig for Victory’ campaign throughout the War. Each Social had a vegetable plot cultivated during term time and most boys spent part of their holidays in some form of war work such as harvest or forestry camps as part of the Land Army. At Radley the work was organised initially by Mr Clouston who arrived as a don half-way through Lent Term 1942, as a temporary replacement for teachers who had been drafted. The casual greeting and farewell accorded him a few months later disguise the fact that he not only ‘did a great deal to help our efforts with the plots’ but was actually a Fellow of the Zoological Society and a very able scientist. He was succeeded by Miss Jordan, who taught biology and was a Fellow of the Chemistry Society. Miss Jordan was the second woman to be appointed to teach a subject other than music at Radley and to be acknowledged as a don. She was thrown straight into the ‘Eat more potatoes’ campaign, rapidly followed by the Brussels sprouts crop: ‘There are many here who can remember trailing up from College Pond last summer to water this crop, which looks promising for the winter months.’

Ducks at Park End Farm in 1935. From the album of PS Squire

Using every available plot of land including the pitches, Pups’ Field and the Social gardens to grow crops shows just how serious the country’s food shortage was.  Beyond those areas, Radley is surrounded by farmland which continued to supply food. The school farm was at Park End. In the 1930s the boys were encouraged to help with the livestock there. During World War Two this proved invaluable in supplying the school with eggs, chickens, pork and dairy products. It also had the school’s air raid shelters. Many boys took sat their School Certificate exams in those shelters during air raid alarms, permeated by the smell from the pig-sties next door.

Nine-year old Alan Dodson was evacuated to Radley in 1940 with his mother. His grandmother was the school cook and his mother took over as dairy maid. Alan helped prepare meals in the kitchens: ‘my job was pressing the patterns onto the butter pats. I also churned the milk for cream and cheese.’ The family’s ration books were held centrally by the school, as were those of most others working there, so that food could be bought in bulk and meals could be prepared using less fuel.

Although food was in short supply and rationed, Richard Haddon, Senior Prefect in 1944, kept a diary during 1944 and 1945 in which he records numerous trips into Oxford where he had lunch or tea in the various pubs and cafes, most notably the Randolph Hotel: ‘The morning spent in bookshops was quite pleasant as was the meal at The Randolph. A good plate of Hors d’oeuvres, Roast Pork, Cauliflower and potatoes and stuffing, with a jam turnover, with coffee to end up with. Also cider to drink!’ Arriving late back from Oxford one evening after watching a film he and a friend made good use of the farm pig-sties to hide their incriminating bicycles. He also describes a harvest camp at Southrop in Gloucestershire, dealing with the hen house and the disappointment of a crop of damsons damaged by carelessness, much of the work washed down by beer bought by the supervising don, ‘Tiny’ Southam, F Social Tutor.

Another national emergency saw Radleians volunteering to help with harvests across the country in 2020 – often being excused from the online classes of Virtual Radley to ensure the crops were got in. But cultivating vegetable gardens in the school grounds goes right back to Singleton’s time in 1847: he provided a garden for every boy where he could grow fruits, especially strawberries, and flowers. The prefects were specifically charged with protecting these gardens from malicious damage. Flowers feature in photographs of boys’ studies in the 1890s and in vases on the dining tables in the 1950s.

In the late 1970s and early 1980s, Dennis Silk revived the idea of individual gardens for the boys. He encouraged them to cultivate allotment strips on the land between Orchard House (now K Social) and the Lodge, to grow strawberries and potatoes. Hamish Aird remembers: ‘Boys could ‘buy’ a strip of land and any produce on it was then theirs. I remember one boy who bought strips of land from his colleagues and was renowned for his financial success for his selling of strawberries. When the whole project stopped in order for the Chestnut Avenue houses to be built there, he wasn’t amused.’ Clare Sargent, 2022

Boys’ gardens in 1856