Nostalgic Re-visionings: Digging as heritage in Wartime Spirit

By Penny Rivlin

Please cite as: Rivlin, P., 2014, ‘Nostalgic Re-visionings: Digging as heritage in Wartime Spirit’, paper presented at MeCCSA conference, Bournemouth University, 9 January 2014.

In this paper, I explore some of the ways in which injunctions to ‘dig’ are mediated through the heritagization of austerity in relation to the World War II Home Front period. My interest in Home Front history developed during 2008-9 during the fieldwork stages of my doctoral research into the classed, gendered dimensions of domesticating environmentalism (Rivlin, 2013). Focusing on the processes by which middle-class, working-class and green-identified respondents’ negotiated the ethics and labour of ‘greening’ everyday domestic life – especially in relation to state-led policy and recommendations – my research gathered data via solicited diary and in-depth interview methods. At one interview with a green-identified woman, Charley, the connections between digging for self-sufficiency, national heritage, and ‘eco-austerity’ (Bramall, 2013) began to emerge in her narrative of doing domesticity. Like my other green-identified and activist respondents, Charley was a committed and highly competent digger on her allotment – part of ongoing, everyday investments for the reproduction of the sustainable, ethico-political self. At the close of her interview, Charley offered to loan me reproductions of the WWII Ministry of Agriculture pamphlet, Allotment and Garden Guide, and the Ministry of Information booklets Eating for Victory (Norman, 2007a) and Make do and Mend (Norman, 2007b) all of which she had acquired from a heritage-styled shop on eBay. The prescriptions for the mainstream practices of domestic digging and austere domesticity offered up in the Home Front manuals clearly chimed with Charley’s existing anti-consumerist disposition, but crucially, for her, they evidenced an historical moment in which self-sufficiency and resource-savvy consumption was a normative, universally practiced tenet of domestic culture for national benefit. Gesturing to the ideological potency and resilience of the wartime slogans ‘dig for victory’ and ‘make do and mend’, Charley re-articulated their wartime spirit ethos as a solution to current challenges presented by ecological crisis, whereby ‘dig for victory’ is recast as ‘dig for eco-victory’:

Wartime studies like this fascinate me because of the way that the whole of society was recruited to the mission to save resources – you know, to grow your own food year round, and not waste a single scrap, and reuse and recycle everything to help with the war effort – this is exactly what we all need to do now to stop climate change (Charley, green activist, 2008).

By the end of my fieldwork phase, the Home Front pamphlets Charley had loaned me, along with a range of wartime heritage ephemera and lifestyle accessories, were widely available in the UK, with C.H. Middleton’s book Digging for Victory (Middleton, 2008 [1942]) and The British Home Front Pocket Book 1940-1942 (Lavery, 2010) reaching several bookseller’s bestseller lists. Indeed, the circulation of ‘Dig for Victory’ and other cognate slogans from the wartime period has intensified across a range of popular cultural and media contexts in response to the present conjuncture of economic and environmental crisis. For instance, on lifestyle television, UKTV’s Digging for Victory (Reef Television for UKTV Gardens, 2007) showcased the UK’s best kept allotments, and cookery programmes such as Economy Gastronomy (BBC2, 2009) and the River Cottage series (Keo Films for Channel 4, 2008-9) have mobilised the principle of thrift – historically an index of working-class respectability – for culinary distinction.

Documenting the discursivity of dig for victory in this moment of eco-austerity, Rebecca Bramall (2013) draws our attention to the ways in which eco-preneur Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall harnessed the slogan and its iconography in his River Cottage Autumn (2008) series to highlight the issue of lengthening waiting lists for allotment spaces. Demonstrating the ways by which uses of the past can promote progressive political agendas and subject positions in the present, River Cottage Autumn resulted in the Transition movement’s Landshare campaign, wherein landless would-be diggers across the UK are matched with gatekeepers of available land as a solution to problems of land access. Responding to the challenges presented by eco-austerity for local authorities, Landshare’s website promotes community digging as a viable means through which cash-strapped councils can deliver on a range of key emissions and environmental quality targets, as well as community participation objectives. In this sense, as Bramall points out, Landshare presents itself as a ‘worthy successor to the wartime dig for victory campaign’ (2013: 65) in terms of its democratic, inclusive approach to a politics of sustainability, land access and by extension, food security.

As well as its surface democratizing address, a major attraction of the injunction to ‘dig for victory’ lies in its immediacy: as Bramall (2011: 81, n.7) notes, its dominant-hegemonic historicity holds the potential to get people digging in the present because ‘it is already common sense’. A notable example of an attempt at attaching this ‘common sense’ approach to an eco-reformist agenda is evidenced in the eco-campaign Wartime Spirit (EST, 2009) launched in May 2009. Along with two other national eco-domesticity campaigns’ sponsored by the former New Labour government – Act on CO2 (DECC, 2008-10) and Love Food Hate Waste (WRAP, 2007 – present) – Wartime Spirit contributed to the former New Labour government’s pro-environmental agenda aimed at eco-reforming the nation’s homes and lifestyles. I want to highlight the digging-related aspects of Wartime Spirit, before going on to introduce a case study from the Cultural Values of Digging project. As our project blog documents, this case study traces a hetero-nuclear family’s attempts at growing a wartime garden, and of sharing their experiences via a wide range of social media. Our interest in this case study is in the ways in which uses of historical resources provide evidence of heritagized versions of cultural values of digging; and relatedly, how the circulation of such values might contribute towards the mainstreaming of ethico-political subject constitution in the present.

The Wartime Spirit Campaign                                                                                                      Receiving considerable media attention at its launch, Wartime Spirit was a joint project between the Imperial War Museum and a government quango, the Energy Saving Trust (EST, 2009). At the London museum, visitors were invited to explore a re-construction of a 1940s’ ‘ordinary’ house and backyard that showcased home front domestic routines in practice. Reaching a wider audience, images of the house and home front housewifery ‘in action’ were reproduced on the Wartime Spirit website, a selection of which were reproduced across national print and online media.

Heralding ‘frugality as the new frontier’ Wartime Spirit re-casts home front domestic practices and strategies in an attempt to link the ordinary, routine aspects of everyday life to a pro-environmental agenda. Re-asserting national ‘wartime values’ (waste not, want not) and a communitarian ethos (‘we’re in this together’) in relation to eco-austerity, the campaign homepage offers a prescription of media-friendly ‘top ten quick and easy tips’ for domestic reform that represent a rational response to economically and environmentally ‘tough times’. These tips are more comprehensively elaborated in a downloadable advice manual, Wartime Spirit: The Green Barometer (EST, 2009), which, like the original wartime instructional leaflets, is underpinned with a morally-charged thread of resourceful, straightforward domestic adaptation conjoined with thrift.

‘Thrift is the New Thrust’
Illustrated with archive photographs of women and girls engaged in make do and mend sewing projects, and posters from the Ministry of Information’s ‘kitchen front’, austerity and digging propaganda initiatives, the booklet draws on the lessons of history as a means of forging a ‘different’ relationship to the home and the environment. Endorsed via the breezy strapline ‘thrift is the new thrust’, wartime injunctions to ‘make do and mend’, ‘don’t waste water’, ‘dig for victory’, and ‘save kitchen scraps to feed the pigs!’ are re-cast for contemporary times in both the Wartime Spirit: Green Barometer and its top ten easy tips. For example, whilst ‘saving kitchen scraps for the pigs’ appears anachronistic in the present moment – its origin based in wartime backyard animal husbandry – it is re-oriented towards the promotion of home composting for the production of free, ‘nutrient rich soil’ for the nation’s gardens, backyard pots and window boxes. ‘Dig for victory’ is similarly re-worked to accommodate contemporary urban and suburban living, and crucially, our dependencies on supermarket provisioning. Whilst food self-sufficiency is the common sense signifier in the tip ‘dig for victory’, the message concomitantly calls upon consumer sovereignty for the greening of the present food market, extorting the household provisioner to ‘choose locally produced, seasonal fruit and vegetables, or try growing your own in a patch of garden or a window box’. Here, the campaign counters the socially exclusionary tendencies of contemporary mediations of lifestyle in the common sense appeal to ‘dig’ in window boxes, as well as in garden patches and allotments. Neatly side-stepping the politics of land use and access addressed by the parallel Landshare campaign, Wartime Spirit instead promotes digging as a valued resource for lifestyle emulation by utilizing the discourse of land scarcity as a marker of national desire and distinction, benignly stating that ‘demand for allotments are at an all time high’.

Despite its de-radicalization of eco-politics, through these modes of nostalgic re-visioning, Wartime Spirit wrests the notion of frugality from its negative associations with stinginess and insufficiency, since ‘making do’, digging and composting for eco-victory are valorised as good ‘green’ choices anchored in past conceptions and lessons of care-based consumption and citizenship. In this sense, ‘wartime sprit’ etches a progressive, common-sense landscape; frugal revisions to domestic practice – rendered achievable and accessible to all – will ease the practitioner’s experience of recession, at the same time as engendering attachments to low carbon lifestyles.

‘We’re all Pig Rowers at Heart’: Digging with the Wartime Gardeners
Our study of the wartime gardeners can be fruitfully situated in relation to Wartime Spirit, in that their experience of growing, cooking, eating – and indeed, living – according to wartime austere principles is indicative of the emergent attractions of a wartime ethos, and of its relevance for living in times of eco-austerity.

Andrew and Carol Oldham and their young son live 13000 feet above sea level in a rural area of the North West of England. They purchased their 18th century terraced cottage, Pig Row, in 2009, and in 2011 they began cultivating the garden as a food growing/self-sufficiency project. In September 2011, they commenced the cultivation of a ‘wartime garden’ as an experimental project based on wartime Ministry of Agriculture growing plans of 1943, and the prescriptions of the popular wartime gardening writer and broadcaster, Mr C.H. Middleton (2008). At this point, the Oldhams’ launched their Life on Pig Row blog as a means of publicly staging, charting and sharing their wartime garden experiment (

The wartime gardeners are exceptionally active across a range of social media platforms – ranging from their dedicated Life on Pig Row blogsite to a Life on Pig Row Facebook page, Twitter feed, Instagram and Pinterest. Drawing on their backgrounds in the arts, media, design and literature, they extensively employ visual methods such as auto-photography, producing and archiving a portfolio of richly textured wartime gardening and lifestyle images, often accompanied with wartime gardening stories of success, or conversely, calamity. They also regularly post video and audio content on their Life on Pig Row Youtube channel and on Audioboo, as a primary medium for self-narration and mediation of the Pig Row ethos and practice. More recently, they have disseminated the wartime gardener ethos to a wider (perhaps non-gardening) audience via an update blog for The Guardian (

Across their social media platforms, the wartime gardeners publish imagery and blogposts oriented to growing failures and difficulties; social media encounters in which they invite fellow ‘Pig Rowers’ to bring their own experiential knowledges of digging – wartime or not – into play. This strategy resonates with Marres’ (2009) discussion of online performances of ‘green living experiments’, wherein bloggers plot the doabilty and undoability of green modes of domesticity and everyday life. For instance, the Oldhams’ chart the successes and failures of their attempts to access ‘heritage seeds’, and to institute heritage gardening that adheres to organic growing practices. Suggesting that organic gardening might originate in wartime ‘dig for victory’ practice, the Oldhams’ draw on the lessons of history – here, in their eschewal of herbicides and pesticides – to promote green gardening and year-round food self-sufficiency for the family.

Consistently situating their wartime garden in relation to the greening of lifestyles and economic austerity, the Oldham’s have invested considerable time and labour in re-working and trialing wartime digging advice, not only for the (re)production of the green self and family, but for the benefit of both novice and accomplished green gardeners everywhere. In illustration, Ginns’ (2012) history of wartime gardening highlights the inefficiencies of the Ministry of Agriculture’s sequencing, publication and distribution of its ‘dig for victory’ instructional leaflets – a factor which, through their first two years of victory digging, became evident for the wartime gardeners. For instance, the original leaflet ‘how to dig’ was one of the last to be issued nationally, the assumption being that digging was simply ‘common sense’. Yet, as Andrew and Carol explained to us in a recent interview, digging is a learned technique that requires ‘left-footed digging’ – a practice least likely to unduly tax or stress bodies, and, crucially, our backs (attested by Andrew who has a history of serious back problems). Bringing their own ‘common-sense’ knowledge of what we might term ‘left-footed victory digging’, the wartime gardeners’ have revised the ‘how to dig’ leaflet, intending to publish it for the benefit of Pig Rowers in early 2014.

So in presenting the leaflets as a ‘free’ resource for Life on Pig Row visitors, the wartime gardeners’ agency contributes to the promotion of self-sufficient food-growing cultures and to a wider sense of (digitally-based) community participation. Given the substantial investments in time and labour that a project of this kind necessitates, we might view it as a form of altruistic gifting to the nation. Invoking a dig for eco-victory ethos, Andrew and Carol explained that their intensive investments in social media, as well as in embodied digging is based in their desire to recruit the nation into a normative culture of digging and everyday scratch-cooking as a means of promoting greener, slower, less wasteful lives with more time for family, neighbours, communities (virtual and local) and the self: we are all, the Oldhams’ insist, ‘Pig Rowers at heart’. But as well, the wartime gardeners’ ethos and practice – by their own admission – represents a response to a possible future wherein issues of food security (and by extension, national security) are re-rehearsed in state policy.

So should we all be armoring ourselves with spades and hoes as our wartime predecessors did, and as the wartime gardeners are doing now? Well, there is ample evidence in the scholarship that digging is good for us in myriad ways. In addition to environmental benefits, digging has clear health and wellbeing benefits for the individual – a point that underscores contemporary mediations of dig for victory (although a tightly controlled, protracted food rationing programme impacted on the nation’s health, as well as digging practice (see Zweiniger-Bargielowska, 2000)). And as our Big Dig case study indicates, communal digging projects hold the potential to ameliorate the more isolating aspects of our increasingly technologized, indoor lifestyles, bringing forth communal connections and affective attachments to green spaces in urban contexts. There is also emerging evidence that digging cultures address affective and substantive experiences of social disenfranchisement for those most severely affected and marginalised by current austerity measures.

The ‘Hidden’ Lessons of History in Wartime Spirit                                                                                                      So, yes, taking up digging clearly holds a number of attractions that might be fruitfully interwoven into the fabric of the everyday life of the nation, as imagined and mediated by Wartime Spirit. However, we need to be mindful of the tensions and limitations inherent in mapping the lessons of history onto the present – not least in relation to the problem of land access addressed by the Landshare campaign, and in previous research led by Farida (see Vis and Manyukhina, 2011; Vis et al., at

The first, as most diggers will tell you, is that digging is a time and labour intensive practice, as well as wholly weather dependent – which in climate changing times (yes, even in the UK!) does not necessarily guarantee successful yields. My own research into the interrelationships between social class, gender and state-led mediations of ‘eco-domesticity’ reveals that such projects – at least for those with access to land – were most often abandoned due to their incompatibility with the pressures of contemporary, detraditionalized employment patterns and time-poor lifestyles. Digging also requires a level of gardening cultural capital and financial outlay for tools, seeds or seedlings and other digging-related necessities at outset; factors likely to be beyond the remit of growing constituencies of the impoverished and marginalized (Rivlin, 2013). We might, therefore, want to question the attractions of Wartime Spirit for those who live austerity as an everyday necessity (rather than as lifestyle choice).

But perhaps the most obvious limitation to Wartime Spirit’s mapping of the past onto the present, concerns the gender of the wartime national digging agent. The majority of Wartime Spirit’s ‘top ten tips’, and other eco-austere reforms presented in The Green Barometer are derived from wartime propaganda campaign materials that targeted women via a specifically gendered address in which images of domestic femininity were central (see Zweiniger-Bargielowska, 2000; Purcell, 2006; Slocombe, 2010). Whilst the campaign materials and The Green Barometer reproduces some of this imagery, for the most part it glosses over the gendered specificity of the wartime domestic subject through descriptions of what ‘people’ or ‘families’ did as responsibilized, communitarian subjects for national benefit. Of course, the wartime targeting of women was a necessity, given male conscription and men’s dominant role as defenders of the nation, and I do not intend to diminish the importance of that role, nor the extensive loss of men’s lives. Here, I just want to suggest that Wartime Spirit’s nostalgic re-visionings might be misplaced in the present eco-austere conjuncture – given the persistance of the gendered division of domestic labour and women’s extensive contribution to the labour market and the economy (Rivlin, 2013).

So if digging will save the planet in the present conjuncture, will women do it (again?). On the one hand, given the advent of second and third-wave feminism, probably not without a fight. On the other hand, Joanne Hollows’ (2006) work suggests that (post)feminist women harbor fantasies of downshifting, veg growing and going home to make homegrown jam – which might help explain the UK’s exceptionally long allotment working waiting lists, and the disproportionate number of retired women on veg plots.

Perhaps the lessons of history for eco-austerity are most fruitfully lived by the wartime gardeners themselves. As downshifters, they have eschewed their ‘cash-rich, time-poor’ former occupations and lifestyles, opting instead for a work schedule that allows time for food growing, green living and co-parenting their young son. In this sense, they are living according to a wartime ethos re-visioned for contemporary lives and subjectivities. In their Life on Pig Row self-representations, there is little evidence of the inequitable gender relations that the success of the original ‘dig for victory’ campaign depended upon. It is perhaps premature to speculate on whether the wartime gardeners ‘Pig for Victory’ ethos can be mainstreamed, but given that Life on Pig Row is attracting the attention of the mainstream media, as well as growing numbers of visitors (now in their thousands), suggests the emergence of a structure of feeling for austere digging – as emergent cultural value – if only at the level of armchair/digital fantasy.


Bramall, R. (2013) The Cultural Politics of Austerity: Past and Present in Austere Times. Hampshire: Palgrave Macmillan.

Bramall, R (2011) “Dig for Victory!’ Anti-consumerism, Austerity, and New Historical Subjectivities’, Subjectivity, 4(1): 68-8.

DECC (Department of Energy and Climate Change) (2008-9) Act on CO2 Campaign. Archived at: Accessed 1 June 2010.

EST (Energy Saving Trust) (2009) Wartime Spirit: The Green Barometer, Measuring Environmental Attitude, Issue 7, April. Retrieved at Accessed 4 October 2011.

Ginn, F. (2012) ‘Dig for Victory! New Histories of Wartime Gardening in Britain’, Journal of Historical Geography, 38: 294-305.

Hollows, J. (2006) ‘Can I Go Home Yet? Feminism, Post-feminism and Domesticity’, in Hollows, J. and Moseley, R. (eds) Feminism in Popular Culture. Oxford: Berg, pp. 97-118.

Landshare (no date) Available at: Accessed 6 January 2014.

Lavery, B. (2010) The British Home Front Pocket Book, 1940-1942. London: Anova Books.

Marres, N. (2009) ‘Testing Powers of Engagement: Green Living Experiments, the Ontological Turn and the Undoablility of Involvement’, European Journal of Social Theory, 12(1): 117-133.

Middleton, C.H. (2008) Digging for Victory: Wartime Gardening with Mr. Middleton. London: Aurum Press.

Norman, J. (2007a) Eating for Victory: Healthy Home Front Cooking on War Rations. Reproductions of Official Second World War Instruction Leaflets. London: Micheal O’Mara Books.

Norman, J. (2007b) Make Do and Mend: Keeping the Family and Home Afloat on War Rations. London: Micheal O’Mara Books.

Oldham, A. (2013) ‘Digging for Victory Again’, The Guardian Gardening Blog, 10 April. Available at: Accessed 14 January 2014.

Oldham, A. and Oldham, C. (no date) Life on Pig Row Blog. Available at: Accessed 6 January 2014.

Purcell, J. (2006) ‘The Domestic Soldier: British Housewives and the Nation in the Second World War’, History Compass, 4(1): 153-160.

Rivlin, P.L. (2013) Domesticating Environmentalism? Gender, Class and Everyday Practices in the Home. Unpublished PhD Thesis, University of Leeds, July.

Slocombe, R. (2010) British Posters of the Second World War. London: Imperial War Museum.

The Big Dig (no date) Available at: Accessed 12 January 2014.

Vis, F., Ochu, E., Miles, A. and Jackson, P. (2013) Everyday Growing Cultures, available at: Accessed 16 January 2014.

Vis, F. and Manyukhina, Y. (2011) ‘The English Allotment Lottery’, Guardian Data Blog, 10 November. Available at: Accessed 14 January 2014.

WRAP (2007) Love Food Hate Waste Campaign. Available at: Accessed 30 January 2012.

Zweiniger-Bargielowska, I. (2000) Austerity in Britain: Rationing, Controls and Consumption, 1935-1955. Oxford: Oxford University Press.


How to grow food“He studies how to dig. Not any fool can dig. Mr. B. is no fool, and has some idea of shoving the spade as straight down as possible, so as to make it do its maximum of work at each effort. But he asks himself just what his wife asked herself some time ago. What does one do with spadefuls of earth? Why, in the first place does one dig? To loosen the soil, to aerate it, to-ah, thinks Mr. B., I know there was something that went with digging like sausages with mash: digging and manuring, old chap, digging and manuring. First catch your manure, and then make a place to put it, by digging.” (page 10)

From Doreen Wallace’s How to Grow Food: A Wartime Guide, first published in 1940.

Heritage veg: back to the future

By Abigail Wincott

This is a guest post by Abigail Wincott, Senior Lecturer, Broadcast Media & Broadcast Journalism, School of Art, Design & Media, University of Brighton. If you would like to write a guest blog for us, please get in touch.

Increasing numbers of gardeners are growing ‘heritage’ vegetables, and they’re receiving a fair amount of media attention. I want to know why this kind of heritage feels so timely, what it might tell us about what we want from our food systems, that conventional food production isn’t giving us.

The whole edifice of Western heritage is founded on a narrative of endangerment and the call to conserve (Samuel, 1994; Smith, 2006). So I knew I would see that story told, when I began studying a range of texts about heritage vegetables. But I noticed a strange pattern in the narrative structure that I wasn’t expecting to see. Or rather, two patterns.

The texts were written by quite a range of different authors, including anti-capitalist campaigners, heritage conservation bodies and lifestyle journalists. But there was a pretty clear divide between a range of consumer-oriented lifestyle media texts on one side, and everyone else on the other.

One model is what I would call a straight-forwardly linear narrative: the past is behind us, the future ahead. These texts, written by the non-journalists, wax lyrical about a past where food and food production systems were bountiful and in balance, where there was more variety, more character, more freedom. I think that this abundance is very much like what Penny wrote about in her blog from the 15th Oct.

The present in contrast is a time of terrible loss – what Raphael Samuel calls ‘the vertiginous sense of disappearing worlds’ (Samuel, 1994, p. 150), a very evocative phrase, which I think exactly captures the emotional force of these narratives:

Since the introduction of the seed legislation in the mid-1970s untold hundreds, or even thousands, have been lost. (Heritage Seed Library, seed saving guidelines leaflet, 2008);

our food culture is becoming impoverished and our plant heritage is disappearing. It’s like destroying a plant library that has been accumulated by farmers and growers over thousands of years. (European Cooperative Programme for Plant Genetic Resources leaflet, 2009).

Apocalyptic predictions are sometimes made about global starvation or devastated landscapes, if we don’t preserve these traditional crops. All that’s not very surprising, it’s the classic endangered heritage narrative. And yet newspaper lifestyle articles are overwhelmingly constructing a very different story with heritage vegetables. Here the vocabulary is all about rebirth and revival, movement and dynamism.

The grammatical structures work hard too. For example one BBC news article claims ‘the outlook for heritage varieties has changed.’ and they ‘have moved out of the history books and back into vegetable patches, gardens and orchards’ (Briggs & Bardo, 2012). The use of this present perfect verb form, common in these texts, suggests a development which culminates in a current state – so in this case, heritage vegetables are something which have been rescued, which are no longer endangered, in stark contrast to the linear narratives.

So we realise then that these writers are taking the same heritage narrative of endangerment but it’s almost as if they have rushed us forward in time, so that the loss and endangerment are behind us, and now we are swept into a present-future, where consumers have already saved the heritage.


Briggs, H., & Bardo, M. (2012). The return of heritage fruit and veg varieties. BBC News Online Magazine, 3 May 2012. Retrieved from

Samuel, R. (1994). Theatres of Memory: Past and Present in Contemporary Culture (2012 edition ed.). London: Verso.

Smith, L. (2006). Uses of Heritage. London: Routledge.