Although rationing was not introduced until 1918, food shortages were a feature of everyday life in many parts of Britain by 1916. The German naval blockade and the need for men and horses in France resulted in falling agricultural production and reduced grain imports from Canada and the United States. The formation of the Women’s Land Army in 1915 was a direct response to the need to address labour shortages on farms. In addition, smallholders were encouraged to use cottage gardens and allotments to grow food.
The schoolboys of Peterston Super Ely Voluntary School were determined to ‘do their bit’ and on 5 May 1916 the Head teacher, Robert Bailey, noted in the school log book: ‘I am also proud to record the fact that the schoolboys have volunteered to dig and plant the gardens of those wives whose husbands are serving their King and Country and also those widows whose sons have enlisted. Seed potatoes have been provided for the above mentioned wives and widows by Mr James James, Sheep Court Farm’ (ESE 47/2 p195).
The Glamorgan Gazette on 16 May 1916 commended the efforts of the schoolboys in helping the families of men ‘serving their King and Country’. The article also noted that the school was well known for the attention that it gave to gardening. As early at 11 September 1902 Robert Bailey recorded in the school log book: ‘Messrs Linton, gardener to John Cory Esq., Duffryn and J Banting, gardener to Lady Price, Hensol Castle, kindly judged the plots before the school closed for the midsummer vacation. In their reports the quality of the vegetables and general tidiness of the gardens received special praise. The donor of the prizes has expressed a hope that a few flowers may be added another year’ (ESE 47/2 p5).
The donor referred to was Reginald Cory, son of John Cory of Dyffryn Gardens who provided one guinea each year for the prizes awarded for the best kept allotments at the school. By 1902 Reginald Cory was already beginning to make a name for himself in the horticultural world. References in the school log book to examples of the vegetables grown at the school being sent to the Nature Study Exhibitions in London organised by the Royal Botanical Society in 1902 and 1904 were probably a result of Reginald Cory’s involvement with the Royal Horticultural Society (ESE 47/2 pp. 3, 52).
The praise for their work was quite a feather in the cap of a small school with less than 90 pupils. In May 1905 the Chief Inspector had ‘…taken a copy of Mr Bailey’s report on Cottage Gardening and one of the school’s notebooks for submission to the Education Committee when they consider the CEO’s report on the teaching of horticulture in the County of Glamorgan’ (ESE 47/2 p72).
When food shortages became commonplace during the First World War, Robert Bailey and his pupils were determined to do what they could to help local families. By April 1916 the pupils were busy extending the land under cultivation at the school. The school log books notes: ‘On Monday April 10th my gardening pupils commenced work on a neglected cottage garden called Green Vach and a derelict plot of ground adjoining. The latter was in a very bad state being overgrown with couch grass and horse radish, while the former contained a host of weeds chiefly dock and nettle. The work of reclaiming meant much perseverance and energy on the part of the lads but I am proud to be able to state that by trenching, hand weeding and hoeing the two plots are now getting well under our hands’ (ESE47/2 p194).
The efforts of the school were also noted and supported by a number of local farmers. By the end of May Robert Bailey recorded: ‘Potatoes of several kinds have been planted in the field section, while the sad looking garden of some 6 weeks ago now contains nice rows of carrots, parsnips, onions (spring and autumn) cabbages (green and red), radish, turnips, lettuce and various varieties of winter greens such as broccoli, savoys, brussels sprouts, kale and kohlrabi’ (ESE 47/2 p 195).
The promise to dig and plant local gardens was just one element of the contribution made by pupils at Peterston to the war effort. By September the school ‘was sending vegetables from the school garden … to the 3rd Western General Hospital for Wounded soldiers at Howard Gardens, Cardiff’ (ESE 47/2 p197).
It is likely that this continued during the last two years of the war, although it would have been interrupted in April1917 when, as a result of the shortage of labour, ‘the bigger and older boys have been temporarily exempted [from attendance at school] for work on farms and in gardens…’ (ESE 47/2 p 198).
However, the visits paid to the school by HMI and the Chief Education Official to the Glamorgan County Council, Dr John James, confirm that Peterston Super Ely continued to be seen as an excellent example of good practice and a model for other schools.
It’s perhaps surprising, given the example set by the Women’s Land Army, that girls were not allowed to join the boys in producing vegetables for local military hospitals. The school did take up the recommendation made by Inspectors that the girls be encouraged to grow flowers. In addition, girls entered and won competitions for produce from their own gardens. However, beyond this, it was very much gardening for boys and needlework for girls throughout the war.
The above material has been taken from the log books of Peterston Super Ely Voluntary School for 1902 to 1934 held at the Glamorgan Archives (ESE 47/2). It is just one example of how schools and pupils supported the war effort. Similar accounts can be found in the school records across Glamorgan for 1914-18. If you want to find out more about the impact of the war on school life in your area and across Glamorgan you can access summaries for each local authority area (e.g. Merthyr Tydfil) and transcriptions of excerpts from the log books completed by head teachers for individual schools on the Glamorgan Archives website, www.glamarchives.gov.uk
Tony Peters, Glamorgan Archives Volunteer