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In the early 1940s Britain of World War Two, all the country's resources went into the war effort. Many foods were rationed, and even vegetables which were off-ration were often out of stock in the shops. So householders grew their own in their back gardens, while usually keeping a small patch of ground for brightly coloured flowers to add some cheer to the gloom of the home front and the austerity which continued into the 1950s. This page is about how people got hold of the seeds.
The recollections below jolt my memory in that I do just remember my father belonging to the local Allotment Association, where he presumably bought seeds. Whether this was in the early years of the war before he was called up into the army - when I was still only a toddler - or just after the war, I cannot be sure.
I don't ever remember flower seeds being sold during World War Two.
Vegetable seeds could be bought from seed merchant shops, which were in most high streets, and from allotment association shops.
The seeds became available around the times when they needed to be sown and not at other times of the year.
There were no packets of seeds. The shops had their seeds in large containers. Small seeds were sold by weight and large seeds such as peas, broad beans and runner beans were sold by the pint. They were weighed or measured out and sold in brown paper bags.
Seeds were not rationed, but they were not always in good supply.
Seed potatoes were available in the spring at seed merchants and in Woolworths. The shop would place a notice in the window saying when the seed potatoes were to be sold and everybody got there early and stood in line waiting for the shop to open. Seed potatoes were not rationed as such, but you had to queue up for ages - and once the shop was sold out that was it.
As the above recollections are of the area around Edmonton in north London, the seed merchants were probably the corn chandlers that my mother wrote about in the early 1900s.
Pat Cryer, webmaster
I don't think that there were seed merchants shops in Edgware where I grew up, but it was a relatively new community which was part of the expansion of the commuter belt in the 1930s. Peter Johnson mentions Woolworths, and I know that from the late 1940s that it had a very good and cheap gardening section in Edgware. My mother bought many of her plants and bulbs there.
Rather than relying on finding a shop that might have seeds to sell, it was common practice to save some from the previous year and to swap with friends and neighbours. This was particularly true of flower seeds.
Saving seeds required leaving one or more plant to flower and set its seed. At this stage, it looked quite tatty. Nevertheless it was important to wait until all the sap had left the seed case so that the seeds were quite dry. Then they were collected and stored in labelled brown paper envelopes. In the 1940s, there were no plastic bags, but even if there had been, they would not have been suitable for storing seeds. Plastic 'sweats', whereas the paper bags were slightly absorbent, so keeping the seeds dry.
The envelopes of seeds were kept somewhere free from mice and reasonably dry to over-winter. Damp seed goes mouldy and is no longer viable.
Saving seeds worked well because few if any seeds were hybrid. (Hybrid seeds are specially produced each year, and are common in today's seed catalogues because they are said to give better quality results. However, saved hybrid seeds do not come true to the parent plant, so need to be bought fresh every year.)