Farming in World War 1 – Surrey’s contribution

Ladies of the Womens Land Army operating a Titan tractor

Title: Ladies of the Womens Land Army operating a Titan tractor
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The story of farming and food in WW1 is one that the government and civil servants of the time can be rightly proud. Despite labour shortages, poor harvests and difficulty importing grain and meat, the people of Britain, and the soldiers, were fed right through the war and only towards the end did a few items, such as sugar and meat, get rationed. The WW1 stories of the battlefield and the high seas are well known, but the successful battle to feed the people was just as important in contributing to the success of the allies by 1918.

This article first covers the story from the country’s point of view, to set the scene, and then goes into detail on Surrey’s contribution, and a good story it is too.

The article has had some finer detail removed, particularly the statistics, but the full article can be read by downloading the pdf >>Full article as pdf<<

Farming before WW1

Before WW1, agriculture was in recession and had been for many years due to the availability of cheaper food as imports, especially grain and refrigerated meat. Farmers chose to produce what was easiest and most profitable for them and much marginal land was left fallow. The result was that Britain was a major importer of food by the early 1900s and by 1914 Britain was importing 10m tons of grain and flour and 1.18m tons of dead meat. Germany, in contrast, entered the war with a very strong farming industry.

Food and farming in WW1

The outbreak of war saw agricultural labourers joining up and horses being purchased for the Army. By the end of 1914 the government estimated that 1 in 8 skilled farm workers had joined up, along with a larger proportion of valuable casual farm labourers. Harvests were a difficult time and skilled ploughmen were always in short supply. The government knew that food supply was going to be an issue and so, in 1914, carried out a surprising amount of research into the food situation. They set the daily calorie target at 3000 per adult; 1800 from carbohydrates, 800 from fat and 400 from protein. They then calculated the cost per crop type to provide its share of the calories. For carbohydrates oatmeal only cost 4d (old pence), wheat 6d, and potatoes 8d. Milk and cheese were also very cost-effective, but meat and eggs were a very expensive way of providing their share. From the beginning of the war the government knew that arable farming was always going to be far more cost-effective than pasture farming.

Fortunately, good harvests in 1914 and 1915 helped to allay any food shortages. The situation took a turn for the worse in 1916 for a number of reasons: the Army had grown in size; the German submarines were starting to take a toll of shipping crossing the Atlantic; and the North American wheat and UK potato harvests were poor. A telling statement from the Board of Agriculture and Fisheries set the scene for the future direction of government-controlled agriculture: “The United Kingdom had 34m acres of land under grass and 13m acres under other crops; per acre of land the latter area was providing at least four times as much food as the former”.

In December 1916 Prime Minister Lloyd George decided the government needed to control land use and crops. A Ministry of Food was created to instruct the War Agricultural Committees (WAC) that had already been formed in the counties from March 1915. The Ministry agreed to pay fixed prices for the food they wanted and in return the WACs surveyed the farm land and instructed the farmers as to what to do with the fields. Farmers could not object to instructions to use their land for whatever purpose the local WAC chose, and most, patriotically, didn’t. This heralded the start of something that some landowners, headmasters and club secretaries would come to dread – Ploughing Orders. Land was to be put to the plough; whether field, pasture, lawn, cricket pitch, golf course or tennis court. But labour was always in short supply despite pressure on the farmers to produce more.

By the harvest of 1917 the farming industry was in a bad way and the government acted to improve the situation. Prices for produce were set for 5 years (to allow for crop rotation), labourers’ wages were fixed, as were tenant farmers’ rents. To help resolve the labour shortage lower grade soldiers were transferred to the new Labour Corps which included Agricultural Companies (AC) to manage those soldiers working on farms.  For agriculture, the target was to have 11,500 soldiers in 46 ACs across the country. This agricultural labour force was enhanced by the formation of the Women’s Land Army (WLA) in 1917. It was noted by the government that the transferring of “unfit” troops to ACs actually benefited many of the men because of the healthy lifestyle away from the front line and living close to (or even at) home.

These plans were successfully continued into 1918, which turned out to be a bumper harvest year, but not without its problems.  A good summer was followed by a very wet autumn but the success of the harvest was reported to be down to the supreme efforts made by farmers and farm labourers to bring it in. German prisoners of war were found to be very hard-working and many had farming skills that were put to good use helping to bring the harvest in. There were still shortages of some food and sugar had been rationed in January 1918, with meat, butter, cheese and margarine following in April. Sugar and butter remained on ration until 1920.

The Ministry of Agriculture and the Food Production Department had every right to be very pleased with the work they did in the war. Battles may be won by soldiers, but nations win wars. War is not just about making sure your military arm is up to the task, but involves industry, agriculture, transport and propaganda. Britain started the war with a weak farming industry and came out the other end with it strong and profitable, unlike Germany. Their government badly overestimated the 1916 harvest forecast and the resulting crisis meant reductions in food supplies to towns and cities in 1917. The urban population was experiencing famine conditions by the summer of 1917, and there was a rapid drop in morale. This did not improve for them in 1918.

Post WW1

The government wanted to continue the regeneration of the farming industry and introduced the controversial Corn Production (Amendment) Act 1918 which proposed to keep government control of farming and prices into peacetime. To counter labour shortages, mechanisation was encouraged and schemes were brought in to tempt the working population back to farming, but this time better trained and better disciplined. The Land Settlement (Facilities) Act 1919 allowed counties to purchase land to provide smallholdings for returning soldiers to rent. But the post-war farming industry was financially unstable. The high buying prices of the Ministry of Food evaporated with the abolition of that Ministry and prices plummeted as unrestricted imports once more became available. Despite this, government-set minimum wages were high and tenant rents remained frozen. The Agricultural Act 1920 continued the policy of fixed prices, but indefinitely rather than for 5 years, to protect the farmer from the fluctuation in prices on the free market. Unfortunately the cash-strapped country could not afford this and the Act was repealed in August 1921 along with the guaranteed minimum wages for farm workers. Not surprisingly, this return to free-market pricing was called the “great betrayal” by the farmers. Farming went into a recession which was bad timing for the ex-soldiers who had just taken up tenancies of smallholdings. The fact that many made a success of their tenancies was more down to being well trained and disciplined, and to sheer hard work.

The article has so far covered the situation for Britain as a whole. Surrey’s contribution to the agricultural war effort was a successful one, with some surprises on the way.

Surrey pre-WW1

Surrey was not, and is still not, a heavily farmed county. There are no swathes of land filled with wheat or large herds of animals roaming the hills. This is mainly because Surrey’s proximity to London makes it valuable for housing but also because it is largely hilly, with only the Weald below the North Downs and the northwest corner of the county being relatively flat. The other small peculiarity with Surrey, compared to many other counties, is the lack of large manorial farming estates. Surrey has few “Petworths” where the Lord of the Manor can be a benefactor during recessions. Surrey farmers were generally left to sort out problems themselves.

By 1914, the London suburbs had already crept down to near Croydon in the south, and even pleasant Surrey “country” towns such as Caterham, Dorking and Guildford were turning into commuter towns for the middle classes. The Surrey population was already becoming urban. The 1908 Smallholdings and Allotment Act aimed to pressurise county councils to provide land for town dwellers to farm small plots, and provided Treasury loans to fund the purchases. Inner city plots of land could be turned over to allotment associations for them to manage. The land had to be retained for growing purposes for 20 years and allotment tenants could not live more than 1 mile from the allotment. There was initially no great rush of workers pushing their wheelbarrows to their plots, mainly because local authorities were often tardy in their response to acquire the lands, but the movement had gained widespread support by the outbreak of WW1. Surrey County Council also purchased land for smallholdings but this stopped in WW1 because the government suspended the loans.

Surrey Agriculture during WW1

Initially, very little changed in Surrey as regards agriculture. In March 1916 Surrey County Council formed a War Agricultural Committee (WAC), with sub-committees at District level. These committees implemented the instructions from the Ministry of Agriculture (MoA). Because there was no initial urgent need to increase food production, it was not until 1917 that Surrey’s agriculture was seen to change in a significant way and become very efficient and productive. When the Labour Corps was formed in 1917 Surrey gained just one Agricultural Company (425 AC) to manage those soldiers allocated to farming in Surrey. In March 1917 it was recorded that 125 men of the Home Defence Force and 160 men of Class W reserve (in reserved occupations) were working in agriculture for 425 AC. This number was to rise significantly by the end of the year. The lack of urgency up to this time is indicated by the fact that just one tractor had been purchased for the whole of the county, and even this was proving troublesome. This number was also to rise significantly in 1917.

One gets the impression from the records that if the farmer could not grow wheat or oats they had to grow potatoes. It wasn’t just farmers and those with spare land who were targeted. Surrey is reported to have had 70 golf courses at the time. 23 were considered to be on land unsuited to arable agriculture but that still left 47 courses. Yet only 9 of them were reduced in size or given over entirely to agriculture. One was West Byfleet Golf Club (then called Bleakdown GC) which despite being on sand, reduced itself to 9 short holes and gave over 90 acres to agriculture. How voluntarily this happened is open to question as records of the time show that the landowner (Hugh Locke-King) and the club secretary had to have a Ploughing Order placed on them before they handed over land for agriculture. Other golf clubs were more successful in their resistance and the net result of the pressure on golf clubs was a small increase of 500 acres of arable land, which was only about 10% of the total acreage of the 47 courses.

Of more concern to Surrey’s WAC was that the county fell short of the target set on it by the MoA of an extra 18,000 acres of land ploughed up. It only managed 10,000 acres by November 1917. The WAC were not happy with this and made efforts to rectify. By November 1917 there were 837 soldiers allocated to agriculture in Surrey, a big improvement since March, resulting in the 680th and 694th ACs being formed at Guildford to share the administration with 425 AC. The one (troublesome) tractor in March had been supplemented by 22 more of different and more reliable designs. Surrey was clearly getting into its stride and the effects were very visible in 1918. The WAC reported in May 1918 that it had added 24,000 acres of ploughed land and now had 35,000 acres of new arable land, which is 1/7th of the total arable and grassland in the whole county. Only 2 other counties could better this. The expansion continued into 1918. Seed potatoes were distributed, more tractors purchased and more soldiers came to work on the land. The latter helped by 110 PoWs.

Returning to the issue of land usage, Surrey, being a wealthy county with many towns and villages on valuable land, had no huge swathes of spare farm land ready to take extra agriculture. The WAC needed to put pressure on the smaller landowners to get their land usage target to that set by the government. Each year the Districts required farmers to provide returns on how their land was being used (including fallow land not in use and temporary grass as part of crop rotation) and this data is now held at The National Archives on a parish by parish basis. Two differing districts, Kingston and Reigate, were chosen to provide comparable statistics. Kingston and Wimbledon District was a relatively populated area, even in WW1 and so would be expected to tend towards market-garden type crops, whilst Reigate district encompasses parts of the North Downs and Weald and so would be expected to have more wheat and grazing lands. It would also be expected that the land available would increase noticeably during WW1, particularly in the 1918 and 1919 statistics. What the statistics show is a little surprising. The statistics are in the attached full text of this article, but to summarise:

  • Land usage changed little, suggesting that Surrey farmers were already producing the food that the government wanted
  • The majority of Surrey lands were used for pasture or grass for mowing (stock feed). Wheat was typically grown on only 10% of available land and oats about 8%
  • The extra land ploughed up added only 3.7% to the total acreage in Reigate and constituted almost no net increase in Wimbledon. Farming was in competition with the Army for land use and many grasslands were used for Army camps.

The full statistics for the two Districts go somewhat against the rhetoric and perceived improvements over land use. Although land usage did increase, it was much less than would be expected when reading the history of the time when you might imagine that there wasn’t a yard of grass left untouched by the plough.

It must have been difficult for some land-owners (and schools) to see their pristine lawns and fields being ploughed up, and not everyone was as patriotic as they should have been. Lady Cheylesmore of Queenswood Lodge in Englefield Green was found to have used the 3 soldiers allocated to her estate from the Agricultural Company to lay turf on her lawn. This was soon stopped and the District WAC carried out an inspection of her estate and immediately scheduled much of it for conversion to agriculture. This does seem to be an isolated case in Surrey, though.

Some soldiers’ tales

The army formed the Labour Corps in 1917 for soldiers who were more suited to construction and labour rather than being front-line troops. Being in the Labour Corps was in no way an “easy ticket” for many of the men, particularly those serving abroad. They built light railways and camps, dug trenches or worked in forestry. Those retained in Britain with farming experience could request to go into one of the Agricultural Companies. The majority of those soldiers transferred into an AC were initially in a front-line regiment but were deemed no longer suitable for front-line duty. The Stoughton-based 425/680/694 ACs were almost entirely manned from the Royal West Surrey and East Surrey Regiments, or were soldiers serving in other regiments but who came from Surrey. Official records of the ACs no longer exist, but some records have been found from other sources and the soldiers identified. Where their military records still exist, some provide interesting stories as to their military career, and the following are four with differing stories and backgrounds.

Arthur Charles Stilwell

Arthur was a Surrey lad, born into an agricultural family, serving in the infantry in WW1 and transferring to an Agricultural Company as he was no longer fit for front-line service because of injuries and illness. He was born in Godalming in 1892 as the second child of 6 whose head was a local gardener. He enlisted on the 14 September 1914 in Harrogate, where he was living and working at the time. The attestation form initially has Suffolk Regiment but this is crossed out and he joined the 9th Royal Sussex Regiment a few days later. His papers state he was a “Motor Guide” and he is believed by the family to have been one of the early RAC patrolmen. Within just 2 months of enlisting he was promoted to Lance Corporal. He served on the western front and was injured on 27 September 1915 with a shrapnel wound to the shoulder. He transferred to the 10th (Reserve) Btn (home based) in February 1916 but this didn’t prevent more injuries so he must have remained in France. He suffered a gunshot wound to his thigh in March 1916 and finally in August 1916, a wound to his neck. His detailed medical record also lists hospital treatment for other problems. Despite all these medical problems, he was passed medically fit on 17 September 1917 but was soon back into medical care with an enlarged gland in his neck. George was clearly worn out by his injuries and length of front-line service. He was transferred to the 694th Agricultural Company (based in Guildford) on 11 March 1918 due to no longer being fit for front-line duty and being downgraded to class B2. He lived at the family home for the remainder of his service and his main posting was to a Mrs Brown of “Priory Field” (probably Priorsfield), Farncombe. This was very close to the family home. On discharge he worked locally in agriculture. Rather surprisingly he was rejected for any pension as the army claimed he had no lasting disability. It is not known whether he applied for a smallholding. He married in 1922 and became handyman for the Royal Borough of Kensington. His family state that his injuries caused him problems later in life. Arthur is a great uncle of the author.

Frederick William Cairns

Frederick was born Thomas Seymour Worley in 1887 in London. He became a newspaper seller in Knightsbridge, married Ellen Hurley in 1903, and had 3 daughters in quick succession. But there were marital problems and he abandoned his wife and family and moved in with a Martha Cairns, who had been abandoned by her husband Frederick, and her 2 daughters. Thomas Worley took the name of the deserted husband, Frederick William Cairns, and they lived together as man and wife. Frederick enlisted in the Sportsman Battalion of the Royal Fusiliers in Marylebone in October 1914, under his assumed name, with Martha and her children being named as his wife and children. In his attestation forms he states he is a cook. He served as a cook in England and France with the 2nd Division, being transferred between various non-combatant units until finally being transferred to the Labour Corps, all the time as a Private with the 2nd Division. He was discharged in February 1919 with a small pension due to deafness that was attributed to his army service. There is no explanation as to why a cook would have suffered deafness as a result of his army service. He, Martha and children lived in Mitcham but his occupation then was not known. In February 1920 he was one of the first tenants who moved in to a new smallholdings community in Ripley. Surrey County Council had purchased Homewood Farm in Ripley under the Land Settlement (Facilities) Act 1919 and broken it up into 20 smallholdings, each with a brand new cottage. Frederick, despite having no known farming or agricultural background, seemed to make a success of the smallholding and became a fruiterer. He and Martha adopted a son in 1923. He remained the tenant until 1932 when Martha’s illness prevented him being able to carry on the business. His tenancy from 1920 to 1932 was one of the longest of those earliest tenants in Ripley. It initially comes as a surprise to find one of the tenants on the new smallholdings having no previous farming, gardening or agricultural experience, but his army service and partial disability pension would have made him an ideal candidate, on paper, in the spirit of the 1919 Act.

Ove Gerdes-Hansen

Ove came to England from his native Denmark in 1903 and married English lady Ada Bright in 1906. He took British citizenship in 1910. Before WW1 he was a shipping agent with an office in The City and a warehouse at Brentford, and lived in Holland Park with two live-in domestic servants. He enlisted in the Royal Field Artillery first, somewhat surprisingly, as an Acting Sergeant then an Acting BQMS before finally being commissioned in 1916 as a Lieutenant. He served in France. On demobilisation he took the tenancy of the largest plot (over 40 acres) on the newly formed Banstead smallholdings and called it Hengest Farm. The farm name was almost certainly chosen by Ove as Hengest (also spelt Hengist) was the co-leader of the Saxons who came from what is now Denmark and North Germany and settled in Britain in the 400s. Ove may have attended Wye Agricultural College in Kent for 2 years under the “Officers’ Agricultural Training Scheme” although there is no evidence or family knowledge of it. Hengest Farm became a successful dairy farm and Ove managed it until his death in 1955. The photograph of him on the left from the 1940s shows a dashing and prosperous man who is still sporting his medal ribbons from WW1. With him is his farm manager.

Edgar Phillips

Edgar was born in Wandsworth in 1892, the son of a pawnbroker and Wandsworth Borough Councillor. His love of outdoor life and cycling led him to enlist in the ranks of the 25th London (Cyclist) Regiment and he served in India and on the North West Frontier until 1919. On demobilisation he wanted to use his considerable talent as an artist and attended art school. Seeing little future as a commercial artist he decided to try farming so that he could continue with an outdoor life and painting. He learnt poultry farming as a farm hand in Purley then, with his wife, took the tenancy of one of the new Banstead smallholdings and became a poultry farmer. In contrast to Ove Gerdes-Hansen above, Edgar’s plot on the same smallholding estate was only 3.7 acres. He built up the business, but it was always hard work and needed the assistance of his son. He stuck at it until WW2 when he moved onto growing crops due to difficulties with obtaining poultry feed. He finally moved away from the smallholding in the 1950s after 30 years. Edgar is a classic example of why the government wanted ex-servicemen working on the land – disciplined and hard working.

Surrey Agriculture after WW1

Following the armistice in November 1918 there was no sudden lifting of the pressure on land owners and authorities to produce food. Unlike industry, where orders for armaments and equipment were cancelled at a stroke of the pen, the Ploughing Orders continued, albeit at a reduced level until the spring of 1919. It was less “putting the brakes on” and more “lifting off the accelerator”. It must have pained many owners of large houses to see a horse or tractor ploughing up their lawn or tennis court despite the war being over. Minutes of Agricultural Committee meetings have almost no mention of the armistice and you have to look at the dates of the meetings to realise they were taking place during peace time, such was the continuation of the pressure on food production.

In 1920 Surrey County Council resurrected its smallholdings plans. There had been a number of smallholding schemes before WW1 but most were purchases of small areas of land for breaking up into 1, 2 or even 3 smallholdings, each with a house. There was a change in vision after WW1. The Land Settlement (Facilities) Act 1919 was little changed from the 1908 Allotments and Smallholdings Act but was directed at returning servicemen. The idea was that ex-soldiers and sailors could apply for the smallholdings as a way of helping them back into the community and into a career on the land. But the scheme did not just benefit ex-servicemen; the Surrey records indicate that over 80% of applications for tenancies were from ex-soldiers whilst the rest were from “civilians”, as they were labelled.

The large Surrey smallholdings schemes in 1920/21 were:

  • A pair of Tarrant built houses on the Holmwood Farm smallholdings estate

    Homewood Farm, Ripley. Purchased March 1920, consisting of 26 acres of farm land, and split into 20 roughly equal-sized smallholdings. These were only 1 to 1.5 acres in size and so were limited as to the scope of what could be grown. A substantial 2 storey house was built on every plot – all but 2 being one half of a pair of semis – and so this scheme was more like a garden estate but with a “1 acre garden” for growing crops. The houses were built by legendary Surrey builder W G Tarrant Ltd, and the quality of construction is clear even today. The estate experienced a high turnover of tenants in its first years, indicating the difficulty of making a living from such a small plot. Tenant William Cairns, who is mentioned earlier in this article, was a fruiterer; a trade that could not be sustained from his own 1.126 acres. But his smallholding was adjacent to a farm and it is very likely that most of his smallholding would have been sub-let to his farmer neighbour and he used some of the land only for storage.


  • Pair of houses on Little Woodcote smallholdings. Timber clad shortly after being built to resolve damp issues due to poor wall construction

    Little Woodcote, Wallington. Purchased August 1920, consisting of 266 acres arable land and 32 acres of pasture. This was broken up into 81 smallholdings, most being 2 to 4 acres. This size made the plots more likely to be self-sustaining. As with the Ripley scheme, semi-detached houses werebuilt across the boundaries of pairs of small-holdings, but existing houses and buildings were repaired. In order to try and keep costs down, the houses were built by Walter Jones & Sons who used a method of large terracotta blocks that interlocked, covered outside with rendering. The result was disastrous and most were leaking, some badly, within a year. A RIBA architect carried out a survey and recommended that the only solution was to clad the outside of the affected walls and this makes the houses today look as if they are constructed of timber. Not all plots had houses built on them and were for rent by tenants and local farmers, and some plots were combined to make what would be better described as a small farm.


  • A single bungalow on the Banstead smallholdings. One of the few left unmodernised

    Sheep and Well Farms, Banstead and Woodmansterne. 308 acres of arable land purchased in March 1920 and adjacent to the above Little Woodcote scheme. Unlike the previous 2 schemes, the lands were broken up into variable sized plots with the largest 3 being farms of between 30 and 40 acres. This scheme seems to have been the most successful as many of the earliest tenants were in place for many years. Unusually, Surrey County Council did not build semi-detached houses on pairs of plots but built detached single-storey bungalows on those plots that needed housing. These are constructed of rendered brick and, like Little Woodcote housing, are noticeable cheaper looking than those built at Ripley. This development is the first time the author has seen the description “bungalow” used for single-storey housing. They were usually described as “cottages” and continued to be so for many years. It may be that the visual appearance of these single-storey homes, with their low roofs, was more like the bungalows that were common across Asia, hence the description. The largest smallholding was managed by Ove Gerdes-Hansen, noted above.

Smallholdings continued to be created by Surrey County Council  up to WW2, but these made little difference to the total area of farmed land in the county. The farmers of Surrey went back to farming their land in a commercial way, without Ploughing Orders or dictats from the Ministry of Agriculture. With Surrey being relatively affluent the farmers managed to ride out the farming recession in the early 20s better than those in some counties, having a ready market nearby in London.

Prime sources:

Food production in War, Thomas Middleton KBE, 1923, Oxford University Press

Surrey Agricultural Committee Minutes and Reports, held at Surrey History Centre

No Labour, No Battle, John Starling and Ivor Lee, 2009, The History Press

The Journal of the Board of Agriculture, 1914-1919, HMSO (full set held at Natural History Museum Library)

MAF 68 – Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, Parish Summaries of Agricultural Returns, 1914-1919, The National Archives

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