Winston Churchill. Air raids. Blackouts. People taking refuge in London in ‘tube’ stations. Food shortages. Rationing. All these things we associate with the Second World War but, in fact, apply also to the Great War 1914-18.
As an island nation we are not able to feed ourselves and have always relied on food imports. So the first thing that an enemy will do is to halt our food supply by blockading the seas to create a ‘siege’ situation. The Government’s response is to increase productivity and ration the amount of goods people can obtain. In February 1917, a Food-Comptroller was appointed, Lord Davenport.
Land was surveyed and farmers ordered to grow more. In January 1917, Essex County Council organised the sale of seed-potatoes at wholesale price to small-holders. 250 tons of seed was to be distributed throughout about 500 parishes in Essex.
Wheat was important. The Government brought forward and enacted proposals to guarantee a minimum price to farmers for wheat and oats: wheat, 60 shillings (£3) per quarter and oats, 38/6 (£1.88).
A shortage of wheat and flour was predicted in April 1917 and police officers made house-to-house enquiries in Stondon Massey and the neighbourhood to ascertain the number of farm and domestic animals owned in order to ensure that there was no unnecessary consumption of food suitable for human beings. On 6th May 1917 a proclamation from the King was read in Church urging people to abstain from unavoidable consumption of flour.
On 9th May 1917, Revd. Reeve, Rector of Stondon Massey, wrote:
“It becomes increasingly difficult for the wayfarer to get served in pastry cooks’ and refreshment houses. At Ongar the confectioners refuse to supply the traveller with a “sit-down” meal: and at Brentwood recently I was told that only between three and six o’clock in the afternoon may a cup of tea and light refreshment be supplied. Similarly at Chelmsford two or three weeks ago I found I went to a Restaurant at a pasty-cook’s the proprietor was only allowed to serve an individual customer up to the limit of one shilling and threepence for eatables”.
The Corn Production Act 1917 set minimum wages for agricultural labourers. A Committee (the Essex District Wages Committee) represented by 9 employers, 9 workmen and 5 independent members met and agreed “by a substantial majority upon a minimum wage of 30s for Essex” [ERO T/P 181/18/1B (Essex Chronicle. 28 May 1918)]. The Central Board though rejected this and imposed a rate of 32s (£1.60) much to the disgust of farmers. On 24 March 1919, the wage rose to 36s (£1.80) then 46s.6d. (£2.33) from 23 August 1920. Market gardeners received a higher rate, 50s.6d. (£2.53).
George Everett (Boxford, Suffolk) recalled that the minimum wage was not paid on every farm and that men were not unhappy to take work at reduced wages. As before, when there was no work there was little or no pay. When the Corn Production Act was repealed in 1921 wages immediately fell.
Ashley Cooper concludes his book ‘Our Mother Earth’ (1998) by observing that only in times of national crisis is the necessity for domestic crops supported by Government.
But wheat was required not only for bread but for use in munitions!! Reeve wrote on 19th December 1917: “Supplies of Horse-Chestnuts have been collected this autumn and sent to London, it being discovered that certain chemicals may be extracted from them for the manufacture of munitions which have hitherto been obtained from flour. The food-supply may be saved. A ton of Chestnuts is found to equal half a ton of grain. We have lately sent some 5 bushels to the “Director of Propellant Supplies” at Westminster”.
During the War the Government expressed the need to be thrifty: to invest money in war loans and be sparing with the use of woollen goods and paper. In April 1917, “The Times” rose to twopence (1p) with others – presumably the Daily Mail and Daily Express - previously sold for ½d increased to 1d. and “’Mr Punch’ from his long familiar threepence per week, has been raised to sixpence” [ERO T/P 188/3 f239].
The sugar ration was reduced from ¾lb (about 300g) to ½lb (200g) in April 1917. By September this was causing concern that a large quantity of fruit might be lost if not preserved (eg into jam). “The Government has now taken control, and by appointing agents in each district offices the public who make application within a given time a limited supply up to 28lbs for preserving fruit guaranteed to have been grown on their own premises. Each application must be countersigned by a Minister of Religion, a Justice of Peace or a householder of standing”. Reeve wrote that the harvest of soft fruit that year had been particularly heavy because of the absence of late frost. Large quantities of pears and peaches were sent from the Rectory to the Budworth Hospital in Ongar for the convalescent troops. Apples were stored and as much jam as possible was made from currants. The sugar ration was compulsorily enforced on 1st January 1918 and meat was reported as being scarce.
On 25th February 1918: “Today ushers in the “Rationing” System for London and the Home Counties in respect of Meat and of Butter and a compound known as “Margarine” a substitute for butter. These articles are only to be obtained from today on production of a coupon. The total allowed per week is 1lb of meat for adults and half the amount for children under ten years. Four ounces of butter is the limited allowance for such. A little allowance of dilution of honey was served to me yesterday at Chelmsford in lieu of sugar with a cup of Coffee”. The system was accepted without much complaint. In June, Revd. Reeve noted that he could not get a pot of Orange Marmalade from any grocer in Chelmsford High Street.
One of the major social changes in terms of rationing was the availability of alcohol. Concerned about drunkenness and inadequate production of munitions, the Government passed a law in 1916 restricting the opening hours of public houses. The law stayed in place almost intact until about 1986 with the final remnants repealed following the Queen’s Speech in 2002. Pubs used to close at 11.00pm during the week and 10.30pm on Sunday evenings. The ringing of the bell for last orders is a thing of the past in many of our nation’s pubs.
Cooper, Ashley. Our Mother Earth (Bulmer Historical Society, 1998)
Reeve ed. Smith. Chronicler of the Great War (2008)
Scott, Hardiman. Many A Summer (Richard Castell Publishing, 1991)
A history of binge drinking taken from ‘The Publican’, 1 September 2008