Food – eating, shopping and shortages
In 1914, before the outbreak of war, there were very big differences between the diets of rich and poor people. This became worse during the war because of the rise in the cost of basic foodstuffs, the hoarding of food and the increasing shortage of essential items such as bread, sugar and meat. The shortage of food got worse from 1916 onwards and the government had to find ways to make sure everyone had enough to eat, although rationing only started in 1918, which was probably a bit too late.
The lavish dinner party on the left contrasts with the one room tenement home on the right.
- Differences between the diets of rich and poor people
- The daily life of a grocer and provisions merchant
- The new National Loaf
- The challenges of being a butcher during the war
- Dishonest shop-keepers
- A generous gift by the pupils of Hampstead Parochial School
- National kitchens
- Suggested Questions
- Further Resources
- Imagine it is 1914 and your family is poor. Your father might be a labourer and your mother might do other people’s washing . Write a diary with a description of what you ate and how you felt. Draw your main meal of the day. Then imagine your family is wealthy, perhaps with a home in the country. Write a letter to a friend describing a dinner party and draw a picture of it.
- Draft a letter from Mr Gurney Randall the butcher to his cousin in the United States, describing all the problems of running his butcher’s business in Hampstead.
- Make a cartoon drawing of the new type of war bread to show how a loaf of bread had changed.
- Cookery clubs could try some recipes from the period
- Create a poster encouraging people not to waste food and suggest ways in which food could be saved and waste avoided.
- Sights, sounds and Smells of the Street – Shops
- Sight, sounds and smells of the street – Street Traders
- Life in the Home – Housework (including cooking)
Differences between the diets of rich and poor people
What you ate depended on which social and economic class you belonged to. This affected your health and well- being and that of your brothers and sisters.
Imagine you were from a very wealthy family – your parents would regularly host a dinner of between 8 and 12 courses. In rich households food was chosen and cooked to show off to others, and was used as a symbol of the person’s social status. To get some idea of what might be eaten at such a dinner have a look at one of the first class menus on the Titanic.
Imagine you were from a middle class family– such as a doctor, teacher or worker in the City. You would not have such exotic meals but there was still a wide variety in your diet. New and interesting food and ingredients were coming in from abroad, such as Madras curry powder, dates, olives and tinned pineapples. You could also get products like Bovril and Marmite. Puddings were a regular feature at meals, including ‘Bird’s Custard’, jelly and blancmange.
However if you were middle class and single your diet might be limited by the lack of cooking facilities where you lived. You probably rented rooms in a house. You might buy a spirit stove for cooking on. This would enable you to reheat food or to make an omelette, have beans on toast or have a fry up. If you were lucky enough to have a room in a house where there was gas, your landlady might agree to you having a small stove.
Because of the lack of a kitchen many single people would eat their evening meal in one of the local dining rooms. There several in Hampstead. One of them is where Pizza Express is now on Heath Street. These weren’t restaurants as we know them today, but places where people could get a hot meal on their way home.
Imagine you were from a poor family – you would expect to be hungry and undernourished! There was usually barely enough money for you to have one meal a day. It is no surprise that the children’s growth would be stunted and they could well have rickets (a bone disease). A boy from a poor family, on average, was 5 inches shorter than a boy from a wealthy family.
Often poor families were crowded together in a couple of rooms. The mother might only have a fire on which to cook and coal was expensive. She might have only one cooking pot or stew pot, so whatever she cooked she cooked in this pot. She had no fridge and was unlikely to have a larder where she could keep food cold, so milk and eggs (if she could afford them) would go off, especially in summer. The family diet was based on tea, bread and jam or dripping, potatoes and bacon. Meat or fish was only eaten once a week and then only cheaper items like a kipper or a chop. If money was really short only the father would have the meat because he needed the strength to work. In many poor families children hardly ever ate meat.
Because they were poorly nourished children from poor families often fell ill. But there was no National Health Service and the family would have to pay for medicine. Many families simply didn’t have enough money for this, so many children died before reaching the age of five. Find out more about the health problems of poorer people.
The daily life of a grocer and provisions merchant
As there were no supermarkets in 1914 you went to a variety of shops to get what you needed. Alternatively you might go to one of the street markets. One of the oldest street markets is Queen’s Crescent in Kentish Town.
We are going to look at the daily life of a grocer. There were several in Hampstead, including Mr George Williams who had a business in Flask Walk. The grocer stocked mainly dry foodstuffs like tea, coffee and sugar. He would also stock some fresh items like ham, bacon, butter and cheese. (The picture on the left shows a display in a grocer’s shop window.)
Mr Williams would have worked very hard. His shop probably opened at 8.30 am in the morning and stayed open until 8.00 pm at night. Items didn’t come ready packaged as they do nowadays. All his dry goods – like sugar, dried fruit, lentils, rice and butter beans – were delivered in sacks by horse-drawn vehicles. All these items then needed to be weighed by hand and wrapped ready for the customers.
Cheese, margarine, butter and lard were also delivered in bulk. Cheese was wrapped in cheesecloth which would have to be “skinned” before the cheese was cut up. The butter and margarine would need to be weighed out and the butter and margarine made into shapes using butter pats on butter blocks, while the lard was weighed and cut into portions.
Tea would arrive in tea chests and coffee in special wax-lined paper bags. It is possible that Mr Williams did his own blending of tea and coffee in his shop. He would then need to weigh it out and put it in separate packages.
Hocks, gammons and whole sides of bacon were also delivered and probably cooked on the premises by Mr Williams. They would then be cut up into rashers of bacon and slices of ham. Needless to say the man who sharpened the knives was a very important visitor.
All this cooking, measuring out and wrapping would probably be done early in the morning before the shop opened or after it closed at the end of the day – so it would be a very long, hard day for Mr Williams.
When the War came food wasn’t rationed until Dec 1917. However people used to worry about shortages and, if a food delivery was observed, people would rush into the shop to buy what had been delivered. Once items were sold there might be no more deliveries for some time. Grocers like Mr Williams didn’t want their shops to look empty so they often put dummy packets on the shelves.
Click here for a picture of a War time food queue before rationing started
Even before the outbreak of the War a lot of Britain’s food had been imported, such as wheat from the United States. When War broke out there was a lot of panic buying of food by people who had the money to do so. This led to the price of food going up and increased the hardship felt by the poor. Some shopkeepers were also guilty of holding back food to encourage the price of food to go up!
As the needs of the army grew and the German U-boats became more successful in sinking merchant ships bringing cargo to Britain, food and fuel became more and more scarce. By late 1917 it was realised that the situation was very grave and rationing began.
The country was short of food and the government wanted to make sure that no food was wasted. They ran a poster campaign like the one on the left.
Here are some other examples of ways in which the government and local authorities tried to encourage people not to waste food –
- People were advised to eat slowly and only when they were absolutely hungry.
- Rich people were encouraged not to have such lavish meals.
- People were told not to feed stray dogs and it was suggested that dogs should not be allowed to breed to conserve food
- An Act of Parliament – The Defence of the Realm Act – said bread should not be fed to horses
- Poster campaigns by the Ministry of Food, including one which said “Food must go to the troops; voluntary rationing at home is a matter of honour”.
- Cookery demonstrations in shops (like John Barnes in Finchley Road, now Waitrose) emphasised the need to use scarce foods carefully, particularly fats, sugar, meat, tea, milk and eggs.
- In order to save sugar the government’s Food Controller ordered in January 1917 that sugar should not be added to bread (it had been added to speed up the action of the yeast).
- The Food Controller also ordered in May 1917 that the sale of newly baked bread should be banned and that bread should be at least 12 hours old when it was sold.
There were several reasons for this last regulation. One was that it was found that if bread was a bit stale people ate less of it. Another was that bread was traditionally cooked by men at night and sold freshly baked in the morning. But women were now needed to bake the bread and they would not want to walk through the dark streets by themselves late at night. Many also had children to look after. And, finally, cooking at night meant that fuel for light was needed and the government needed to save fuel. For all these reasons it was proposed that bread should be baked during the day time.
The new National Loaf
The shortage of bread was a big problem. It was the staple food of the very poor who were already suffering from increased food and fuel prices. People in England also traditionally ate white bread, which took more flour than wholemeal bread.
Most of the wheat needed to make bread was imported from the United States and the German U- Boats had been successfully attacking the ships bringing much needed wheat. The Hornsey MP Mr Kennedy Jones gave a very passionate speech in April 1917 about the need to save ’every crumb’.
“…every crumb must be saved, and the person who eats a slice of bread more than he needs, the servant who throws away a crust, the housewife who fails to exercise the most careful supervision over the rationing of her household, is helping the enemy……”
‘War flour’ was introduced, which we know as wholemeal flour . By December 1916 bakers were required to make bread which contained at least 76% wholemeal flour. They called it ‘National Bread’ or ‘War Bread’. People were also encouraged to make their own bread by mixing the flour with pre- cooked rice or sago or potatoes, as well as haricot beans or barley, to make the flour go further. Recipes were published to help people to do this. And it was prohibited to feed animals, including poultry, with anything that could be made into flour including wheat, rye, barley or rice.
Right from the start of the War, panic buying of food by the better-off residents of Hampstead caused hardship to others. Parliament gave powers to the Home Secretary in Aug 1914 to intervene in food markets across the country to steady prices.
Because of shortages, rationing was introduced progressively during the War- first sugar and milk, then (by the end of 1917), tea, butter, margarine, bacon and lamb. Each household had a ration book with a page for each controlled item, which was used to register with the appropriate shop-keeper. In addition, controlled prices were introduced in July 1917.
Many people tried to cheat the system. For example, in December 1917 Alice Mary Evill was fined 20 shillings because she falsely applied for 56 pounds of sugar for fruit preserving, declaring it was for fruit grown by herself – but she didn’t grow fruit! Did you know that families could be prosecuted for having “excess rations” (ie hoarding)? Many families tried to grow vegetables to supplement their diet – and there were allotments on Hampstead Heath.
A speaker from the Ministry of Food (Jan 1918) told women who were tired of queueing that rationing was a matter of honour, to reduce the risk to ships and crews importing food and to send as much food as possible to the troops in Flanders.
The challenges of being a butcher during the war
With shortages, rationing and other restrictions it was difficult being a tradesman during the war. We are going to look at on the problems of being a butcher, and in particular Mr Gurney Randall of England’s Lane. Have a look at the picture below and see how butchers used to display their meat outside their shops.
Notice how the butcher hangs his meat outside his shop. This would not be very hygienic today with all the traffic fumes. And it isn’t in a refrigerated cabinet.
Running a business during the War was challenging to say the least. Most of the young men had gone to fight at the Front so Mr Gurney Randall was short of help in the shop and with deliveries to customers. Also in winter the streets were dark so people didn’t want to go out shopping. If they did they couldn’t look in your window to see what you were selling because of the black-out (illuminating shop-fronts was banned in Dec 1914). And the men or boys doing the deliveries didn’t want to go out when it was dark because it was dangerous. (Have a look at the related topics ‘Air Raids and Dark Streets’ and ‘People in the street were different’.)
Mr Gurney Randall was finding that he couldn’t satisfy his customers, so he published the following letter in the Hampstead and Highgate Express on 2nd December 1916 to ask for his customers’ co-operation. From the tone of his letter he is concerned that his customers will be cross and he probably fears that they will shop elsewhere, but he obviously feels he has no choice!
Appeal to the ladies of Hampstead
From Messrs T Gurney Randall & Sons – butchers
We feel sure you will pardon us approaching you to assist us in conducting our business, by personally instructing your household that our employees should not be required to call at your house more frequently than is necessary. Our staff has been greatly reduced as 23 of our men have joined His Majesty’s Forces, and even if it were possible to replace them, it would, as you would agree, be unpatriotic, as men are required for more important work.
During the winter we trust that you will therefore, as far as is convenient, have your luncheon requirements delivered a day in advance, especially as regards Saturday, when owing to increased business and lighting regulations, it becomes more and more difficult to complete deliveries before dark; and also, if possible, arrange that our man calls only once daily should your house be any considerable distance.
Owing to the shortage of labour, we have recently found it advisable to close our Haverstock Hill branch, and the whole of the staff have come to our England’s Lane branch as, by centralizing the trade, we believe our customers will receive better attention.
We fully appreciate all that the ladies have done in every possible way in assisting to win the war, and we feel confident that this letter will receive your kind consideration …..”
And if that wasn’t enough things got worse for his business! The next problem was that there wasn’t enough meat to sell. The shortage of meat was caused by a number reasons, but particularly the need to feed the army and the soldiers at the Front. They needed to be kept properly nourished so they were strong enough to fight. A government order was issued on the 1st of January 1918 stating that there had to be one meatless day each week on which no meat, either cooked or uncooked, could be sold. By the end of January this was extended to two meat free days. However some butchers were so short of things to sell that they only opened for one hour each day!
Sometimes food shops were prosecuted for exploiting the shortages. The Hampstead and Highgate Express included stories fairly regularly about dishonest shopkeepers selling “adulterated” milk (ie watered down), or mixing butter with less expensive margarine, or selling bad eggs or unsound meat, or giving customers “short weight”, or trying to charge more than the regulated price. Thankfully most shop-keepers were honest, and the public quickly reported anyone who wasn’t!
A generous gift by the pupils of Hampstead Parochial School
Despite food shortages people were still generous. The children of Hampstead Parochial Infants School sent all the produce from their Harvest Festival Service in November 1917 to the Hampstead General Hospital. It was an amazing harvest – 36 lbs of potatoes, 22 lbs of apples, 14 lbs of pears, 6 lbs of plums, 5 lbs tomatoes, 3 lbs of grapes, 9 lbs carrots, 11 lbs turnips, 6 lbs of beans, 7 cabbages, 7 beetroots and 13 marrows. (It is not clear how much was grown in the school garden and how much was donated by parents.)
From the beginning of the War, some dining rooms had provided charitable support for needy cases. In Dec 1914, for example, the Kentish Town Dining Rooms advertised for donations to provide hot meals for “necessitous expectant and nursing mothers and children below school age”. It provided about 3,000 such meals a year. As the War progressed the need became even greater.
In September 1917 coal was put on ration. Food and fuel shortages and the rising cost of food became an even bigger problem, especially for poorer families. To make sure that the poorer people had access to food and that food was properly distributed the government ordered local authorities to set up National Kitchens. In September 1917 a National Kitchen was set up in Netherwood Road Kilburn, which at that time was a poor neighbourhood. The costs of setting up the kitchen were met by the Mayor and various local donors. It was run by a paid professional cook and her assistant and the rest of the work was done by volunteers. Later National Kitchens were also set up in Finchley Road, the High Street, England’s Lane, West End Lane and South End.
These kitchens provided about 20,000 mid-day meals each week (by Nov 1918). Below is a description of a day in one of the kitchens, published in the Hampstead and Highgate Express on 29th Nov 1917 –
…. the main objective (is) to provide hot and cold meals at a reasonable price; to economize coal and labour; and to provide the utmost nutriment from the food by scientific catering and cooking. The prices charged will cover all costs, with no profit and no loss….the kitchen serves between 3 and 4 hundred customers every weekday between 12 noon and 2 pm. No meals are allowed to be eaten on the premises and customers are required to bring their own jugs, dishes, plates etc…..the menu will contain choices each day and varied as frequently as circumstances permit.
The menu on the day the reporter visited was soup (half pint) 1d, steak pudding 4d, shepherds pie 4d, potatoes 1d, greens 1d, rice pudding 1 ½ d, queen’s pudding 2d.
One customer gave the reporter a bit of a start, and he suggested she was a boarding house keeper because she ordered 7 steak puddings, with corresponding quantities of vegetables – however the lady superintendent said she knew her – the customer’s husband was a discharged soldier unfit for work and in receipt of only a very small pension. They had 4 children and the wife was nobly doing her duty in 2 ways by carrying out the arduous duties of a post woman, which didn’t leave much time to cook for a family. Here however was a cheap and good meal served in 2 or 3 minutes, and the superintendent believed this one case could justify the existence of the kitchen…..
…a little boy of 10 indicated his satisfaction by giving the reporter a big wink!
- Why wasn’t there enough food to go round? What do you think is the fairest way of sharing what there was?
- What do you think life was like for Mums, trying to feed their families when food was scarce and so was the money to buy it?
- What do you think of the advice the government gave to prevent or reduce the waste of food?
BBC Schools World War One – what did children eat and drink? http://www.bbc.co.uk/schools/0/ww1/25243103
- Hampstead and Highgate Express between 1914 and 1918
- The Times for 4th January 1917
- Colquhoun, Kate (2007). Taste; the story of Britain through its cooking. London: Bloomsbury
- Lewis, Ella M. ‘A Kentish Town Grocer’s in the Great War’, Camden History Review, volume 8
- Downton Abbey Cooks http://downtonabbeycooks.com/
- CookIt http://cookit.e2bn.org/
This page was last updated on November 11th, 2014.