Food, Health and Income


John Boyd Orr (1880-1971) was a Scottish nutritional scientist, farmer and campaigner. He is a food hero because he engaged with the political world and used his scientific knowledge to improve global nutrition, which is why he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1949.

Born in Ayrshire he trained as a doctor at Glasgow University where he won a gold medal for his thesis. In 1913 he was appointed to oversee the development of a new research institute at Aberdeen University. This project was interrupted by the First World War during which he served in the Army as a doctor and was at the battles of the Somme and Passchendaele. Returning to Aberdeen in 1919 he used his considerable financial and persuasive skills to develop the Rowett Institute which was carrying out research into animal nutrition.

He was asked by the British government to investigate the idea of a national food policy and the resulting report, Food, Health and Income, was published in 1937. It made uneasy reading for those in government. It mustered considerable research to demonstrate that many people in Britain were simply too poor to eat a nourishing diet. The report stated,
“… a diet completed adequate for health according to modern standards is reached only at an income level above that of 50% of the population.” John Boyd Orr, Food, Health and Income, MacMillian, p.44

During World War Two he advised Lord Woolton and helped shape the wartime diet for the better. In 1945 he retired as the Director of the Rowett Institute and began a new international career becoming as the first Director General of the Food and Agricultural Organisation. He proposed a World Food Board to distribute food to where it was needed. It was an ambitious plan and when it failed Orr resigned in disappointment. It may have been a Utopian plan but you have to love him for trying.

The First School Dinners


Margaret McMillan, campaigner and writer. Image from www.spartacus.schoolnet.co.uk

British school dinners do not have a good reputation but when they began they were a lifesaving initiative.  Just over 100 years ago a number of people in Bradford played an important role in introducing and promoting school meals.

After 1870, when primary education became compulsory, it became clear that many poor children were attending school hungry.  What was not clear was whether public money ought to be used to feed them.   In Bradford two members of the School Board, Fred Jowett (1864-1944) and Margaret McMillan (1860-1931), argued that if the state required children to attend school it also had a duty to feed them because education on an empty stomach was a waste of money.

Fred Jowett, MP for Bradford East. Image from http://www.independentlabour.org.uk

Fred Jowett explained that “ In September, 1904, such distress existed in Bradford that the teachers under the education authority were called together to give advice and impart knowledge as far as they were able, as to the extent of under-feeding among the school children, and they reported to the education committee that in their opinion some 3,000 children in the Bradford schools were insufficiently fed…Such was the feeling of the education committee, on the facts being stated, that they immediately passed a resolution to the effect that they would feed such children as needed to be fed out of public funds, and run any risks that they might be running thereby…”. [1]

The risk was that Bradford City Council was not entitled to use public funds for this purpose.  This changed with the 1906 Provision of School Meals Act.  This Act allowed, but did not require, local authorities to use taxpayer’s money to provide food for school children.  In Bradford they got stuck in.  Not only did they feed the children breakfast and a mid-day meal, they also ran an experiment to show the effect of doing so.  Extracts from the report  can be read on the National Archives website and there are some evocative photos from the early days of school meals in Bradford here.

[1] Hansard 7th December 1906.

Charles “Turnip” Townshend


Charles Townshend, 2nd Viscount Townshend as a young man. Painting from the studio of Godfrey Kneller. National Portrait Gallery.

The nickname “Turnip” was given to Charles Townshend (1674-1738) because of his enthusiasm for the root vegetable and, when I did my history “O” level, he was definitely presented as a hero of the Agricultural Revolution.   According to Charles the virtues of the turnip lay in their ability to help increase the amount of food produced, rather than how they improved a stew.

Born at Raynham Hall, Norfolk, he had an impressive political career before turning his attention to new farming techniques, in particular the four field crop rotation.  This system of growing was an important factor in increasing food production during the British Agricultural Revolution. However, four field crop rotation was a development of existing practice and not one of Charles Townshend’s making.   Farmers had long moved crops about from year-to-year in a system which normally involved  leaving some land out of production.  Nor did Charles Townshend introduce the turnip to Britain.   His contribution was as an advocate rather than as an originator.

It could be argued that the real heroes were the Flemish farmers who developed the idea of rotating crops of wheat, barley, clover and turnips on their land during the 16th century.  This system kept the soil in good condition and avoided leaving land fallow.  The turnips were fed to cattle during the winter helping to increase the amount of meat, milk and manure.

The adoption of the four field crop rotation increased food production in Britain and Charles “Turnip” Townshend deserves credit for using his land and social position to promote it.

The Poor Live off Bread, Jam and Tea


Maud Pember Reeves. Image from http://www.nzine.co.nz.

Round About a Pound a Week by Maud Pember Reeves (1865-1953) was a landmark book. It described how the “respectable” working poor lived and, in doing so, provided evidence to support arguments for child benefit and school meals.

The book, first published in 1913, was based on four years of research by the Fabian Women’s Group.  This group set out to investigate the impact of nutrition on the health of mothers and their children because it was known that a greater proportion of the babies born in poor areas died compared to those born in wealthier areas.   Each week the Fabian women visited homes in Lambeth, a poor part of London, and interviewed working class mothers.  The notebooks recording these visits are held by the LSE library.

The research looked at families with a weekly wage of between 18 and 26 shillings and revealed how little money was left for food once the rent and other necessities had been covered.  Even in cases where the husband brought home his entire wage (rather than spending most it down the pub or elsewhere) and where the mother was deemed a “good manager” the meals provided inadequate nutrition.

“Bread…is their chief food.  It is cheap; they like it; it comes into the house ready cooked; it is always at hand, and needs no plate and spoon.” [1]

The book challenged some conventional views of poverty.  It rejected what Maud described as the “gospel of porridge”.  It explained to well-meaning middle-class philanthropists that although porridge might be the cheapest and most nutritious breakfast it is not a sensible option if you live in two rooms without a stove, the only saucepan you have is burnt and / or your children don’t like it.

Maud was brought up in New Zealand and moved to Britain with her husband when he became New Zealand’s Agent-General.  In London Maud was active in left-wing politics and the Fabian Women’s Group was started at a meeting in her home. During the First World War she worked in the Ministry of Food as the Director of the Education and Propaganda but she withdrew from public life after the death of her son on active duty in 1917.

A century after the book was published I think it is time to go back to Lambeth and re-do this research.

[1] Round About a Pound a Week, edition published by Virago Press in 1997,  p.97