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.

A Rationing Hero


Lord Woolton. Photo from the E. Chambré Hardman Archive.

It is Remembrance Day and I want to honour all the men and women that kept the British population well fed during the Second World War.

First among many was Lord Woolton (1883-1964) who was the Minister of Food between April 1940 and November 1943.  He helped to make rationing a success and must be one of the few politicians to have given his name to a pie, the Woolton Pie.

He is a food hero because he helped to apply the new scientific knowledge of nutrition to rationing, organised a system that worked and helped people to make the most of the ingredients that were available.  The radio broadcasts, cookery demonstrations and leaflets produced during the War were particularly important.   You can listen to a 1942 broadcast, the Buggins Family on the Kitchen Front on the BBC’s website.

Born in Salford, Frederick Marquis (he didn’t become Lord Woolton until 1939) was educated at the Manchester Grammar School and later the University of Manchester.  He began his working life as a teacher then, in 1909, he took a job in Liverpool as the warden at the Liverpool University Settlement, a social welfare project. He stayed in Liverpool and went to work for Lewis’s, a big department store, becoming director in 1928 and chairman in 1936.  By the time the Second World War broke out he had already been involved in a number of government committees.

Important lessons had been learnt from the First World War, when rationing was introduced but it had been too little and too late.  By the time the Second World War broke out the government was much better prepared.

There were shortages during the War, the diet may have been dull and queuing common but people were fed.  That in itself was an achievement.  The fact that rationing helped improve the diet of so many people is downright impressive.

During the War Lord Woolton stayed out of party politics.  His strong Unitarian Christian beliefs drew him towards social reform and a welfare sate but as businessman he was anxious about too much government intervention in the economy.  After the War he joined the Conservatives and was the party chairman for many years.

A Proper Nutritionist


Harriette Chick at work in the 1930s. Image from the Wellcome Library.

Dr. Harriette Chick (1875 – 1977) was a nutritionist best known for her research on vitamins and rickets.

After qualifying as doctor of science in 1904 she applied to work at the Lister Institute .  Apparently, a few members of staff objected to her appointment on the grounds that she was a woman but, happily, the director, Charles Martin, appointed her anyway.  She worked there for over 50 years.

Harriette Chick’s main contribution was to the emerging science of nutrition.  In the wake of the First World War she led a research team to Vienna.  The War had resulted in food shortages and the population was severely malnourished.  Local doctors had noted an increase in rickets among children and similar bone deformities in adults.   At the time it was generally thought that rickets was an infectious disease. The research team, on the other hand, suspected that the problem was due to poor nutrition.

Working with the hospital staff Harriette’s team made changes to the patients’ diets and recorded the results.  The research demonstrated that rickets was caused by dietary deficiencies, specifically a lack of vitamin D.   The findings were published in 1923 as Studies of Rickets in Vienna.  Her notes from this time are held by the Wellcome Library.  They are scientific but they are also very human.  I especially like her recipe for “anchovy paste”.   It contains cod liver oil and marmite rather than anchovies but it would have contain plenty of vitamin D, which is what helped to fix the bendy bones of  the people in Vienna.

On her return to Britain Harriette became the head of a new department of nutrition at the Lister Institute.  She never married and lived to the ripe old age of 102.

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.

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