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.

ATeashop Revolutionary


Joseph Lyons. Image from http://www.kzwp.com.

Joseph Lyons (1847-1917) was a caterer who created a chain of well-loved teashops.

Born in London he was educated at the Borough Jewish school in the East End.  He had worked in various roles before being approached by some distance relatives to run a tea pavilion at the Newcastle Jubilee Exhibition in 1887.  The Gluckstein brothers and their business partner Barnett Salmon had noticed that the refreshments on offer at this type of big exhibition were poor.  They thought that they could do better and invited Joseph Lyons to front the business.

Catering at exhibitions proved so successful that a public company was founded, J. Lyons & Co, and, in 1894, the first Lyon’s teashop opened at 213 Piccadilly, London. By 1914 there were 180 Lyons teashops in city centres across England, more than any other company.

The teashops popularity was due to the fact that they served simple food in clean surroundings at affordable prices.  Joseph Lyon’s sense of showmanship also contributed to their success.  The teashops were beautifully decorated (red wallpaper, gas chandeliers and a fair amount of gold paint) and the waitresses (who became known as “nippies”) wore smart uniforms.

In 1909 the first of the larger Lyon’s Corner Houses appeared.  These were fancier establishments designed in an Art Deco style and included mini-food halls as well as several types of restaurant.

The last Lyons teashop closed in 1981.

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.

Now We’re Cooking With Gas!


Marie “Jenny” Fleurot and William Sugg the day before their wedding in 1871. Image from http://www.williamsugghistory.co.uk.

The first gas cookers went on sale during the 1830s and while there were some early adopters, for example, the kitchens at the Reform Club were fitted with gas cookers as early as 1838, most people carried on using solid fuel ranges. I am proposing Marie Jenny Sugg (1850-1919) as a food heroine for her promotion of gas cookery.

In 1890, when Mrs Sugg ‘s book, The Art of Cooking by Gas, was published gas cookers had become more common but the author felt that readers needed a bit of reassurance about the advantages of cooking with gas. In the introduction she wrote, … the economy of cooking by properly regulated gas is beyond question: and this economy is realized not only in the fuel saved but on the food itself, the nutritive properties of which are fully developed without waste. The cleanliness and convenience of gas as a fuel and the saving in time and labour, need only be once understood to be thoroughly appreciated, and those who adopt gas in the kitchen will find themselves free from all that trouble, dirt, and uncertainty in working which attend a coal kitchener.” (p.7)

Mrs Sugg’s promotion of gas cookers was far from disinterested. She had married into a family that ran a firm specializing in gas lighting, heating and cooking. Rather excitingly, Mrs Sugg met her husband, William Sugg (1832-1907), while he was visiting France on business during the Siege of Paris. The marriage produced 12 children and, after the birth of the last one, a cookery book.

Their great-grandson has set up a very informative website about the history of William Sugg & Co and for a more general history of the gas industry there is the Gas Museum in Leicester.

Red Herrings, Bloaters and Kippers


Red herrings, bloaters and kippers all begin life as herrings but are transformed by being cured in different ways.  Before electrical refrigeration curing fish by salting and smoking was an important method of preservation.

Of the three red herrings have the strongest taste.  They are made by soaking whole herrings in brine for up to three weeks and then smoking them for another two or three weeks.   This turns the flesh red.   Red herrings have been made for centuries.  In 1567 Thomas Nash wrote Lenten Stuffe, or the Praise of the Red Herring, in which he praises their keeping qualities and their ubiquity,

“… it is most precious fish-merchandise, because it can be carried through all Europe.  No where are they so well cured as at Yarmouth.  The poorer sort make it three parts of their sustenance.  It is every man’s money from the king to the peasant.”

These strongly flavoured fish have fallen out of favour but they live on in the phrase “red herring”, i.e. a misleading and irrelevant distraction.

Bloaters are a lot like red herrings in that they are not gutted or split before being cured, but bloaters are only lightly salted and lightly smoked.  The cure for bloaters is considerably quicker than for red herrings.  This produces a mild tasting soft fish which does not keep for very long.  Bloater paste, a Victorian tea time treat, was a way of extending the shelf life of bloaters.

Kipper workers in Craster, Northumberland. Photo from http://wecanmindthetime.org.uk.

John Woodger is credited with inventing the kipper in Northumberland during the 1840s.  His innovation was to split the herring along its back (not along the belly) and remove the guts.  Once this is done the herring is soaked in brine for 20-30 minutes and then smoked for 12-20 hours.  Regional variations mean that there are lots of different types of kipper.To summarise,

  • Red herrings – an old cure for whole herring that produces salty and highly smoked fish.  A good keeper.
  • Boaters – lightly salted and lightly smoked whole herrings.  Mild tasting.
  • Kippers – a 19th century innovation.  The fish are split, gutted and smoked.

A New Class


I taught the first class of the WEA “Food Heroes and Heroines” course this morning.    Today was about introductions, a bit of administration and the Agricultural Revolution.

There were 18 students and I think it is going to be fun.  They are asking lots of good questions already!  Here are some I promised to bring back to the class next week with my answers so far.

  1. When was Thomas Malthus alive?  He was born in 1766 and died in 1834.
  2. When were tarmaced roads introduced in Britain?  This doesn’t have a simple answer.  John Loudon McAdam introduced “macadamisation” around 1820.  This produced good roads for horse traffic but, strictly speaking, “tarmac” is a type of road surface  patented by Edgar Purnell Hooley in 1901.
  3. Does the Dishley Society set up by Robert Bakewell in 1783 still exist?  I can’t find it so I guess that it has been absorbed into the Leicester Agricultural Society or perhaps the Leicester Sheep Breeders’ Association. There is a New Dishley Society which covers Robert Bakewell’s historical legacy.
  4. Why did the population of Britain double between 1801 and 1851 (8.7 to 16.7 million)? It can’t just be because of increased productivity on the farms, can it? The short answer is no.  The population explosion was due to a variety of factors.  It comes down to increased birth rates and decreased death rates.  Given the dreadful living conditions in towns during the early 19th century I find this hard to believe but something was going on.

For more on the Agricultural Revolution this article by Professor Mark Overton on the BBC’s website, Agricultural Revolution in England 1500-1850, is worth a read.

Inspirational Food Historian


Dorothy Hartley. Photo by Ron Thomson.

Dorothy Hartley (1893- 1985) was a very interesting woman and her book Food in England qualifies her as a top-notch food heroine.

She was born in Skipton, Yorkshire where her father Rev. Hartley was the headmaster at the local grammar school.  She went to Nottingham Art School but the First World War interrupted her training and she worked in a munitions factory for a while.  After the War she worked as an art teacher.  In 1933 she settled in Froncysyllte, North East Wales and lived there until her death at the age of 92.

Her interest in social history resulted in several books but the best (in my opinion) is Food in England, which was first published in 1954.  It is a big book, packed full of information about food history and highly readable.  It includes, for example, instructions on how to smoke and salt a ham, descriptions of various breeds of cattle, a text on Medieval table manners and a discussion of the causes of malnutrition during the Industrial Revolution.  All the way through the book she includes recipes, illustrations and puts food into its historical and social context.   Her definition of “English” is rather elastic and there are plenty of references to Irish, Scottish and Welsh food.

I bought my copy of Miss Hartley’s book this summer and it has taught me everything I need to know about blackberries.  On page 427 is a drawing is of a blackberry cluster along with her useful observations about the fruit.  She tells us that the fruit at the tip of the clusters ripen first.  These are soft, juicy and best eaten raw.  The next ones to ripen are better cooked in puddings or made into jams.  As the season progresses the fruit at the rear of the cluster ripens and the proportion of pulp to seed reduces.  These later berries should be cooked with apples, if eaten at all.  I love her carefully researched practical guidance and I love that her last book was published when she was 86.  There is time for me yet!