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.

Curry Powder Heroes

An advert for Vencatachellum’s curry powder from a 1930s recipe booklet, which warns against the perils of inferior curry powders.

Today we can be pretty snobby about curry powder.  How can a single blend of spices do justice to an enormous range of dishes from a huge geographical area?   Clearly it can’t, but curry powder did encourage the British to start cooking curries and for that Mr Sharwood and Mr Vencatachellum are heroes in my book.

Recipes for curry appear in 18th century British cookery books and Queen Victoria had Indian chefs working in the royal kitchens.  This early interest is hardly surprising given British activities in South Asia but, until the 20thcentury, curry was a minority taste.  It took some enterprising individuals to bring curry into mainstream eating.  The British Raj (1858- 1947) meant that plenty of British people returned home with a taste for spicy food. Some wrote Anglo-Indian cookery books, for example Col. Kenney-Herbert who wrote under the pen name of “Wyvern”.  His Culinary Jottings for Madras  was republished fairly recently.  Others opened restaurants, the Veeraswamy in London was one of the earliest and, many more followed in the second half of the 20th century.

In the 1890s a salesman called James Allen Sharwood (1859-1941) realised that there was a market for exotic chutneys, pickles and spices.   One of the products to come under the Sharwood’s umbrella was Vencatachellum’s curry powder. The Vencatachellum business had been operating in Madras since 1860 and a British patent for Vencatachellum’s curry powder was registered in 1894.  This mixture of saffron, turmeric, cumin, coriander and chillies, was sold well into the 20th century before Sharwood’s replaced it with its own blend.

Towards the end of the 20th century it took other food heroes and heroines to teach us to appreciate the finer points of spices.

The Poor Live off Bread, Jam and Tea

Maud Pember Reeves. Image from

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

Electrical Trailblazer

Col. Crompton

Colonel Rookes Evelyn Bell Crompton (1845–1940) helped to popularize the use of electricity in the home.  He set up a firm that made electrical products including the world’s first electric toaster.

After an early career in the army and bit of time working for an engineering firm Col. Crompton set up his own company in Chelmsford, Essex.  By the 1880s Crompton & Company was producing a variety of electrical items, including dynamos, switch gears and arc lamps, many of which Col. Crompton had helped to design.  This was very new technology.  Early electrical schemes tended to be limited to lighting large public buildings and Crompton worked on a number of these, for example at Kings Cross Station.

Col. Crompton had the imagination to recognize that electricity could transform the domestic environment, but only if electricity could be supplied in a reliable and safe way.  In 1887 Crompton built a power station at Kensington Court, an up-market housing development in London.   As with many new technological developments there were a few early adopters but most people took a while to catch on and it was decades before electricity became standard in ordinary homes.   The delay wasn’t simply down to the lack of infrastructure or the cost of electrical goods.   There were also anxieties to overcome.  During the early 20th century Col. Crompton helped to remove many of these obstacles, for instance he worked closely with the Electrical Association of Women, a group that explained the benefits of electricity in the home.

As for his toaster, it was called the Eclipse and produced in 1893.  It doesn’t sound like it was the most successful product.  It only toasted one side of the bread at a time and the heating elements tended to break, but you have to admire Col. Crompton’s vision.  To find out more about the history of toasters go to the on-line toaster museum.

Father of the Baby Belling

This 1950s Baby Belling is for sale. If you are interested go to

A hundred years ago, in 1912, Charles Reginald Belling (1884-1965) set up an electrical engineering business with two friends.   The firm made a variety of electrical equipment but it is probably best known for the very cute Baby Belling cooker.

Charles, often known as CRB, was born in 1884 in Bodmin, Cornwall where his father, Thomas was a dentist.   After attending school in Cornwall he was apprenticed to Crompton & Co of Chelmsford, a firm which had pioneered electricity in the home.   A few years later he moved and joined the staff of Ediswan in Ponders End, supervising the manufacture of arc lamps, transformers and heaters.

He set up his own business making electric heaters in a shed in Enfield.  The firebars that he had designed (wire wound around a special form of ceramic) made electric fires much better.  The heaters sold well and the business expanded.  He applied some of this technical know how to cookers as well.

The first Baby Bellling was produced in 1929.  These small ovens were cheaper than full-sized models and came onto the market as the number of houses wired for electricity was increasing.  The proportion of British houses with an electrical supply rose from 18% in 1926 to 86% in 1949 [1].

CRB introduced a little cooker which did a great job in small poky flats and bedsits, definitely a food hero.

Belling is still going and has produced a book to mark its centenary.  For more information go to

[1]  Rebecca Weaver and Rodney Dale, 1992, Machines in the Home, British Library, London, p. 6..