The Hemingfords in World War 1
FEEDING THE FAMILY was a constant problem. Food shortages were continuous. Even before 1914 we needed to import a
large proportion of our foodstuffs and by 1916 this figure had risen to 80%. Traditionally we had relied on the
Merchant Navy and the numerous fishing fleets around the country to keep us supplied, but the need for ships to
transport men and supplies to Europe and other areas of conflict and the declaration of ‘unrestricted submarine
warfare’ by Germany in January 1917 made this impossible.
We were thrown back on our own devices, trying to feed a population that had doubled since 1851 and largely failing.
Statistics show that for every nine men of conscription age, two were unhealthy, three were physical wrecks, one a chronic invalid.
Things may have been easier in the country than in the towns and cities, but even here there were problems, not least the absence of men!
From voluntary enlistment at the outbreak of war to full scale conscription running farms and other agricultural
industries became increasingly difficult and exemption from military service less and less easy to obtain.
As well as women and young boys now working on the land, disabled soldiers, refugees, prisoners of war and Conscientious
Objectors were drafted in.
Seven million extra acres of land were dug up to provide food, gardens were dug up for allotments,
chickens and rabbits were kept in back gardens.
Motor tractors operated day and night. Sunday working became accepted.
But it was never enough and ironically, because much of the food produced was needed elsewhere, particularly for those serving
in France and for military hospitals, people producing the food struggled as much as anybody. Large quantities of fruit and vegetables,
for instance, were needed for sailors at sea.
Seed oats and potatoes were sent to farmers in France as a token of the British farmers’
wish to stand by their allies.
Taxes on beer and tea were raised early on, to raise funds for the war effort and to reduce consumption.
Poaching became a crime,
the Hunts Post reporting in September 1916 that a local lad had been fined 10/- for shooting a hare. Eggs became a rare commodity,
two boys being birched for stealing eggs and a woman fined 10/- for accepting them, knowing them to have been stolen.
A year later Mrs Everitt and Mrs Rathmell collected 472 eggs for the Red Cross military hospital in St Ives’ Methodist Church.
War on the Spadger (house sparrow) was declared, based on the belief that spadgers ate as much as 10% of cereal crops. 3d per dozen paid
for old sparrows caught or killed, 1d per twenty eggs and young sparrows before they left the nest.
Hunts Post 29 December 1916 : “We are finishing 1916 feeling the pinch of the war, food control, having to go gently with sugar,
the increased price of eggs. Whilst you are hungry you will feel virtuous. This year marks the time that Britain found herself
rather ashamed of previously puffy satisfaction, agreed to wear the chains of military conscription and sprang to glorious energy
in organisation, adaptability, engineering science and equipment for war”.
It was the shortage of flour, that caused the most concern. In March 1917 all bread had to be sold by weight, a 1lb loaf,
or even number of lbs, and had to be at least 12 hours old. No currant, sultana or milk bread to be sold. Wheat for flour and
seed only, no grain for poultry, pheasants or other game birds. Maize, oat, rice, potato and barley flours to be used in bread recipes.
A Win the War Cookery Book approved by the government declared “Women of Britain, our soldiers are beating the Germans on land,
our sailors are beating them on the sea. You can beat them in the larder and the kitchen”.
The Royal Family did not exempt themselves. On 2 May 1917 the King issued a proclamation urging the nation that ‘abstention from
unnecessary consumption of grain was the surest means for defeating the devices of Our enemies and thereby bringing the War to a
speedy and successful termination’. Specifically, people were charged TO REDUCE THE CONSUMPTION OF BREAD BY AT LEAST ONE-FOURTH
AND WHEREVER POSSIBLE ABANDON THE USE OF FLOUR IN ALL OTHER ARTICLES THAN BREAD.
By June 1917 the average cost of food had doubled. A government Food Controller was appointed, with local Food Control Committees,
to fix the price of essential foods – sugar, meat, flour, bread, potatoes and milk. Sugar Cards were issued in October 1917.
Sweet making was cut by half. People were encouraged to use corn syrup/glucose instead of sugar when making jam.
No sugar was to be used in making bread.
In July 1917 a Huntingdonshire Women’s Food Economy Committee was formed to go from
house to house obtaining promises from householders to keep within prescribed rations. Sugar cards were issued in October 1917
and Lloyd George appealed to women to give up smoking now that there was a shortage of tobacco!
People responded with typical British humour!
We’re getting bread of sorts today
From which we’re told that pains accrue
And double price for it we pay
Mais c’est la guerre! Que voulez-vous?
We’re getting beer so weak and thin
It might well be a temperance brew
Whisky for wealth and so is gin
Mais c’est la guerre! Que voulez vous?
We can’t have sugar for our jam
And without pastry we must do
Green peas are in, but where’s the lamb
Mais c’est la guerre! Que voulez vous?
Rationing was introduced in January 1918, one person’s rations for a week being: 15oz meat, 5oz bacon, 4oz margarine, 8oz sugar.
But there was no fresh meat in the shops, only corned beef. Ration cards were printed and everybody had
to register with a butcher and a grocer.
Rationing was a clear indication to the British public that all was not well, but it did work.
The malnutrition that had been identified in poorer communities earlier had disappeared and, as in World War 2, twenty-one years later,
no one actually starved.