Food control, and war service for women

Food control was a matter of national concern in the UK in both the First World War and the Second World War. If the trade-off for the national prosperity of the Industrial Revolution was people leaving the land to work in factories, then you had to rely heavily on imports to feed those workers. And if you live on an island, your enemies in wartime are going to target shipping to prevent supplies reaching your shores.

Step forward into the debate a feminist who married into a Cumbrian dynasty. And an anonymous Cumbrian farmer’s wife.

Blanche Crackanthorpe and women’s rights

Blanche Althea Cookson/Crackanthorpe (née Holt) (1847-1928) was a writer and journalist. In 1869, she married Montague Hughes Cookson, who took the name Crackanthorpe when he inherited Newbiggin Hall, in Westmorland.

She supported education and work for women and in January 1894, published an article which caused a sensation: The Revolt of the Daughters. 

Her article centred round the right of unmarried girls to be considered as “an individual as well as a daughter”. 

Given that not all women did marry, she believed that a girl should be able to make her own errors, travel freely, visit the music hall (with her brother!) and enjoy improved education.

She didn’t think it fair that daughters were prepped only to be wives. And spoke out against the double standards of Victorian society, where it was deemed ok for men to have a mistress, and to visit prostitutes, but women were expected to be chaste and faithful. 

In February 1917, Blanche Crackanthorpe had some advice for the British government, with a letter in the Westminster Gazette:

War service for women – and food control

Sir,—The announcement that Mr Neville Chamberlain has appointed a director and an assistant director of the Women’s Department of National Service is an encouraging development.

One thing, however, seems clear, namely, that for special service specially-qualified women should at once be enrolled. Such a special National Service, and one demanding immediate attention, is that of Food Control.

We are told of coming “restrictions.” Surely the trained service of teachers of domestic subjects should be used to make these ” restrictions ” as light and as little of a disadvantage as possible, thus minimising the irritation to the people, who will, once there are Government orders, have to accept the restrictions whatever they may be.

Nutrition, not just restriction

The matter is urgent, for we have to keep the nation at its highest pitch of vitality, or the army behind the army cannot work with full efficiency. Therefore a Food Control must do much more than restrict—it must provide means for reducing the ill effects of such restriction to the lowest possible point.

Now, if the qualified women who have studied and been trained in food and dietary questions are to be absorbed in other branches of work, we shall be repeating the mistakes of the early days of the war, when skilled men were enlisted, instead of being kept at skilled work of vital importance to the nation.

More — dealing with food and all that pertains to food is essentially a woman’s question, one in which she has every right to be heard, and one, too, in which she can save labour to men.

There is no doubt that the organisation of Home Catering will be the crucial point upon which the success or the failure of Food Control will turn. Is not this clearly work for women ?—

Yours obediently, B A Crackanthorpe.

 Butter rationing

Blanche was on the side of Cumbrian farmers in 1918 over the thorny topic of butter rationing.

The local view was that supplies were plentiful, there was no need for rationing, and doing so would just mean farmers couldn’t sell their produce.

This was especially bad news for farmers’ wives: selling butter at local town markets gave them a personal income.

Blanche Crackanthorpe sent the Penrith Observer an extract from a letter she had received from the wife of a Culgaith farmer.

Blanche said the writer was the maker of some of the best butter in the county, and the proud mother of sons at the front. 

No doubt you will have heard abour the rationing of butter  – 5 ounces to each person. The farmers’ wives are very cross about this arrangement. If they had made it 8 ounces, then it would not have been so bad. Really, I do not know what they will do next.

View of a Cumbrian farmer’s wife

The writer wished politicians would “get on with the war instead of meddling with things they know nothing about”.

The farmers have been honourable enough to plough out more land for corn etc, and now they want to take most of the agricultural workers off the farms just when the hay and corn harvests are coming, yet we have no say in the matter. 

Life is nothing but worry now. So many are making their piles of money out of the war; they do not care, but all the mothers want it over.