Dr Bryce Evans, senior lecturer in history at Liverpool Hope University, describes the rise and fall of national kitchens, which offered simple, cheap, communal meals to combat hunger during World War 1.
In Britain today, communal efforts to alleviate food poverty are well documented, with community kitchens and social supermarkets operating alongside hundreds of food banks. Yet their historical precedents are less well known.
Significantly, communal feeding programmes were a fixture of Britain’s experience of total war in the 20th century. Between 1940 and 1947, for example, there existed a network of 2,000 state-subsidised ‘national restaurants’ (so christened by prime minister, Winston Churchill, who feared that the Ministry of Food’s original moniker – ‘communal feeding centres’ – was too ‘redolent of communism and the workhouse’). These national restaurants of World War 2 were partly inspired by their overlooked World War 1 predecessor: ‘national kitchens’.
Kitchens for all
National kitchens were locally administered, but part of a major nationwide government-funded programme to alleviate food poverty and its effects.
They grew out of voluntary projects within working class communities to combat wartime supply disruption and price inflation. These projects were first sponsored by the state in May 1917, when Queen Mary opened the first 'kitchen for all' on London's Westminster Bridge.
In November 1917, Lord Rhondda, minister of food control, appointed a business friend, Charles Spencer, to head up the national kitchens division of the Ministry of Food. Spencer took on the project on the condition that it be ‘untrammelled by red tape’, and run as a ‘business proposition’.
Under Spencer, therefore, public kitchens evolved from their communal and voluntarist origins into state-backed businesses. Pre-echoing Churchill, Spencer announced his unease about ‘the word communal ... its association with socialism is too well known, and I am afraid it is rather a handicap'. 'Public' or 'communal' kitchens were thus rebranded, and the 'national kitchen' was born.
The national kitchen model
National kitchens operated via a simple model. Local authorities could apply to the Treasury for a grant covering initial costs and capital. Once they received this money and official endorsement, an individual outlet had to provide meals at or below guideline prices provided by the Ministry and, over 6 months, prove itself able to break even financially before qualifying for further state support.
The most significant instruction from the Ministry was that national kitchens were ‘not to be conducted as a charity’; rather, they had to function as a business, complete with a full set of accounts. Queen Mary may have opened the first ‘kitchen for all', but under the new scheme, the philanthropic ‘Lady Bountiful’ was very much a thing of the past. Kitchen staff, cashiers and cooks were paid, and meals were modestly priced, but never provided for free.
Keeping up appearances
Another aspect crucial in differentiating national kitchens from voluntary food relief was the instruction to keep up appearances. The Ministry appointed a team of women 'organisers' to advise on cleanliness and nutrition (Gazette issue 31114), and instructed that each outlet ‘must not resemble a soup kitchen for the poorest sections of society’, but rather, a place in which ‘ordinary people in ordinary circumstances’ could purchase an attractive yet cheap meal.
Staff had to be well dressed, cooks experienced, and customers were not be patronised as members of the deserving poor; neither could the decor be chintzy, with gramophones and pianos recommended for ambience.
As a prelude to the extension of rationing in January 1918, Rhondda (who in June 1918, just two weeks prior to his death, would be made Viscount, Gazette issue 30764), empowered locally appointed Food Control Committees to take on the running of national kitchens.
In February 1918, the government instructed local authorities to open national kitchens as a matter of urgency, one of several government orders intended to improve British wartime food supply against the backdrop of the intensifying U-boat campaign (Gazette issue 30579). As more opened, national kitchens recorded a roaring trade. Most were proving profitable, with the largest in Hammersmith, London, feeding up to 50,000 people a day, and the largest in Manchester, 3,000. Even villages (of 1,000 people or less) were now urged by the Ministry to turn their local kitchen into a village canteen.
Hearty, healthy fare
Practically, some national kitchens offered takeaway meals, but most operated as cheap restaurants with long benches for diners. Customers queued for a ticket, which was exchanged for a cheap meal.
The Ministry of Food issued a handbook advising on cooking techniques, instructing that dishes should 'bow to prejudice' in offering plain British hearty fare, yet be as nutritious as possible and incorporate plenty of vegetables. The Ministry's National Kitchens division also provided cookery and food economy classes.
Britain, it seemed, had embraced state-supported communal dining, and at the signing of the armistice in September 1918, there were 363 officially registered national kitchens in Britain. However, just 6 months later, there were 120 fewer, and within a year, the movement had all but disappeared. What happened?
Rationing and the decline of communal dining
Some have argued that egalitarianism in public dining held no appeal for the British public, because the unenticing air of fair shares hung over the venture. Evidence shows, on the contrary, that national kitchens were popular and, like other aspects of wartime food policy, their fate had more to do with political will than public indifference.
National kitchens operated as part of a statist food policy encompassing rationing, price control, and state purchasing and, most crucially, the majority of national kitchens preceded the roll-out of comprehensive rationing by the summer of 1918. As late as mid-1918, the Ministry of Food was talking confidently of national kitchens becoming a ‘permanent national institution’, and in August 1918, the government extended their reach, empowering county councils, as well as urban authorities, to open and run national kitchens (Gazette issue 30841).
However, the coming of full rationing delivered fair shares on an individual basis, thus damping demand for dining communally. Added to the vocal opposition to the movement from the restaurant trade and, following the armistice, the broader dismantling of the collectivist ethic, national kitchens were rapidly ditched by penny-pinching local authorities. Briefly appearing as state-funded cafes in London's royal parks, the national kitchens division of the Ministry of Food was finally disbanded in 1919.
About the author
Dr Bryce Evans is a senior lecturer in history at Liverpool Hope University and specialises in the economic and political history of modern food supply. His research into the national kitchens of WW1 was funded by the Wellcome Trust. He keeps a research blog at www.drbryceevans.wordpress.com.