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The other day we got an enquiry about the types of food which were served by WVS canteens during World War Two, a question which proved somewhat more difficult to answer than you might think.
While we have in the collection many booklets on food and feeding published by the WVS they are mainly about emergency feeding for large numbers of people in rest centres or in the field, and of these, many seem to concentrate on the practical arrangements such as the erection of field cooking equipment rather than the food itself.
None of the emergency feeding booklets contain recipes, but some contain sample menus, for example the 1960 Emergency Feeding Civil Defence Handbook offers a three day plan.
Main courses were:
Meat and Vegetable Stew
Boiled Fruit Pudding
Prunes and Custard
This didn’t help though with our wartime question.
Delving a little deeper we found two information sheets from a 1940 canteen workers’ training scheme that show illustrative menus and give an idea of the kind of meals the members were trained to cook and serve in the mobile and station units.
Main courses were:
Steak and kidney pudding or pie
Toad in the Hole
Roast Shoulder of Mutton
Liver and Bacon
Stewed prunes and custard
Steamed Fig Pudding
Jam Roly Poly
Fruit tart and custard
Milk jelly with fruit
Baked bread pudding
However, in practice it seems that few mobile and station canteens cooked their own food, other than preparing sandwiches and rolls; instead they were provided with food by other agencies, such as the British Restaurants, factory canteens, or large bakeries.
The canteens were very busy indeed, and a domestic kitchen could not have coped with the quantities required. Also, during food rationing, it was much easier to make bulk off-ration purchases from such wholesale suppliers, rather than serving home cooked meals.
A day book we have from the Glasgow mobile canteens as well as a balance sheet for a wartime station canteen in Newport, and a small selection of quarterly narrative reports from canteen managers, do though give a good impression of the kind of food and drinks that were actually served.
The canteens served tea, cocoa, coffee (Twinings prepared a special coffee for WVS canteens, but the Glasgow canteen only served Camp Coffee), assorted mineral drinks, a selection of hot and cold meals (mince and potatoes are specifically mentioned), sandwiches and rolls (jam and cheese), soup, pies, sausage rolls, cakes (sugar cream cakes and “tea-bread” cakes). These were supplemented by sales of Cadburys chocolates, large tins of assorted and chocolate biscuits (bought from local factories) and cigarettes.
The canteen food was not free, and as the soldiers and workers paid for it; inevitably some items were more popular than others! Chocolates, pies and sausage rolls usually sold well; soup and sandwiches did not. Sandwiches particularly went out of favour when the weather was cold and the bread went hard!
Posted by Matthew McMurray, Archvisit and Sheridan Parsons, volunteer at 00:00
Monday, 16 November 2015.
Emergency Feeding ,
Jam Roly poly,
Steak and Kidney Pudding,
Liver and Bacon,
Yesterday was International Women’s day which included an equality march in London by hundreds of Women, including the Great-Granddaughter of Emmeline Pankhurst the leader of the Suffragette movement of the early 20th century. It seems incredible to me that almost one hundred years on from the pioneering work of these Edwardian women that gender equality has still not truly arrived.
Along with the coverage on the news, I also watched Amanda Vickery’s new programme, Suffragettes forever! I have been a fan of Amanda Vickery’s work for some time, ever since I read her book a Gentleman’s Daughter over 15 years ago while at University. In the first programme she explores the role of women in politics from the 18th Century, noting that there were no women in the House of Lords until 1958. You may be thinking where is he going with this, but, I am about to get to my point. That woman, the first to sit in the House of Lords, was the founder of the WVS, Lady Reading.
There were 4 women sworn in that day, but she was chosen to be the very first, a testament to her contribution and achievements. She is probably one of the ten most important women in the 20th century, along with such well-known names as Emmeline Pankhurst , Marie Curie, Eleanor Roosevelt or Rosa Parks, but very few people have ever heard of her.
There is not time in this short blog to List Stella Reading’s achievements and sadly no biography has ever been written about her, but through the WVS/WRVS and her other work she changed the way in which women were perceived. During WWII she created the largest women’s organisation in history with over one million members and spawned copycat organisations all over the world. Her idea changed the perception of Charity, from something which was dispensed by the rich to being an everyday action of helping your friends or loved ones. Volunteering became an activity for all and an opportunity to show in a society, where they were still marginalised, what they were capable of. I do not think it is an understatement that without the WVS and the vision of Lady Reading, much like it was in Germany, the war on the Home Front would have been lost.
The role women played in the Second World war can be argued as one very pivotal step in the slow narrowing of the gender gap and the WVS had impact far beyond the end of the war, with hundreds of thousands of women giving their time up to help their communities, whether that be assisting women prisoners in Holloway Gaol or providing flatlets in cities across Britain for young professional women in the 1950s and 60s.
Lady Reading, despite being a larger than life character was always the first to shy away from claiming any accolade or applause for her achievement. Unlike many of the greatest leaders in history she would never take the honours for herself, always crediting her ‘ladies’ with the triumph.
Posted by Matthew McMurray at 00:00
Monday, 09 March 2015.
International Women's day,
Stella Reading ,
House of Lords,
First I think I should apologise for not posting anything in January. It has though been rather a busy month for us, with the inevitable last minute preparations for the launch of the Archive online and the opening of the enquiry service on the 14 January. We have had a minor flood of enquiries come in on subjects ranging from the classic “My grandmother was in the WVS, what can you tell me about her?” to a rather more difficult request from a postgraduate student on very specific aspects of WVS post war Civil Defence work. This has given the volunteers and myself a whole new purpose and we are really enjoying the varied nature of the research and the opportunity to learn more about the many aspects of WRVS’ history.
So over the next couple of months we will be concentrating on continuing to answer enquiries (do please keep them coming) and helping people prepare for the 75th anniversary celebrations which kick off in May.
I thought I would finish off with a little bit about one of five WVS members who received the George medal for Bravery during WWII, something I came across while doing an enquiry the other day. Some of you may already know Grace Rattenbury’s story, but others may not.
Grace was a member of Bermondsey WVS and with little regard for her own safety assisted in the evacuation of women and children from the Surrey commercial docks in Rotherhithe at the beginning of the London Blitz in September 1940. The docks were alight and the fire threatened to cut people off from the mainland. There was only one singles span bridge left, and the road was extremely dangerous because of the growing fire, bomb damage and delayed action bombs. In spite of all this Grace using a WVS van maintained a shuttle service between the docks and the first line Rest and feeding centres, until every woman and child had been evacuated. She not only managed to rescue fleeing families, but also firemen who had been injured fighting the flames. The van on her return was full of steel helmets, blood-soaked bandages and a fireman’s axe, and other marks of a very heavy nights work.