The tagline on the front cover summarises the book well:
The remarkable story of the man tasked with the impossible: to feed a nation at war.
The man in question is Lord Woolton, the Minister of Food in the government of Winston Churchill during the Second World War. His job description, when he was summoned by Neville Chamberlain in 1940, was to “feed Britain and her colonies”.
Through reading this biography, I have come to respect and admire Lord Woolton as a person, his commitment to the ordinary British people, his resolve and ingenuity to face challenges and solve difficulties, his integrity to be down-to-earth and honest with the media and the public, and his courage, confidence and capability in not failing his job – because that would result in extremely serious consequence and therefore was not an option.
He Loves the People
The evening before he officially moved to the Ministry of Food, he was told to attend a press meeting the following day and make a speech as the new boss. He worked all night on the current situation and the policies, ignoring the ready-made speech. When he stood in front of the BBC cameras and recording equipment the next day, he did not see the media team or the other officials, in his mind he saw a working-class man and his family, listening in front of the radio. That was what he set out to do and that was the verdict from the ordinary men and women. The newspaper referred to him as “one of us” rather than “one of them (government ministers)”. At the end of his life, he was remembered, as an old woman in Devonshire said, “That Lord Woolton, he do sometimes right and sometimes wrong; but we poor folk are beholden to him because he thinks of us.”
He went a long distance to find and send rice to India because people there didn’t like wheat. He sent food to Greece, saying “these people, whose heroic resistance to an enemy superior in numbers and equipment delayed the German progress in Europe for many weeks, are starving… I’ve told the Cabinet that I will take the risk of depleting our food stocks in this country so that we shall send them food, I cannot bear to think of people, at whose expense we’ve had weeks of respite from attack, dying from lack of food whilst we’ve had some in the cupboard.”
During the Battle of Britain, he sent ‘Food Trains’ throughout London Underground feeding people sheltering on the station platforms. He also managed to fund (again, with genius business skill), plan in detail and send convoys of ambulances and food services to bombed streets up and down the country. They were called ‘Queen’s Messengers’, and were managed by women. They rushed into needy areas as soon as the air raids ended and fed thousands of people who were bombed out of their houses. The King and Queen would visit the Communal Feeding Centres in person and the Queen’s Messengers were cheered on as they moved onto the next bombed areas. This is one of my favourite stories in the book.
He Feeds the Country
One outcome of reading a biography is usually a list of places I would like to visit: this was where Woolton was born, this was where he was buried, this was his office. Among the list of places, there is Colwyn Bay, a little-heard-of town on the north coast of Wales, which is actually only one stop on the train from the location of the annual Christian conference Word Alive. The Ministry of Food mysteriously disappeared from London in 1940 and around the same time, strangers knocked on the doors of schools and hotels in Colwyn Bay. Buildings were acquired and 5000 civil servants moved in. Under great secrecy, this vulnerable and easy-to-bomb seaside town was the real headquarters of the Ministry of Food. Just imagine if Hilter ever knew! One historian writes: “Had Hitler bombed Colwyn Bay as comprehensively as he did Coventry, he would have created far more havoc. The British people could have faced starvation.”
But how far was starvation? A huge number of supply ships were sunk on the Atlantic by German U-boats and food storage were bombed in the British ports. 36,000 Allied merchant seaman were killed between 1939 and 1945 and 1.8 million tons of food was lost in the sea in 1940. For a country where food was largely imported from all over the world, this was a perilous situation. It’s heartbreaking to read the stories of the navy and merchant seaman. It’s also unimaginable the pressure on Woolton to honour the ration and put breakfast on people’s tables. All the losses were kept from the public. Woolton just told the British housewives to “cook the potatoes with the jackets” and use “one spoonful (of tea) for each person and none for the pot”. At the end of the war, children even didn’t know what the yellow fruit was and had to be taught how to peel it.
To be exact, Lord Woolton was to provide food for 41 million men, women and children in Britain and Northern Ireland, with oversight of the 532 million people of the British Empire. In addition to solving all the problems like food supply, rationing, black market and morale, Woolton saw his job as an opportunity to improve the health of the nation.
He Made a Difference
Quoting the beginning of chapter 15, at the end of the Second World War, Britain had never before been so healthy. “Child mortality had never been so low, and far fewer mothers died in childbirth. Fewer babies had been stillborn and children were both taller and sturdier. There was also a markedly lower rate of tooth decay. All of which results were achieved with fewer doctors, dentists, nurses and health visitors, most of whom were deployed overseas with the armed forces.”
I think he did a good job.
The book is brilliantly written. If you come across it in a bookstore, open the first chapter and see if you can resist reading the whole chapter in one breath.