Welcome back to the blog and part three of my lucky dip experiment, thanks for your feedback – I’m glad they’re proving a hit. Onto aisle three, this time my eye was caught by a scruffy, hand-inked red spine labelled “Emergency Feeding”. This sounds suitably bizarre, so here we go.
It is another minute book, (we are still in that section of the strongroom,) this time for the Emergency Feeding Committee, November 1941-October 1946 [BC 76]. Those dates provide a clue to the purpose of the committee, which was set up to provide off-the-ration canteens, called “British restaurants” to feed people displaced by air raids, and also the wider workforce, during WW2.
At the start of this minute book, the committee were running several canteens in York, in buildings requisitioned for war purposes. Food during wartime is a fascinating topic, that usually centres around ration books and home life – but here we see a different side, mass catering for hundreds (and sometimes thousands) of people a day, and the logistics that went into making that happen.
It’s a great source for the disruption to every day life experienced on the home front in York. However, it also has familiar glimpses of normality in the complex relationship and tensions between committees, the council, the government and residents.
One of my favourite entries is near the beginning. The committee has asked the council if one of the staff, Mrs Sachs, could live rent-free in the property next to the canteen she supervises. The answer comes back, no, she must pay a rent of 5s a week.
However, they seem to have got round it without disobeying the council: they decide to rent one room of the house back off Mrs Sachs as an office, which just so happens to be for the sum of 5s!
Whilst you didn’t have to spend rations to eat at a canteen, the food available obviously reflected wartime shortages. In the summer of 1942, LNER workers refused to pay full price for their meals saying that they were not good enough.
“They specially complained of the continuous serving of peas and beans, that the beans were rarely cooked sufficiently; that the rice pudding tasted mouldy and the fish cakes were ‘high’.”
So, the committee investigated one of these LNER canteens, and the report is amusing, especially the observation by one canny workmen that the committee must have given advance warning of their visit because the food was notably better than normal!
The realities of war were never far away: just two pages later the committee is seeking new premises for one of its canteens “owing to the Leeman Rd emergency feeding centre being damaged beyond repair by enemy action.”
When the war ended, the British Restaurants were closed down and properties given back to their owners, but councils were encouraged to setup their own “municipal restaurants” instead. We now know of course that food troubles continued for years after the end of the war, with some rationing continuing until 1954. The York committee were very keen on building their own restaurant and went ahead even before enabling legislation had been enacted.
They had some trouble trying to find a location. Suggestions included the art gallery, 35 Fossgate and the Merchant Taylor’s hall. The art gallery was put forward as the best option, having ground floor access and a large hall. The committee wasn’t too impressed with this as a permanent option (and I imagine neither were the art gallery!) so instead they bought a prefabricated hut from the Ministry of Food which they erected (after some argument with the Markets Committee) in Gill Garth.
I’ll finish on some little details of the new civic restaurant, which was officially opened in May 1946. The committee were very concerned that it should be a success. They wanted to make it look nice, and asked the Parks department for flowers for the tables. They also tipped one Mr Pilmoor the painter £5, “who had so successfully executed mural paintings in the restaurant”.
The make do and mend ethic was still strong: after rejecting samples of hessian for curtain material they decided to try bleaching blackout material to a different colour instead. They did acquire the fabric but the bleaching may not have gone to plan as they authorised “coloured braid [to be] sewn on the curtains for decoration” instead – a lovely image!
That’s it for lucky Dip #3, I’ve run out of space before I ran out of material! Minute books are not the dry tones I always assumed that would be, and have something to offer even a casual peruser. Which has been the most interesting so far, do you think?