Archive for the ‘wartime farming’ Category

Homeland, Britain March 1917

March 22, 2017


Percy Izzard, Homeland: A Book of Country Days (1918)



As a follow up to yesterday’s post on Homeland, Percy Izzard’s book of nature writing on the British countryside during the First World War, here are several more daily entries. A book well worth tracking down second-hand.


Some deal with the changing agricultural landscape, such as noticing (March 28th 1917) that “It is interesting to see how quickly the birds have become accustomed  to the motor plough. The strange form and immense noise of the machine …” 



March 25th (1917) “And although the flowers were few when you think what this day has seen in other years, never did they open to a world readier to welcome them”


welcome to a world weary not only of the long winter, but also the war?







British farming and the countryside was facing difficulties by 1917 from poor harvests and the call up of male farm workers. Add to this the demands of feeding several armies overseas. From early  in the year, the unrestricted submarine warfare of the German U boat blockade of Britain increased the sinking of merchant shipping bound for  Britain with imported food from around the Empire and world.

These were pre-war cheap and plentiful food imports that we had come to rely on, much to the detriment of pre-war British farming.

Both rationing (1918) and a form of WW2 style Dig For Victory in 1917 were eventually organised  in Britain in WW1.

We will feature more from Homeland by Percy Izzard in late March / early April 2017, when the quiet world of nature in Britain that he works hard to convey  can be read 100 years on as (directly ? deliberately?) at odds  with events overseas, the Battle of Arras (9 April to 16 May 1917) in France.

This  battle would involve many of Izzard’s audience of  “soldier lads” who read his daily nature column in the Daily Mail in the trenches. Forming a valuable bit of escapism, these short daily columns would be adapted and edited to become his book Homeland: A Year Of Country Days in mid 1918.

The Battle of Arras would see the deaths on active service of several of the zoo staff, botanic gardens staff and  naturalists that we have been researching through the World War  Zoo Gardens project.

Blogposted by Mark Norris, World War Zoo Gardens project, Newquay Zoo.


Elsie Widdowson and WW2 rationing

August 18, 2016


World War Zoo Gardens sign, Newquay Zoo, Cornwall, UK

It’s August. The schools are on 2016 holiday break and Newquay Zoo is lovely and busy with families.

I am also lovely and busy, preparing, repairing and refreshing schools and college workshop materials for September.

For the new City and Guilds 2016 syllabus  on animal managment delivered at  Newquay Zoo and Cornwall College Newquay,  I have been preparing new sessions for my new 16-19 year old students on animal feeding and nutrition.

One of the challenging new elements is a bit of biochemistry (and it’s a long time since I did my O levels!)

In the course of finding simple enough ways for me to understand and explain the new nutrition bits such as the  chemical structure of amino acids, protein bonds and suchlike,  I came across this great BBC clip on Elsie Widdowson from CBBC’s Absolute Genius team Dick and Dom:

Dr. Elsie  Who?

I feel I should know the name, as I have been looking at wartime gardening and rationing since 2009 as part of the World War Zoo gardens project workshops for schools.



Reading the story brought back very vague memories of this story being noted in passing in histories of food in wartime, rationing and gardening.

So who was Elsie Widdowson?

A trip to the kitchens at King’s College Hospital, London, brought her into contact with Professor Robert McCance, who was carrying out research into the best diets for people with diabetes. The two bonded and started on a research partnership that was to span 60 years.

They studied the effect poor nutrition has in adulthood and their book The Chemical Composition of Foods, published in 1940, became the “bible” on which modern nutritional thinking is founded.

Soon after the war started, she and Prof McCance lived for weeks in the Lake District eating the diet which they thought the British should consume during World War II to maintain basic health.They also cycled round Cambridge to study the importance of energy expenditure on diet. (

There’s a new volume for the World War Zoo gardening bookshelf – The Chemical Composition of Foods, published in 1940 – and the 7th edition (2014 version) is still in print on Amazon from the Food Standards agency today.

World War Zoo Children evacuation suitcase & garden items Oct 09 018

Delabole Co-op and Camelford stores in Cornwall for meat, registered with Haddy’s for other rationed items, (is Haddy’s still going?) this well used (light brown adult RB1) Ration Book from Cornwall is part of our wartime life collection (copyright: World war Zoo gardens project, Newquay Zoo).

Widdowson and McCance headed the first mandated addition of vitamins and mineral to food. Their work began in the early 1940s, when calcium was added to bread.  They were also responsible for formulating the wartime rationing of Britain during World War II. (Elsie Widdowson’s Wikipedia entry)

Elsie Widdowson, wartime rationing star and Mother of the modern loaf as this BBC report named her – that’s one to chew on when you’re eating your lunchtime sarnies!

Elsie Widdowson and her scientific partner, Robert McCance, oversaw the first compulsory addition of a substance to food in the early 1940s, when calcium was introduced to bread. They were also responsible for formulating war-time rationing – some experts say that under their diet of mainly bread, vegetables and potatoes, that was when Britain was at its healthiest.(

A biography  of sorts exists – McCance and Widdowson: A Scientific Partnership of 60 Years, 1933-93  A Commemorative Volume about Robert McCance CBE, FRS and Elsie May Widdowson CBE, FRS   published / edited by  Margaret Ashwell in 1993.

Interesting medical history blog entry by Laura Dawes about early  wartime food security concerns in Britain with a brilliant wartime photograph of McCance and Widdowson:

On wartime diaries and Our Land at War by Duff Hart-Davis

August 31, 2015

Duff Hart-Davis has recently released Our Land At War: A Portrait of Rural Britain (William Collins, 2015) an interesting new history book, focussed on the countryside during World War 2.

duff hart davis

The hardback so far has received good reviews:

The paperback is due for release in February 2016.

Researching  the World War Zoo Gardens project since 2008, I have read many chunky wartime history books by the likes of Juliet Gardiner and others in order to understand more widely what was going on in Britain on the Home Front in WW2. This has helped put the struggles of zoos and botanic gardens into context but also resolved many questions arising from the ongoing work of transcribing and editing a small collection of WW2 civilian home front diaries.

Some of these diary transcripts were used by Duff Hart-Davis in his research for Our Land At War and  I was delighted to see these diary sections appear in print for the first time.

A few of our family anecdotes crept in too, such as my mum being lookout to her evacuee gang in Sussex “scrumping in Vera Lynn’s orchard” (this is not a euphemism!) It was good to take a copy of Duff’s book up recently to show her these memories in print for the first time as well.

There are further snippets from my diary collection such as Home Guard diary entries by Charles G. Bond, apprentice wartime forester in the Forest of Dean. VE day diary entries record a day  of normal farm work from busy farmer and War Ag contractor John Alsop, farming at Longfield House Farm, High Marley Hill on the edge of the Gateshead and Newcastle collieries  (near Beamish Open Air Museum).

VE Day May 1945 carried on as normal for farmer John Alsop at his Marley Hill farm. (Source: Mark Norris private collection)

VE Day May 1945 carried on as normal for farmer John Alsop at his Marley Hill farm. (Source: Mark Norris private collection)

D-Day got scarcely more of a mention in this busy farmer’s diary:

D-Day 1944 entry in John Alsop's farmer's diary. Image source: Mark Norris, private collection.

D-Day 1944 entry in John Alsop’s farmer’s diary. Image source: Mark Norris, private collection.

The most extensive entries used by Duff Hart Davis are from the 1941 diary of Doreen Kippen, buried away in the Worcestershire countryside as a 20 year adult evacuee in the Tenbury Wells area, covering several pages of his book.

Duff was quite taken with Doreen as being “Lively minded, brave, stoical and slightly irreverent, with a strong sense of humour” in his words.

Doreen Kippen's diary entry April 20 1941 (image copyright: Mark Norris, private collection)

Doreen Kippen’s diary entry April 20 1941 (image copyright: Mark Norris, private collection)

It is a shame that I only have one year of Doreen’s  diaries, one of the stray volumes acquired online, compared to four years of farming diaries for John Alsop and six for schoolgirl, student and scientist Peggy Jane Skinner, all down to the vagaries of surviving house-clearances  and online auctions. Other volumes may be scattered in other people’s collections or have simply been lost or destroyed.

Occasionally a second volume of a diary I have already transcribed turns up, such as a 1944 wartime diary of a Wimbledon lady involved in ARP in 1944 throughout the V1 doodle bug raids the first diary I collected in 2008. A single 1939 volume turned up this year, one I recognised as by the same author from long hours transcribing the handwriting and its cryptic and routine entries. This has given me missing details such as the previously anonymous author’s name and address, setting off a new line of research and editing for future publication. More of this another time …

As well as diary spotting, it was interesting to see how Duff  Hart-Davis  had written about how zoos in rural and city areas  had survived wartime, including how Chessington Zoo during the 1940 Blitz evacuated staff, livestock and miniature railway down to the safer rural seaside Devon site of Primley or Paignton Zoo, our sister zoo. I will feature more about this with some unpublished first hand accounts in our autumn 75th anniversary blogposts. The Slapton area clearances of country villages and disastrous US training exercise surprised by torpedo boats (Operation Tiger) are also mentioned, now the peaceful home to one of our Whitley Wildlife Conservation  Trust nature reserves at Slapton Ley.

Whilst it was fascinating to to be involved in the research for a new book and read the finished outcome, what was equally interesting was to come across new material in Duff’s book that I hadn’t read elsewhere in print.

The  first surprising section was Duff’s own memories of farm work as a small boy just before war broke out in 1939, an era of horses and steam machinery soon to give way to the more mechanised tractor rich intensive farming of wartime and post-war agricultural policy.

There are also fascinating sections about how the Scottish rural landscapes of privilege and country shooting became home to Special Operations Executive secret agent training camps, the gillies among those recruited to teach the silent arts of stalking and killing. Eccentric  naturalists like Gavin Maxwell, more usually associated with otters in his Ring of Bright Water book, were in demand as deadly trackers, readers of the land and the art of spooring.

Another interesting area Duff Hart-Davis  covers is the decline of country estates and later demolition of the more badly damaged country houses, requisitioned for a wide range of evacuated organisations and military bases. Some of these estates became the postwar basis for safari parks and zoos.

Land girls, Lumber Jills, hidden art treasures in Welsh slate mines, fox hunting n wartime and many other interesting areas are covered in this fascinating book.

Well worth a read in hardback or the forthcoming February 2016 paperback.

Posted by Mark Norris, World War Zoo Gardens project, Newquay Zoo.

%d bloggers like this: