They Feed Britain

This is the story of three men who supply, and operate, what is probably the world's biggest store

DAVID THURLOW November 15 1943

They Feed Britain

This is the story of three men who supply, and operate, what is probably the world's biggest store

DAVID THURLOW November 15 1943

THIS is the success story of three men who supply, and operate, what is probably the world’s biggest food store. It’s the story of the three men who feed Britain—Lord Woolton, Lord Leathers, and just plain Mister Robert Spear Hudson, Britain’s Minister of Agriculture.

How these three men, totally different from one another, solved Great Britain’s wartime food shortage and at the same time licked the shipping problem is one of the triumphs of this war. Each man in his own characteristic way contributed to this success.

Come and shake hands with Lord Woolton, Britain’s Minister of Food, as he sits in his big white office overlooking the treetops in Portman Square, London. He is a charmer if there ever was one. He smiles at you cheerfully, seats you in a big armchair and then starts pacing back and forth in front of you.

Lord Woolton has a voice that will sell you anything. Over the radio he has sold the idea to 12 million British families that they can keep happy and healthy on less food than they had in peacetime—much less food for everyone except the children.

Last winter in Great Britain the milk ration for adults was only two pints per head per week. Lord Woolton admits it was very little, but by cutting the adult ration, children were able to have more milk in the fourth winter of war than they normally drank in peacetime. Woolton is proud of that.

He himself is a good advertisement for his rations. A homely expanse supports the fine gold watch chain that sweeps across his waistcoat. His cheeks are rosy—nearly as red as the telephone on his desk. A typical Woolton touch that red telephone, for Britain’s Minister of Food is a great showman.

It’s tough on him when he can’t always tell the British public why things are short. Security seals his lips. He just has to take the kicks because he can’t explain. It’s tougher still on him because he’s the sort of man who likes the limelight. Sometimes it’s a good thing for the Government that Woolton is a publicist. When things get tight he gets the blame rather than the Government.

Woolton says tea will have to be rationed. Woolton says the miners can have a bit more cheese. Woolton tells the British housewife to save bread and eat more potatoes. Woolton tells them how to make Woolton pie. He talks to them on the radio. He’s quoted in the newspapers. He opens new restaurants and has his photograph taken eating one of his own wartime dishes. If there is any news about food, if there’s any talk about food, Woolton’s name crops up. Woolton says this; Woolton says that—never the Government; never the Ministry of Food.

Many are ready to criticize Lord Woolton for this. They say he is too much of the showman; that it’s the 40,000 staff behind him at the Ministry of Food which is really responsible for the way Britain is fed. But give Woolton credit—he has shouldered the bad publicity as well as the good. When he accepted the job he said it would likely make him the most unpopular man in the country. He took the risk, hopped straight to the microphone and told the British what they were up against.

Pantry Propagandist

HE HAD to become the No. 1 Pantry Propagandist—but that part of the job was easy for him with that smooth, persuasive way of his. They say that when Woolton puts on his softest, tenderest voice, it’s a sure sign he’s going to be tough with the 48 million people he feeds.

He is clever when it comes to handling staff. They work well for him, and Woolton “fans” ask if it really matters if the Ministry officials do the work and he gets the credit? After all he gets them to work, and so long as Britain is well-fed, why worry?

There’s been a lot of such argument about the points rationing, which has been the outstanding success of Britain’s wartime feeding. Some say Lord Woolton had nothing to do with it; that it was all thought out and organized long before he took over. Whether that is true or not, the fact is Woolton had the brains to see that here was a sound scheme worth plugging. He realized the truck driver or the coal miner would rather have a can of meat than a couple of pounds of cookies for his points allowance. And that the old spinster in her country cottage would rather have a cookie with her tea and let the meat go hang. Here was a way to give each person a certain choice of rations and at the same time keep total consumption down.

Nearly every month Lord Woolton juggles his points values. As new shipments come in, or as other cargoes are sunk, so he strikes a new balance of distribution. But it all keeps housewives “Woolton conscious.”

Lord Woolton is 60 this year; says he’d much rather be 40 and works as though he was. He’s at his desk, in the Ministry of Food, soon after nine every morning, and doesn’t go home until 8 o’clock at night. Did I say Woolton is clever? Watch him eating in public. If he should go to one of the luxury hotels, which isn’t often, he eats all the things he asks the public to eat—potatoes instead of bread, plenty of green vegetables and he doesn’t fuss because there isn’t any dessert.

Everyone realizes that meat is a problem. A small country like Britain with a huge population cannot expect to provide enough meat for everybody from her own farms. As imports of food fell, the meat ration was cut to a mouthful or two. And like the meat, fish and eggs disappeared most days of the week.

The public hold this against Woolton. They can’t see why these two things should be short. Even if they remember that fishing boats and fishermen have been taken over by the Royal Navy for obvious and much more important duties round the British coasts, they still think there should be more fish than there is.

As for eggs, it’s the corn that causes the trouble. Hens must have corn, and much of the corn, like meat, has to be imported. No ships to bring the corn. No corn to feed the hens. No hens to lay the eggs. No eggs. Why blame Woolton for that?

Well, the complaint is that there has been too much control. To get food for a hen has been almost as difficult as getting a special diet for an invalid. So, naturally, the hens without food have been killed for the stewpot. As eggs became scarcer their distribution, under Lord Woolton’s Ministry of Food, was supervised to what appeared to be an absurd degree. Everyone became exasperated and almost entirely gave up trying to produce eggs.

Bombs vs. Eggs

To make matters worse, the patient housewife after queueing at her grocer’s shop for her one egg per week sometimes finds it’s bad when she gets it. That’s where Lord Leathers and his Ministry of Transport become involved but they say they’re more interested in carrying bombs than bad eggs. And Woolton backs them up. He argues this way. The essentials must come first. Hudson must use his fields to grow wheat for bread, not corn to feed chickens. Leathers must keep his transport free for troop carrying, not fish hauling.

However, the vital foods—the milk for children and invalids and nursing mothers; bread and vegetables and cheese for the workers, are always available at peacetime prices. Everyone’s ration book is honored.

For example, the British have never been short of potatoes. The farmers have been persuaded to grow more than enough for the nation’s requirements. Potatoes are a good staple food. They go a long way as a substitute for bread and they’re cheap enough to be within the reach of the poorest family. Green vegetables, too, have never been short. That’s how the British pick up the precious vitamin C.

Woolton does what he can to help his fellow food directors. For example, he eased the strain on Leathers’ shipping by bringing in ready-boned beef and telescoping the carcasses of sheep and lambs so there could be a 25% saving of refrigerator space on board.

He helped Hudson and the British farmers to forget about the egg production problem by importing dried eggs. This year Woolton aims at providing Britain with 80,000 tons of these dried eggs and apart from arranging for their import he has to persuade the housewives to like them as well as new-laid eggs in shell. Britain is getting a lot of her food in this dried form these days.

The day I went to see Lord Woolton he walked over to his desk and brought out a bundle of carrots. Obviously, he was proud of them. There was a little cake of them, rolled out flat and dry like a cookie, half as big as the palm of your hand.

“There you are,” he said, “eight days’ ration of carrots for a soldier in the front line!” It’s one of his pet exhibits.

Lord Woolton’s Ministry in London is really the United Nations’ Food GHQ. His big white room is the nerve centre. Men from America, from every country in the British Empire, from Brazil and the Argentine and from all the other big food-producing countries of the free world go regularly to visit Woolton in that room.

When you see Woolton at work you can understand how and why he has succeeded. All the time he is trying to get inside the mind of the people he has to deal with—whether it’s the British public or a couple of coffee planters from Brazil. He has an uncanny knack of sensing beforehand what you want to say. He answers your questions and arguments and objections before you can even express them. His best public relations officer is himself. He’s always good for a story and turns out the phrases that make good copy.

He savors a good phrase, like a child sucking candy. He loves to be homey. When he visited a Scottish fish research station he said to the officials who offered to send him some samples: “I try out all these new things on my wife and she remains healthy.”

His wife’s name is Maud and like Woolton she comes from Manchester. If he begins talking big and putting on his microphone manner at home she just drops into her broad Lancashire dialect and tells Freddie to “come off it!”

Disclaims Political Ambition

Lots of people in Britain—especially some of the politicians—would like to know if he ever will “come off it”; or whether now that he’s on the Government band wagon he’ll stick on it for good. Some even reckon there’s a potential Prime Minister in Woolton.

In spite of all the rumors to the contrary—and they’re very persistent—Lord Woolton says he’s not staying in office longer than he can help. “I have no taste for political conflict,” he says.

If Woolton really does yearn for private life again he certainly hides his feelings, for no man in the British Government, apart from Churchill himself, looks happier in his job. It may be that Woolton’s happy because at last he’s finding himself able to put into practice some of the ideals he’s cherished since youth. He likes to be the social reformer and the job he holds now, as Britain’s Food Minister, gives him endless scope to guide the lives of the people.

He’s given milk to children who never had enough of it before. He has taught thousands—tens of thousands of British wives and mothers—how to prepare, cook and serve better meals than they ever produced in peacetime, and he has lifted a heavy burden from the working-class homes by organizing canteens in schools and factories. Nearly 50 million meals a week are now served in factory canteens to Britain’s warworkers and Woolton is determined that, if it lies in his power, this “food on the job” will become a permanent part of British factory life.

On top of all this Lord Woolton has opened more than 2,000 British restaurants—pleasant restaurants run by the Government for the people, where anybody can walk in and get a first-rate meal for a quarter. And these are not Wooltonian philanthropic institutions. These British restaurants pay their way.

Woolton knows as much as any man in Britain about the living conditions of the poor. He has made a lifelong study of social welfare. It has given him an invaluable background for the job he holds now as manager of what is probably the world’s largest store with a turnover of $3,000,000,000. In supreme charge of what approximates a complete state monopoly, he rations food, controls prices, checks and prosecutes the black market and keeps watch on home production, imports and distribution. He bargains with Hudson and the farmers over crops and prices. He pleads with Leathers for ships.

Yes, he needs all his charm and a bit of cunning now and then.

Man of the People

Woolton, as the young son of Robert Marquis of Manchester, began to worry about people soon after he left school. He figured that the Mancunians deserved a New Deal, and he reckoned he was the man to give it to them.

He specialized in economics at university and then went down the dockside of Liverpool to do duty as a warden. That was when Woolton learned to become a true “man of the people.” And that was the work that first put him on the way to success.

At that time the man who was then chief of the great North of England chain store, Lewis’s of Liverpool, Manchester, Birmingham, heard of Woolton’s work. He sent for him and offered him a job as his personal assistant. “Sorry,” said Woolton, “I’m not interested unless you make me a partner.” The chain store chairman took a chance. “Put up some capital, take an allocation of the firm’s shares, and you can come on the board,” he said. But Woolton didn’t have the cash. His assets were still frozen in his head. He was beaten—unless his bank also would take a chance on him.

He was a persuasive charmer even in those days for banks are not in the habit of tipping up cash for curly-haired young varsity graduates. Anyhow, they paid the way to Lewis’s for him, and thus he began his business career as the partner on the chain store board.

The youthful idealist, who had started with intentions of being a social reformer was now in big business. Before long he took on banking, and later insurance. There was no stopping him. Directorships fell into his lap.

But, in the midst of it all, World War I made a gap in his business life. To start with he was a Government economist. Then he presented himself for service in the Army. Six times he applied and six times they turned him down because of his health.

He was then given the job of dealing with equipment for the Russian Army, particularly its boots. He became Secretary of the Leather Control Committee and evolved a standard boot for Britain. As soon as that war was over, back he went into the chain store business. And that’s where they found him when they wanted him again for government service in this war.

First they asked him to act as adviser on clothing for the British Army. Next they made him Director General of Equipment and Stores in the Ministry of Supply. And then came the really big job.

Britain was in danger of starving. Drastic measures had to be applied and applied quickly. Food that was meant to feed the people was feeding the fish instead. Woolton’s long chain store experience made him the obvious choice. He became Britain’s Food Minister.

Carpenter’s Son

The story of Lord Leathers, Minister of War Transport, really begins on a winter’s day in 1883 with the birth of a baby son to a carpenter’s wife in a back street near the docks in London’s East End. No one in that little street ever expected to have a son who would one day become a member of the Government, much less a Baron.

Fred Leathers’ father died soon after young Fred was born. A small local school provided all the education Fred ever got. By the time he was 14 he had to board a train every day to go job-hunting in the City. He plowed through newspaper advertisements, called at shops and offices by the score but was shown the door every time. No one was rushing to take a chance on this fair-haired boy.

He was a thin, rather weedy specimen. He never joined in the fun with the other boys in the street, he never even paid much attention to his lessons when he was at school. More than anything he wanted a job. He had to “help mother keep the home going.”

One day his luck was in. Someone gave him a job. Fred Leathers had got his foot on the ladder. He clung to it, and scrambled up to the next rung. In his early twenties he joined a shipping firm. Soon he was able to leave home and get married.

Ships were the things that fascinated him. His firm owned a fleet of sailing vessels. They amalgamated with another concern and Leathers was made assistant manager, then manager. When there were still further mergers he was invited to join the Board of Directors. Like Woolton he began collecting directorships. The more work he had the more he wanted.

By May, 1941, Leathers was on the board of 50 companies. And by May, 1941, Britain’s shortage of shipping was becoming her biggest single peril of the war. Drastic action was needed, just as it was needed a year earlier when Woolton was named to straighten out the food tangle. So the carpenter’s son, who had been nearly 40 years in the shipping business, was made Minister of Shipping and Transport—a title changed later to Minister of War Transport. The poor boy who had plodded his way up from Purfleet found his name included in the record of the illustrious.

Like Lord Woolton, Lord Leathers has a smiling face and a kindly manner. Like Woolton, also, he faced a thankless task.

Hitler’s bombers and submarines were sinking the ships of the United Nations faster than new ones could be built to replace them. Within the Fortress of Britain the Luftwaffe’s bombs were cutting the roads and railways. Everything was becoming involved in one colossal tangle.

Order Out of Chaos

Within a few months Lord Leathers began to bring order out of chaos. And while he made the best use possible of every ship and truck, the factories, homes and offices of Britain began to resurvey their war effort. Leathers got the whole nation to measure its every need in terms of ships and trains.

He saw to it that perishable goods which need refrigeration space were brought from the nearest possible sources of supply; troops serving abroad depended as much as possible on local food supplies to avoid sending huge loads from Great Britain; to save tanker voyages oil pipe lines were extended wherever possible; when tanks and planes and trucks had to be moved overseas they were shipped in parts, and reassembled at the port of delivery so as to avoid waste of storage space in the ships’ holds.

To this day Leathers still does not believe he has reached the limit in his ship-saving campaign. If he has cut days and hours off the “turn-round time” a ship spends in port, then he starts to chisel off the minutes. His big job is to keep things moving, and he has applied himself with a conscientious vigor.

He doesn’t like publicity. That, in fact, is one of the outstanding differences between Leathers and Woolton. It’s easier to get a shipload of food up the English Channel past Hitler’s bombers and submarines than it is for a newspaper man to get through to Leathers’ office for an interview. He deals almost exclusively with men in his own line of business and with the other government departments. He doesn’t need to be popular.

But give him credit. He straightened out one of Britain’s biggest war problems. The United Kingdom shipping and transport organization is as near 100% efficiency now as you can expect in wartime.

From Soap to Soil

So now we come to Robert Hudson, the man who grows what Leathers and Woolton transport and distribute. He is a complete contrast to the other two. In many ways he is the most interesting of the three personalities.

To begin with he was born rich. The money the late R. W. Hudson made from the sale of a famous soap powder enabled little, black-haired Bob to start life with the proverbial silver spoon in his mouth.

This good-looking young man did not have to share the struggles which filled the early years of Woolton and Leathers. After school days at Eton and Oxford University, Hudson went into the “Diplomatic.” He was at the British Embassy in Washington during the last war and served also in the British Embassy in Moscow. Now he is one of the few members of the British Government who can speak Russian.

He entered Parliament as a Conservative, became Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Labor, and then Minister of Pensions. Two other government appointments brought him in 1937 to his most important peacetime job. He was made Secretary of the Department of Overseas Trade.

He is cool, blunt and businesslike. He did that trade job well for three years, until the first spring of the war. Then, for a couple of months at the end of the Chamberlain regime, he was made Minister of Shipping. May, 1940, brought Churchill into power, and then came the first really big wartime reshuffle of Government jobs and Hudson, the diplomat, Hudson the politician, was surprisingly made Minister of Agriculture.

As it has turned out it was one of Churchill’s most successful appointments. At the time the cynics laughed: “Why he doesn’t know the first thing about farming! He won’t last two months!”

True he was “difficult” at the start, but three years of dealing with people on the land have mellowed him. The farmers of Britain are not the type to be bullied and ordered about by any politician in black coat and striped pants. At the same time, they’re an understanding bunch, and a persevering, goodhearted crowd once you win their respect. And Hudson, despite the fact that he started “firing” Ministerial officials right and left; despite the fact he bellowed at everyone within reach, did, in the end, get the farmers’ support.

Saw For Himself

He was wise enough to realize that with the farmers he was up against no ordinary crowd of “yes men.” He tried hearty backslapping in the market places. That didn’t do. He tried exhorting them to work harder and not to waste time gossiping. That didn’t do either. Someone lightly pointed out that most farmers did a day’s work before he was up in the morning. Finally he set about studying farmers and farming from A to Z.

Every week end and often in midweek he left his desk in Whitehall and went off into the countryside. He took off his London clothes and put on rough old tweeds. He went to see the sheep farmers and the dairy farmers; he went to see the cattle breeders and the poultry keepers. He went to see the men who grow corn and sugar beet.

Slowly, ruthlessly, day after day, week after week, Hudson worked to gain the confidence of the men on the land. The more he learned the more they grew. His freshness was in some ways an asset. He did not begin with any preconceived ideas. He had little or no practical knowledge of the difficulties. For him they didn’t exist.

The bad farmers—and there are some in every country—were told that unless they mended their ways, unless they brought their land into good heart, unless they took the trouble to learn the tricks of modern food production their farms would be taken over.

The total arable acreage in the United Kingdom has been increased since the war began from 12 million to 18 million acres. And it’s still increasing. Britain’s farms today are producing 60% of the nation’s food requirements. In peacetime they produced only 40%. That is the measure of Hudson’s achievement as Minister of Agriculture.

One other thing he has succeeded in doing is to convince himself of the value of the good earth of Britain. Robert Hudson, the 57-year-old ex-diplomat and politician, has bought himself a farm.