NATIONAL KITCHENS 1917-1922


Despite attempts to grow more food through allotments and cultivating public places such as parks, much of the nation's food had to be imported by merchant shipping, but in 1917 a quarter of the nation's merchant shipping was sunk by German U-boats. Food was in short supply.

National Kitchens were initially called Communal Kitchens, but the name was changed to avoid them being seen as downmarket and therefore only for the poor and needy. They were initiated by the government to feed the population during the lean times of the Great War. They proved to be extremely popular, providing simple meals at subsidised prices.

Partly funded by government, local authorities could apply for a grant to cover initial costs. They were run by local people, had to provide meals at or below prices set by the Ministry of Food and had to break even financially and be run as a business.

The government was keen to avoid the new National Kitchens being seen as 'soup kitchens' and therefore only for the 'down and out'. Customers should feel that these were places where they could enjoy a cheap meal with no stigma attached to them. Staff were to be well dressed and the decor was to be pleasant.

The first National Kitchen was opened by Queen Mary at 104 Westminster Bridge Road on 21 May 1917. By the end of 1917 National Kitchens had opened in most of Britain's towns and cities and by the end of the war some 363 had opened but by May 1919 almost all had closed.

First National Kitchen
The first National Kitchen at 104 Westminster Bridge Road,
opened by Queen Mary on 21 May 1917.
Image courtesy IWM. Q54564.

Three National Kitchens were opened in Epsom. The first was in the, long ago demolished, 'Old Fire Station', Waterloo Road, near Epsom Station. The second was in the 'Workmen's Club' on Epsom Common. The third was opened on the Water Works site in East Street, Epsom.

Typical menu
On 2 February 1918 this typical menu board was
pictured in The Sphere (see Appendix.)

The Old Fire Station (Waterloo Road)

The Council minutes for 20 November 1917 reveal that a request from the War Economy Committee for permission to use the old Fire Station as a Communal Kitchen was refused; the reason given was:
in view of the expense incurred in fitting up the place for public convenience and the likelihood of it again being required for that purpose.
A few days later a deputation from the Epsom Food Economy Committee explained the necessity of establishing a Communal Kitchen in Epsom, and also the suitability of the old Fire Station. As a result permission was granted subject to the agreement of London & South Western Railway Company.

A letter from the railway company, dated 30 January 1918, gave its permission to use the old Fire Engine House, temporarily for a Communal Kitchen and Messrs. Cropley Bros. were commissioned to carry out the necessary conversion work in the sum of £33 10s.

Old Fire Station Map 1913
1913 map showing the position of the old fire station
in Waterloo Road outside Epsom Station.

On 9 April Council minutes record that the surveyor was directed to remove three baths from the Communal Kitchen in Waterloo Road.

The Epsom Advertiser dated 12 April reported that the Waterloo Road Communal Kitchen (not yet called a National Kitchen) was a success and that during the past month had made a profit of £21 16s 11d, as against a loss of '£2 odd' the previous month.

On 28 May 1918 the Council: decided to pay an account of £2. 7s. 6d. for work done in connection with the Waterloo Road Communal Kitchen, and supply of Osram globes in Januar,1918.

A letter dated 4 March 1919 was read at the Council meeting, stating that the Committee of the Waterloo Road kitchen had decided to close it, as it was running at a loss.

In December 1920, Lloyds bank asked the Council if it was going to pay off the £7 10s. 0d. still owed. The Council response was to ask the Surveyor to value the materials handed over to the Council, and if the value exceeded the £7 10s. 0d., Lloyds bank would be paid. The items were valued at £7 14s. 6d., so Lloyds bank got its money back.

Workmen's Club (Epsom Common)

With regard to a National Kitchen for Epsom Common, the Epsom Advertiser dated 26 April 1918 reported that the Workmen's Club: could be placed at the disposal of those interested in the matter on the common and a meeting had been called to consider the matter.

Epsom Common Club
Epsom Common Social Club 2016, formerly the Workmen's club.
Image courtesy of Clive Gilbert © 2016

At the Council meeting held on 18 June:
The Chairman reported that in connection with this kitchen, it was proposed by Mr. Houlder's Committee to expend £40 on alterations to the buildings and furniture, £11 10s. for a van, and £15 for utensils etc. It was probable that any other incidental expenses would be met to some extent by private subscriptions.

The Chairman also read letter of 11th inst. from the Director of National Kitchens stating that a grant of a loan free of interest for the full amount of approved capital outlay upon the establishment of a kitchen or kitchens would be made subject to repayment by ten equal annual instalments.

Resolved that the schemes be approved but that for the present no representation or application be made to the Ministry of Food for a loan.

The kitchen commenced business on Thursday 27 June and was open between 12 noon and 1.30pm. The Council Accountant reported on 19 September that the sum of £85 had been expended on the Common National Kitchen and a loan to cover £85 was requested from the Ministry of Food.

The Common National Kitchen had served meals for 108 days but due to staff illness it closed on Friday 8 November. The staff illness was probably caused by the dreadful influenza pandemic that killed so many people in 1918/19.
By 6 March 1919 the Clerk of the Council reported that the Common National Kitchen had a deficit of about £93.

On 10 June the Council Surveyor was instructed to remove the fittings, utensils etc from the Epsom Common National Kitchen and store them in the depot yard.

East Street (Water Works Site)

At a meeting of the Epsom Food Economy Committee held on Monday 11 March 1918 it was reported that the ladies connected with the Waste Paper Society were willing to bear the whole cost of a Communal Kitchen in the East Street district and that the use of the Co-operative bakehouse could be obtained. The committee felt that this proposal was better than the existing Waterloo Road kitchen being used a distribution centre for the East Street neighbourhood.

At the next meeting held on Monday 8 April the question of opening another kitchen in the East Street district was again considered. It was again recorded that the ladies connected with the Waste Paper Society were willing to do all the necessary work and undertake the financial responsibility, but the Co-operative bakehouse was considered unsuitable due to tenancy conditions and the amount of work needed; it was decided to look elsewhere for a suitable premises.

A report in the Epsom Advertiser dated 26 April, now captioned 'National Kitchen' not 'Communal Kitchen', stated that the Waste Paper Society would undertake work at a premises in East Street recently occupied by Mr. Crisp, motor garage. There were costs to be met; £30 per year rental, £40 for alterations and £40 for plant, all to be paid by the Waste Paper Society. It was also mentioned that there had been a proposal to use the Co-operative unused bakehouse but this was not taken up because of the stables in the rear.

The garage premises were not however used and on 28 May the Council General Purposes Committee confirmed acceptance of an offer from the Vicar and Church wardens of Christ Church to sell the St. Michael's corrugated iron club-room in Woodlands Road for £50, the Council to bear the cost of removal the water works site in East Street.

East Street Map 1913
1913 map showing the water Works site in East Street,
where the corrugated iron ex club house was to be erected

Plans and specification for taking down the iron building and re-erecting at the water works had been prepared by 28 June and in July the Council accepted a tender from Mr. Williams of £56 for the removal and re-erection, with improvements, using second-hand windows, door frames and other fittings.

By 17 September the iron club-room had been removed from Woodlands Road and re-erected, with additions, at the waterworks yard. On 19 September it was reported that the sum of £310 had been expended and on 19 October it was reported that:
The stove supplied by Messers. Portway and Son had been delivered and was being fixed for use.

The Water Works site National Kitchen, the third and last National Kitchen in Epsom, was opened on Wednesday 23 October. A report in the Epsom Advertiser dated 25 October reads:
A corrugated iron building, which formed the old St. Michael's church room, in Woodlands- road, was purchased by the Council for that purpose and forms part of the new kitchen. To it there has been added a dining room, the exterior walls of which are sawn logs from trees felled on the Council's farm. This gives the building a pleasing appearance, and the interior is very pleasant. Two tables run down the centre of the restaurant and give accommodation for about 48 adults, whilst a number of children can also be seated. In summer it is proposed to provide accommodation outside for meals for children. The situation is a pleasant one and the aspect is bright and cheerful, the building being well lighted.

The restaurant is divided from the kitchen by a partition, and meals will be served through hatches in this. In the kitchen there is a large cooker with five trays, three boilers and other apparatus for cooking.

The ladies of the Waste Paper Committee advanced £70 on loan towards the expense of the building, and 25 per cent of the proceeds are to be paid to the Council towards the cost of erection. Mrs. Thornley, Hon. secretary of the Waste Paper Committee is at the head of the Executive Committee and her daughter, Miss Thornley, is supervisor. Miss Davis, who has had charge of the National Kitchen at Ashtead, is cook and she and two assistants will be the only paid staff. Other ladies are arranging to assist in rotation and every effort will be made to make the venture a commercial success, whilst giving excellent meals at low prices.

With the idea of encouraging the public to use this as a temperance place, Mrs. Batchelor is giving £15 towards the purchase of glasses, in order that drinks may be sold as cheaply as possible. The kitchen stands in a good district and should be well supported.

Council minutes dated 9 January 1919 resolved that an application be made for a loan of £310 in respect of the establishment and equipment of the East Street National Kitchen.

On 6 February 1919 it was reported that the Council Surveyor had purchase a Portway Fuel Oven at £45 10s. for the East Street National kitchen.

On 22 July it was reported that the East Street National Kitchen was running at a loss, so it was suggested that charges be raised to 100 per cent over the price of raw materials.

By 19 June 1920 the East Street National Kitchen Committee intimated their desire to close the kitchen, but to do so required the written consent of the Food Controller, such consent being given on 29 June. It was thought that the Portway stove might be required during the winter so it was recovered and put into store.

Soon after on 14 July the Gardener's Physical Training College applied to the Council to use the premises for 'Educational and Medical Gymnastic Practice'. The Council decided 'that at present the Council is not prepared to consider the letting of this building'.

At the Council meeting held on 2 November 1920 it was resolved that:
A hearty vote of thanks be and is hereby recorded to Mrs. Thornley, the members of the East Street National Kitchen Committee and their honorary helpers for the splendid services they had rendered to the Town Council and community during the period of need for the undertaking, those who had used the kitchen were very much indebted to Mrs. Thornley, her Committee and helpers, for all that had been done.

The Epsom Allotment and Gardens Association sought permission to use the East Street National Kitchen building for the purpose of temporarily storing seed potatoes. The request was turned down on 9 November, but instead the Council placed at their disposal the stable in Miles Road.

Another application was received to use the building, this time from the Girl Guides to use for drills etc. On 14 December the application was declined.

The last application to use the building came from the Governors of Epsom County School for Girls came late in 1921. They wanted to use the building to provide dinners for girls attending the school from outside of town. On 22 December 1921 the application was approved, subject to an annual rent of £1, and termination with a week's notice by either party.

Conclusion

The dire loss of shipping in 1917 causing severe food shortages led to the opening of 'National Kitchens'. Three were opened in Epsom and whilst they were only open for a short period of time, they were a great success, providing wholesome food with no waste at minimum cost.

With the advent of rationing, providing fair shares for all, the need for National Kitchens diminished. Also the restaurant trade wanted to return to normal as soon as possible. National Kitchens had fulfilled their purpose but closed soon after the war ended.

They were, however, reinvented in a different form in the Second World War and were known as British Restaurants.



Appendix

The Sphere was a glossy, upmarket, weekly publication that described itself as:
An Illustrated Newspaper for the Home.
The Sphere
Front page of the 26 May 1917 issue of The Sphere
Image courtesy of Clive Gilbert © 2016

In 1914 it cost 6d, the equivalent in 2016 of about £2.60. The following two extracts provide an interesting insight into the mores of the day.

10 November 1917 'Women's Sphere'.

A New Enterprise for Capable Women

      I have so often advocated the communal kitchen as a solution of many of our present-day difficulties that it is heartening to find that the Ministry of Food is taking the matter up, and is going to establish these kitchens in many parts of London and the provinces for all classes. For the poor they have already worked well, and paid well; and for the middle and professional classes, whose lot is such a hard one nowadays, there is good reason to believe they will work and pay quite as well, and even better. The need of some communal system of catering and cooking is the deeply-felt want of the moment. We want centres everywhere where the hard-worked and the servantless could get well-cooked food of the plain variety at reasonable prices, all ready to eat, or only requiring heating up.

      The way in which the shops and big stores are succeeding with their cooked provision departments reveals the need for food that is ready cooked. Although expensive, and often not satisfactory, these commodities come as near as anything we have yet been offered to the communal kitchen system, for they save the cost of servants' wages, housing, and feeding, and are a boon and a blessing to the servantless. Still, this catering by shops is only a makeshift, and a rather costly one, and it is easy to see that there is a great field open for enterprising, capable women in which to make fortunes as well as confer the greatest benefits on their sisters in adversity. If they would set to work on really practical lines, and open shops or depots, with a well-run kitchen behind them in various streets where people could go and buy homely, well-cooked dishes at really moderate prices, they would be helping to solve the nation's food problem, very materially helping the community at large and making a good thing out of it for themselves.

      The things to bear in mind are that the food must be good, if plain, well-cooked, and appetisingly served, and cheap. Unless people find they can buy their viands as cheaply or more cheaply than they can make them, they will naturally not patronise them. But this ought not to be difficult with a good caterer and cook, who know all the manifold ways of saving, using, and selling all the refuse, such as used tea-leaves, sour milk, peelings of vegetables, and such unconsidered trifles, out of which quite substantial revenue can now be made, as all the canteens and hospitals have found since the war began.
19 January 1918 'Women's Sphere'.

The Day of the Communal Kitchen

      It is pleasant to see our dreams of communal kitchens coining true, and the honour of Commander of the British Empire bestowed on Lady Askwith, who has worked so indefatigably to make them a fait accompli. The communal kitchen has come to stay, and its establishment in our midst will be one of the solid achievements that have come directly out of the war, and may, perhaps, inaugurate the beginning of a more communal life. Even millionaires are promised the boon, but meanwhile humbler folk are turning gratefully towards these kitchens for a solution of some of their troubles and difficulties. Faced as we are with short commons, dwindling domestic help, expensive gas, and smaller rations of coal, they are proving a boon and a blessing to many, and it is only a question of time before they will be established for all classes in every district and town.

      At the new one at Silvertown Lord Rhondda one day lately sat down to a lunch consisting of soup, meat pie, potatoes, and beans, and suet pudding at a cost of about 7d. Everything was good, wholesome, and well cooked, and formed an excellent example of what might be in all parts of London and elsewhere if common sense prevailed. This Silvertown kitchen consists of three sheds hired from the Commissioner of Works for 5s. a week, and serves 1,000 meals a day. In Edinburgh, I am told, 40,000 meals a day are served, and an enormous saving of food and labour and time thereby achieved. Meals range in price from Id. up to about 9d., and the kitchens pay their way, while, as they are not run for profit, their customers get full value for their money.
Clive Gilbert, May 2016



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