National Kitchens

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National Kitchens were restaurants established in a British Government initiative during the First World War to feed people cheaply and economically, at a time when food supplies were scarce because of the German U-boat campaign.


Before the outbreak of war in 1914, the United Kingdom relied on imported food to feed the population; as much as 60 percent of food stocks had come from abroad. In wartime, the increased costs of shipping together with a complete lack of any government controls led to a rapid rise in the price of food, especially meat and bread. In addition, the Imperial German Navy had launched an unrestricted submarine blockade; in April 1917, a record 550,000 tons of shipping had been sunk.[1] During the first years of the war, voluntary organisations began to open "communal kitchens" in various parts of the country. However, their public image was dreadful and only the poorest people made use of them. One government official stated: "It was thought that Public Kitchens were to be inflicted on the poor as some kind of punishment for a crime unstated". The newly created Ministry of Food adopted the idea of community kitchens but realised that they would have to be much better presented.[2]

According to historian Bryce Evans, the government was highly sensitive to possible criticism of the National Kitchens as being soup kitchens.[3] The Ministry of Food Control stated that the National Kitchens "must not resemble a soup kitchen for the poorest section of society" and should instead be places for "ordinary people in ordinary circumstances".[3] A meal of soup, meat and vegetables was available for as little as sixpence, equivalent to roughly £1 today. However, in some kitchens there was nowhere to sit[4] and in others patrons had to bring their own mugs and plates. In order to further distance them from charitable canteens, the kitchens were run in a businesslike manner: in at least one kitchen it was possible to "buy your Sunday dinner on Saturday"; the ability to show the means to pay for a meal in advance, and to make reservations as at a restaurant, would contribute to the image that the Kitchens were for "ordinary people."[5]

The first National Kitchen was opened by Queen Mary in Westminster Bridge Road, London, on 21 May 1917.[6] By late 1918 there were 363 National Kitchens. The kitchens were partly funded by the state and could typically feed up to 2,000 people per day.[3] They were mainly staffed by volunteers, particularly well-to-do women who were anxious to "do their bit" for the war effort; serving in the kitchens became known as "canteening".[7]

A typical menu comprised:

List of National Kitchens

External links


  1. Doyle, Peter (2012), First World War Britain, Shire Books ISBN 978-0-74781-098-8 (p. 41)
  2. Barnett, L Margaret (1986) British Food Policy During the First World War, Unwin Hyman, ISBN 978-0049421899 (pp. 151-152)
  3. 3.0 3.1 3.2 Forrest, Adam. "The time when the government tried to feed everybody". BBC News Magazine. Retrieved 7 July 2015.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  4. 4.0 4.1 Teasdale, Vivien, Huddersfield in the Great War, Pen & Sword (2015), ISBN 978-1783463565
  5. 5.0 5.1 5.2 Inglis, G. I. S. (September 30, 2014). Kensington in the Great War. Pen & Sword Military. ISBN 178303288X. |access-date= requires |url= (help)<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  6. 6.0 6.1 Beckett, Ian Frederick William (2006), Home Front 1914-1918: How Britain Survived the Great War, The National Archives, ISBN 978-1-903365-81-6 (p. 124)
  7. Doyle p. 44
  8. Swan, Jonathan, Chelmsford in the Great War, Pen & Sword (2015), pp. 204-205
  9. Gosling, Lucinda. Great War Britain: The First World War At Home, History Press (2014), ISBN 978-0752491882
  10. Rose, David. Great War Britain Guildford: Remembering 1914-18. The History Press (2014), ISBN 978-0750960274
  11. Pasby, James. "Calendar of Local Events: Extracts from "The Hartlepools in the Great War"". North East War Memorials Project. Retrieved 5 September 2015.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  12. Trow, M J, Isle of Wight in the Great War. Pen & Sword. (2015) ISBN 978-1783463015
  13. Graham, Malcolm. Oxford in the Great War, Pen & Sword (2014), ISBN 978-1783462971 p. 114