Roger Spalding

Lee Anderson, Conservative MP for Ashfield and Eastwood has jumped into the cost-of-living crisis. He was quoted in the Daily Mirror (12/05/22) as saying: “We can make a meal for around 30p a day and this is cooking from scratch.” Leaving aside the practicalities raised by this claim like how many is this for and does this mean that the poor will only have one meal a day, what interests me about this claim is that it has a long historical pedigree.

In 1852 Charles Francatelli, one-time chef to Queen Victoria, published A Plain Cookery Book for the Working Classes. The object of this work was to enable the low-paid to enjoy cheap, but nutritious food – but how many of us would relish a dish of ‘Thick Milk’; warm milk thickened with flour eaten with a potato or bread, recommended for breakfast?

In the face of mass unemployment, and also greater knowledge about dietary requirements, the debate about the nutritional needs of the poor became particularly intense in the 1930s. Independent medical opinion, represented by figures like Dr John Boyd Orr, and the Medical Officer of Health for Stockton-on-Tees, George M’Gonigle, argued that the level of unemployment benefit was inadequate to provide sufficient nutrition. In response Sir Arthur Robinson, the permanent secretary to the Minister of Health, declared: ‘malnutrition is ignorance as much as insufficient income’.

In a similar vein, Hilton Young, Minister of Health, told the House of Commons in 1933 that there was ‘no available medical evidence of any general increase in physical impairment, sickness or mortality as a result of the economic depression or unemployment’. The following year the Adjutant-General of the British Army reported that 68% of potential recruits from the depressed industrial districts were below the required physical standard, 18% higher than the figure for other areas of Britain.

In what seems like a rather bizarre, and perhaps desperate, development, a Dr H Magee conducted a study of the diet of monks in what was described as ‘an austere monastery’. His 1934 report argued that it was perfectly possible to be fit and healthy on a diet that largely consisted of vegetables and wholemeal bread; missing the point that eating is about more than the intake of calories.

George Orwell in The Road to Wigan Pier, a millionaire, he says, may be happy to breakfast on Ryvitas and orange juice, but the poor want something, warm, comforting, filling, and possibly bad for them. It would seem that in bad times the less well-off become very poor at being poor. In the 1930s Lady Nancy Astor, toured deprived areas, promoting thrift, budgeting and the production of cheap nutritious meals. In the course of a presentation on the virtues of fish-head soup, she was interrupted when one of the women there asked: ‘Who is eating the fish, when we are eating the fish-heads?’ That seems like a question for our time too.

Roger Spalding is Programme Leader for History at Edge Hill University.