Contributed by Dr Steven Woodbridge, Senior Lecturer in History at Kingston University
While there has been a growing amount of scholarly and other research on the lives of women in Britain during the Great War, there is still much to investigate, especially in relation to particular types of occupation held by women on the Home Front. One rather neglected profession remains that of food distribution, and one woman’s career in Surrey offers a fascinating case study in relation to this.
In January, 1921, the Surrey Comet newspaper published a profile and interview with Mrs Bumstead of Surbiton, in which she recalled her experiences as the local Executive Food Officer in Kingston-on-Thames during the First World War.
According to the newspaper, Mrs Bumstead, who worked as the Executive Officer for food distribution for just over three and a half years in Kingston, was the only female in Britain to hold a post of this kind, and she undertook her duties ‘with remarkable efficiency’.
Mrs Bumstead had moved to wartime Surbiton in 1916, and felt she must ‘take up some public work’. She was appointed chief clerk to the Executive Food Officer at Kingston, Dr H Beale Collins. On his retirement after six months, Mrs Bumstead was appointed as his successor and, as the Surrey Comet put it, she ‘found herself in a unique position as the only woman Food Officer in the country’.
In the interview, Bumstead told the Comet that, prior to taking up her duties, she had accumulated wide experience of public official work, having been appointed as the Superintendent of the Scattered Homes for children under the Reading Board of Guardians, a position she had held for five years. She said she was the first woman to be appointed to such a post. She had also worked in a similar capacity for Willesden Board of Guardians. She thus brought a wealth of organisational experience to her new Kingston position.
As the newspaper argued, Mrs Bumstead rendered ‘very effective service to the community’ during a very difficult period, both during and just after the war. The British government had been forced to introduce quite stringent food rationing in the later stages of the war, and the impact of the German U-Boat submarine campaign had made the availability of certain food-stuffs in the British Isles even more difficult in 1917-18. There were a number of occasions when Mrs Bumstead had to personally intervene and sort out certain situations and placate discontented members of the local community concerning food matters.
Her responsibilities included, for example, the supply of margarine to retailers in Kingston, but things did not always go to plan during wartime. She recalled that, on one occasion, just before Christmas, 1917, ‘a great crowd of women’ came into the town from surrounding districts and, having failed to obtain their usual supply from Kingston’s retailers, the angry women had gone ‘as a body’ to the local Food Office and confronted Mrs Bumstead, saying they were going to ‘help themselves’ to the several tons of margarine being stored there in readiness for distribution the next day.
Mrs Bumstead, however, quickly took action: she dispatched one of her assistants to fetch the local police and, in the meantime, met the enraged crowd at the door of the depot, blocking their way and daring them to proceed further. Faced by such an unexpected ‘outburst of passion’ by Mrs Bumstead, the crowd apparently fell back, and the arrival of the local police ‘prevented any further danger of violence’.
According to the Comet, the pressure on Mrs Bumstead during these difficult wartime months was so great that, for six weeks on end, she never left the depot office for a minute from morning to night, and it was often 10.00pm at night before the day’s work was completed. As well as margarine, restrictions were also placed on jam, sugar, tea, lard, cheese, bacon, tinned meats of all kinds, and butcher’s meat, the control and distribution of which all came under the overall responsibility of Mrs Bumstead. Queues for bread also became a regular sight in wartime (see the photo of a typical breadline), adding to the tensions.
Yet, using tact and skill, Bumstead was able to gradually build up good relations with many retailers in Kingston and, she said, she managed to work ‘in harmony’ with traders and win their confidence. She spoke in the highest terms about Kingston’s shopkeepers, who were ‘always loyal’ and ‘most helpful’. As she recalled, it was only on a very few occasions that she had found it necessary to ‘take proceedings’ against any of them.
Looking back on her wartime experiences as Food Control Officer, Mrs Bumstead said she had ‘nothing to regret’. While it had been a strenuous time, on the whole she had ‘thoroughly enjoyed’ her work. Shortly after the war, she had been offered, and had accepted, the position of Food Controller for a much wider area, embracing large parts of Surrey and Middlesex. But, when it was decided to close all the Food Offices in the aftermath of the conflict, her new position came to an end.
For historians, however, the case of Mrs Bumstead offers some great insights into both the topic of gender on the Home Front in the Great War and the huge challenges involved in maintaining a fair distribution of food under very trying wartime circumstances.