Book review: Eggs or Anarchy by William Sitwell

Eggs or Anarchy byWilliam Sitwell

Eggs or Anarchy byWilliam Sitwell

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During the long dark days of the Second World War just one man stood between peace and anarchy in a Britain running desperately short of food supplies.

That man was Minister of Food Fred Marquis, a middle-aged grammar school genius who was born in a terraced house in Salford, had his family roots in the Fylde but had worked hard to become Lord Woolton, one of the country’s most successful businessmen.

His task seemed almost impossible… oversee, purchase and control distribution of food to 41 million Britons on the home front and secure supplies to the 532 million people of the British colonies at a time when German U-boats were prowling the oceans.

The remarkable story of one of the Second World War’s unsung heroes finally gets a welcome airing thanks to William Sitwell, a leading food writer and editor, who has explored Woolton’s many diaries to take us inside the workings of both the man and his mission.

Sitwell paints a fascinating portrait of a determined and talented battler who used every trick in his entrepreneurial book to secure supplies, outwit unscrupulous dealers on the black market streets in far flung cities like Alexandria in Egypt, and persuade customs authorities to turn a blind eye to his import schemes.

A fish out of water in a cabinet of well-heeled, traditional politicians run by Prime Minister Winston Churchill, Woolton gave up a lucrative career as head of the Liverpool-based Lewis’s store chain to manage the job of feeding the nation.

It was an outstanding achievement for the boy born to working class parents in Salford in 1883. His father was a semi-literate, itinerant saddler and his grandfather had worked as landlord of the Black Bull Inn at Kirkham, near Blackpool.

Fred was an only child and after winning a scholarship to Manchester Grammar School he was offered a place at Cambridge University. Unable to take up the offer because of the living costs, the outstanding student went to Manchester University and later Liverpool University but he never forgot the dire poverty he witnessed in the slums of the cities.

By the age of 37, he was managing director of the Lewis’s store in Liverpool and in 1935 he received a knighthood.

When he took on the cabinet post in 1940, pledging that there would be food on the shelves each week, Churchill had little confidence in his 57-year-old Minister of Food, privately telling friends: ‘We shall have to be ready with a rescue squad for Woolton.’

The job was one of the toughest wartime roles… in 1940 alone, with supply routes under attack from the Axis powers, 728,000 tons of food destined for British ports ended up at the bottom of the sea.

But Woolton, the consummate organiser, did his duty to the nation… he managed to keep discontent at a minimum, often worked through the night to move food around the country, won the confidence of housewives with practical advice and even launched his own recipe, Woolton Pie, a concoction of vegetables and pastry crust.

Honest, straightforward and a man of simple tastes and diet, Woolton knew the dire consequences to the country if he failed and frequently had to face down criticism from colleagues, the press and public.

Woolton’s legacy by the end of the war was a nation was not just in good physical shape but healthier than it had ever been before or has ever been since. Child mortality had never been so low, far fewer mothers died in childbirth, children were taller and sturdier and the rate of tooth decay was markedly lower.

Written with wit and a genuine affection and respect for the ebullient Woolton, Eggs or Anarchy is a compelling and lively account of a forgotten hero and an extraordinary chapter in our wartime history.

(Simon & Schuster, hardback, £20)