Local History Society

 The 'Mercury' and the Home Front in WW1

On 22nd January 1918, an advert for Foster Clark’s Soup was made out to look like a news article.

It pointed out that the potato crop was good, making up for deficiencies in food supply elsewhere. For a nourishing meal, why not pour their soup over boiled potatoes?

Elsewhere, the Mercury reported that three British destroyers had been lost while conveying butter ships from Holland.


On August 17th 1918, the Household Fuel Rationing Order was announced.


The June 7th 1919 issue carried an article on 'The Shortage of Fuel – Improved Situation' – Brickworks had been short of coal, but the situation was now easing.


On October 4th 1919, the 'Mercury'  reported on  ‘Reading and the Strike’ – there had been a railway strike for a week or so, which affected the delivery of food and milk, among less perishable goods. There was a brief return to wartime rationing.




Food Shortages and Rationing

By March 1917, the poor conditions for lifting root crops the previous autumn had caused a potato shortage in the Reading area. Far worse was to come.

The September 15th issue reported on the ‘Meat Order’ for the first time; it was predicted that capping the prices of meat would lead to supply problems.

On October 27th 1917, an advert from the County Borough of Reading gave a detailed list of maximum prices for different cuts of beef, mutton or lamb, veal, pork, etc., under the Meat Order. Other similar adverts appeared for Wokingham and other town councils. Whether these restrictions affected country areas in quite the same way isn't yet known.

The same issue carried an article headed 'THE FOOD PROBLEM IN READING'. It said that sugar, tea, butter, bacon and milk were all in short supply. The problem was exacerbated by the number of soldiers billeted in the area.

More Government regulations were reported in Autumn 1917: The Retail Coal Prices Order, and the Milk (Prices) Order.

On December 1st 1917, the Mercury recorded the worsening situation in Reading as follows:


The food problem in Reading is still very acute.
In several commodities there has been a great shortage, and some of the company shops have had to close their doors for several hours at a time.
The local Food Control Committee were fortunate enough to secure the freeing of a ton and a half of butter last week, and special representations have been made to Lord Rhondda for the release of a further quantity this week.

A special enquiry is being made on the Food Controller’s Instructions as to the present needs of the town in regard to butter, sugar, margarine, lard, rice and condensed milk. Vouchers instructing grocers how to obtain their supplies of sugar for the 1st of January have been despatched this week, and returns have been received from all four weeks.

Keepers of slaughter-houses have had to make a return showing the killing capacity of each slaughter-house. All are to be registered by the local Food Control Committee.

By December 22nd, a local food rationing scheme was announced:



The food problem in Reading has become so acute that rationing will come into force about the 15th of next month. The local Food Control Committee have, after investigation, come to the conclusion that queues were caused partly through the shortages of supplies and of unequal distribution, and as a result they reported the matter to the Divisional Commissioner (Mr. C. K. Butler) who is taking a very lively interest into what, after all, is a very serious problem. […] The Ministry of Food, […] while not being responsible for any local scheme, would be prepared to repay the necessary expenditure under general terms, and if the experiment were approved by them.

[A Conference was held on the previous Tuesday evening on the subject: ]
Three schemes were submitted to the local Food Control Committee, including the Birmingham scheme, but the conference agreed that the Reading scheme should be based on individual rationing cards, that each person should be entitled to choose his or her own supplier, that stocks in the town should be pooled, and that each trader receive a proportion, according to the number of his customers. The rations would be fixed weekly according to the supplies which were available.


A meeting convened by the Trade Unions of the town in regard to the problem was held in the Market Place, Reading, on Sunday afternoon, under the presidency of Mr. A. T. Knight. In spite of the bad weather there was a good attendance. Prior to the meeting there was a procession, which was headed by a band.

Miss Blackall moved the following resolution:

“That this mass meeting of the people of Reading is of the opinion
that nothing short of a national system of rationing will ensure
the equal distribution to rich and poor alike of the available foodstuffs,
and condemns the Government for the half-hearted way
in which they have dealt with “profiteering” carried on by a section
at the expense of the nation,
and calls for drastic punishment in all cases.
Further, we are of the opinion that more power should be given to
local food control committees, to deal with infringements,
and to enable them to enforce,
with the co-operation of the municipal authority,
the pooling and distribution of supplies.”


The resolution was carried unanimously.


The position of the meat trade must be described as serious, and after Christmas it is feared that there will be a great shortage; in fact, a well-known butcher told our representative that there will be hardly any meat available. At the Christmas Market at Reading on Monday practically anything with a speck of meat on it was being offered for sale.

Hundreds of thousands of cattle are being killed, mainly on account of the high price of feeding stuffs, and also that the supplies may be kept up, whereas a large number of the beasts ought to have been kept for beef for the first six months of next year. There is even a shortage this Christmas, and in several shops there is the possibility of stocks being exhausted by Monday.

Butchers are losing considerably on their sales. They are working under the Meat (Maximum Prices) Order, which allows 1s 2½d per lb for a carcass of meat. That is the most they can make of it. However, best cattle are costing 1s 7½d per lb alive, which shows a loss of about £7 a bullock.


By January 5th 1918, the paper reported:

'Because of the meat shortage, butchers in Reading are to close on Mondays, Tuesdays and Wednesdays until further notice.'

The crisis continued. On 29th January, under the familiar heading 'THE FOOD PROBLEM IN READING', the Mercury recorded that there had been a panic on the previous Friday evening (21st January).

'A near riot ensued when crowds assembled in the neighbourhood of West Street, traffic was held up, and a rush was made on the Maypole establishment at the corner of West Street, the gates were forced open and scales were smashed.

'However, prompt action was taken by the Mayor and the Chief Constable (Captain J. S. Henderson) and his officers. Mr. Sarjeant addressed the crowds from a tramcar, and informed them that the Local Food Control Committee were taking over all the supplies of margarine, which would be distributed the next morning at a central depôt. […] '

Meat rationing was set at half a pound per head for each adult for a week, and four ounces for every child under five.

Workers at the biscuit factory threatened to strike unless arrangements were made to provide meat for their children. This was arranged, thus averting the strike. 1,000 children had a midday meal under these arrangements.

By 9th February, the Reading Food Control Committee announced that the Meat ration was being increased for a second time, from 10 to 12 ounces a week for an adult, and 4 ounces for children under 6.

The Potato Deficit - how many villagers answered the call to grow more?

On March 23rd:, it was reported that there was an urgent need for more potatoes – on the right is an advertisement from the following week's issue, March 30th.

On page 7 from the 30th March, there was another advertisement, this time for something that wasn't in quite such short supply:








- The Eighteen family ran a few shops in Reading, and also delivered to the surrounding villages.


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