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Home <> 20th Century Review <> 1940's - The Austere Forties

1940's - The Austere Forties

Woolton Pie

A creation of the head chef at the Savoy Hotel, Woolton Pie combined carrots, turnips, parsnips and potatoes in an oatmeal stock, and was crowned by a pastry or potato crust and served with brown gravy.

Introduced in May 1941, it continued to raise a hollow laugh throughout the war. In fact, Woolton Pie was far from being a laughing matter.

It was named after Frederick Marquis, Lord Woolton, the ex-managing director of a store chain called Lewis (mainly in the north of England) and ex-social worker, who was appointed Minister of Food in April 1940.

Unglamorous his position may have been, but it was vital to the war effort. It says much for Woolton's personal charm that he was remarkably popular with the public, even when singing the praises of rissoles without beef, cakes without sugar and tea without tea leaves.

Much of Woolton's success was due to his business skill -- he only rationed items of which he was certain he had enough to go around, however small the quantities. This built up a sense of fairness and trust: he also believed that the public should be educated and helped, not just instructed.

This he did by means of advertisements starring 'Dr Carrot' and 'Potato Pete', by broadcasts with 'Gert and Daisy' - the music hall artistes Elsie and Doris Walters, and by 'Kitchen Front' spots on the radio and 'Food Flashes' in the cinema

Lord Woolton, Britain's wartime Minister of Food, charmed and cajoled the public into eating not only Woolton Pie but a 'National loaf' - pictured here baked as a 'Victory loaf'.

Neither were liked, but by the end of the War, the country was fitter and healthier than it ever had been.

The Wartime Songs

When the air-waves echoed with LILI MARLENE, sung in the haunting throaty tones of Marlene Dietrich, few cared that it was a German ballad, a lament for lost love struck a universal chord in wartime.

But the golden voice of Vera Lynn, 'the Forces' Sweetheart', provided home-grown sentiment in plenty. Songs such as THE WHITE CLIFFS OF DOVER and WE'LL MEET AGAIN became unofficial national anthems.

Others had more bitter-sweet associations: A NIGHTINGALE SANG IN BERKELEY SQUARE, for example, recalled the dark nights of the Blitz.

In marked contrast were the double meanings, slapstick humour and deft way with the ukulele of cheeky, gap-toothed George Formby.

Noel Coward used his sophisticated wit to good effect in DONT LET'S BE BEASTLY TO THE GERMANS, while the major American contribution to the musical war effort was made by Glen Miller, with IN THE MOOD and MOONLIGHT SERENADE.

Described as having a face like a horse and teeth like tombstones, George Fornby (pictured) nevertheless always got the girl in his films -- with the help of songs such as WHEN I'M CLEANING WINDOWS, WITH MY LITTLE UKULELE IN MY HAND and LEANING ON A LAMPPOST.


Who would have thought that catch phrases born in wartime all those years ago would still be remembered today? But no show, before or since, has had the impact of radio's ITMA - 'IT'S THAT MAN AGAIN'.

During the war, radio united the nation, providing information, dispensing advice and strengthening morale. And ITMA, which had its debut on July 12 1939, made the nation laugh as one.

It was essential listening: if the Germans had invaded at 8.30 on any Thursday evening, resistance would have been weak. Written by Ted Kavanagh, ITMA starred the fast-talking Tommy Handley.

He played a variety of improbable figures: 'The Minister of Aggravation and Mysteries', 'Mayor of Foaming-at-the-Mouth' or 'Governor of Tomtopia'.

He was supported buy a rich cast of secondary characters, including Funf, the incompetent German spy - 'This is Funf speaking' - and Colonel Chin-strap, forever in search of alcoholic refreshment - 'I don't mind if I do'.

Both were played by the gifted mimic Jack Train, while Dorothy Summers created Mrs. Mopp, with her famous catch phrase 'Can I do you now, sir?'

Most of Britain came to a standstill at 8.30 every Thursday night, when Tommy Handley, seen here with Lina Joyce, paraded the extraordinary voices of IT'S THAT MAN AGAIN, radio's most popular comedy show.

The national institution came to an end with the death of Handle, on July 9, 1949. The streets were lined for his funeral procession, and he was given the unique honour, for a radio comedian, of a memorial service at St. Paul's Cathedral.

Gas Masks

Gas attacks had been an enduring nightmare of the First World War, and few who had lived through those days could smell peardrops or eat mustard without thinking of the deadly fumes.

So by 1937, when war seemed imminent, gas masks were being produced at the rate of 150,000 a week: by the Munich Crisis every man woman and child in Britain had one.

The sinister-looking devices came in three models, some with 'Mickey Mouse' and 'Donald Duck' faces to make them less scaring for children. The infant's model was a gas 'helmet' - an air-tight chamber that enclosed the baby and was ventilated by air pumped through bellows.

As civilian and school drills made gas masks a familiar fact of life, people became confident enough to begin complaining about discomfort and poor design.

Soon shops began selling luxury and 'superior' models, and the ugly monster was at least tamed for easy wear, if not for fashion. As the conflict wore on and the risk of gas attacks receded, fewer people carried their masks with them.

By the end of the war, most were in the attic.

Dig for Victory

"We want not only the big man with the plough but the little man with the spade to get busy this autumn... Let 'Dig for Victory' be the motto of everyone with a garden," broadcast Rob Hudson, Minister for Agriculture, in October 1939.

It was a desperate request, for farmers could only produce 30% of the country's food. But if gardens could be turned over to growing food rather than flowers, up to 25% of the necessary vegetables could be provided

All over the country, lawns were dug and potatoes, cabbages, carrots and beans planted. Windsor Great Park was given over to wheat, and public parks, road verges, railway embankments, golf clubs, tennis courts, roofs and even window boxes were put to work.

Some were not content with just growing crops, but tried their hands at rearing livestock: poultry, rabbits and even pigs. The sounds of clucking in back gardens and porcine grunts on bomb sites became familiar, if incongruous, sounds.

The plan worked though -- by 1945, around 75% of food was produced in Britain.

World War II spawned a huge number of slogans: "Careless talk costs lives"; "Be like dad - keep mum"; and so on. But perhaps the most important of all was "Dig for victory," for without success in this particular campaign Britain might well have starved.

Demob Suits and Nylons

"Every man looks good in a uniform," the saying went, but despite this the clothing depots set up at the end of the war were flooded with officers and men anxious to get out of the Army khaki and Navy and Air Force blue and take up the offer of a free 'demob' suit.

After years in uniform, each man was given a choice of suit, and issued with a raincoat, a shirt with two collars, a hat, a tie, shoes and two pairs of socks.

It was not the most stylish of outfits, but some two million men strode back into civilian life courtesy of government tailoring. Women were not so lucky, however, and the shortage of nylon stockings was to continue for several years.

But less-principled ladies, or their male friends, could always buy stockings from one of those gentleman with slicked-back hair and wide-lapelled suits, who lounged inside streets and held court in saloon bars. Few liked the black market or the 'spivs', but many were guiltily grateful for their enterprise.

Utility Furniture and Clothing

The wartime government was desperate to conserve materials, but also aware of the effect on morale of poor quality clothes and furniture. The answer to the problem was the 'utility' standards -- well designed, good quality merchandise at fixed prices.

It was a sensible idea, and a fair one. But the 22 items of utility furniture were flimsy, and there were only three designs: and utility dresses with no fabric wasted on flounces lacked appeal. The public could hardly wait for the end of the war and austerity.

The Yanks

Brash, generous, naive, charming, exuberant -- American servicemen were both admired and resented by their British hosts. The Yanks had taken their time to become involved in the war, so there was some reserve, yet when they arrived the country was nearly overwhelmed.

Their impact, especially in the rural areas, was enormous, and the envy of British servicemen was understandable. Relaxed and easy-going, the American G I was better dressed, better paid and better fed than his British counterpart.

He had easy access to luxuries that had long been rationed in Britain: cigarettes, chewing gum, chocolates and coffee -- even nylon stockings with which to woo the British girls.

For the most part, the Americans showed great goodwill and maintained sympathetic respect for the traditions of a war-torn nation. But their brashness gave rise to one famously tart complaint: they were 'overpaid, oversexed and over here'.

There is no doubt that to many girls, the smart Americans -- whose canteens served buffets worthy of a first-class restaurant and engaged well-known jazz bands for dances - seemed like film stars.

Many Anglo-American romances ended in marriage, and G I brides became a notable British export at the end of the war.

Pathé News

A visit to the cinema during the 40's was one of the few ways of escaping from austerity into a world of excitement and romance.

But before the main feature, there was a 10-minute newsreel, like TV news today: war news, home news and reports, linked by music.

Newsreels provided a focus: a means by which a nation that worked and fought as one could react to current events as one.

Pathé News was the first, and the most popular of them, providing a unique record of the world until vanquished by television in the 1960s

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