More than a Million Meals
Fancy going out for a meal in World War Two? Surely with rationing, you either had to be very rich or forget it? Not entirely true.
Here in Bedford a million and a quarter restaurant meals were dished up between March 1941 and the end of 1944.
And all you needed was the equivalent of £2.50 today!
They were called “British Restaurants” and we had three in Bedford.
It started out of simple necessity: feeding hundreds of evacuees from London who turned up at short notice.
Two days after war was declared the first evacuees arrived. The Corn Exchange was turned into an emergency feeding centre from 9am till 7pm.
Hot meals were available from the second day and by the end of the first week the daily demand for nearly 700.
But almost as soon as it had arisen, the demand ended. The expected bombing of London didn’t take place and most evacuees went home.
Food provision was scaled down and switched to 38 Mill St. This had some canteen facilities and was run by Women’s Voluntary Service (WVS) volunteers.
The fall in numbers continued and closure was considered in January 1940. Only 104 dinners and 112 teas had been served in nine days.
But suddenly at the end of July there was a large influx of new evacuees from London as the blitz intensified. A second facility on Cauldwell St also opened.
On the evening of September 9th, so many evacuees arrived, the Mill St restaurant stayed open all night. The WVS weekly report said it had been “overflowing”.
|38, Mill St today|
38 Mill Street today
Mill St was suddenly becoming very popular. Miss Beatrice Rogers who was running it, reported at a WVS meeting that in the year to the end of February 1941, 46,886 meals had been served.
But she said adde that “people who are earning good wages” were turning up for “cheap meals” and asked if this could be stopped. She was told that control would soon transfer from Whitehall to Bedford and perhaps the council might act. But they did not and the well paid kept coming.
The restaurants were exempt from rationing, which led to some resentment as the rich could supplement their food allowance by eating out frequently and extravagantly. In order to try to restrict this certain rules were put into force.
No meal could cost more than five shillings, no meal could consist of more than three courses, meat and fish could not be served at the same sitting.
Government steps in
But from the start it’s clear that the Government saw them as more than just feeding centres. The Minister of Food, Lord Wilton, said they provided “community feeding” in “community kitchens” adding that “it helps to create confidence, health and a sense of well-being.”
By early 1941 the government insisted they be open to all. Churchill disliked the term “community kitchen” as redolent of “Communism and the workhouse” He suggested “British Restaurant” as it was linked in peoples’ minds with 'a good meal'. It stuck.
The British Restaurant habit took a while to develop in Bedford but by the early summer of 1941 it was apparent that the two restaurants could not fully meet all demands.
|Meals being prepared at 38 Mill St JPI Media|
Mid-day dinner: Soup, meat or fish & 2 veg, sweet: (often a choice), a cup of tea. Usually cheese and biscuits and a variety of sandwiches too. Basic – but nourishing.
Tea: Bread and butter, jam, cakes and savouries.
|Mayor Fred Rickard & diners at 38 Mill St JPI Media|
Mill St was seen as the classiest. It was the headquarters of the three restaurants, it was close to the town centre and had "a regular clientele of business and office people," a council report stated.*
There were a number of rooms on two floors which “fits in well with the traditional layout of the majority of public restaurants to which the British public is accustomed.”
The council bought the premises on May 1st 1944 and a large new kitchen was built at the rear. By then it was a “high class restaurant and café”.
Gwyn St had more restricted facilities “but is useful located in an area of smaller business premises and congested house properties”.
Cauldwell St had the best kitchen but the number of meals sold was below expectations.
The report points out that existing restaurants and cafes could not have met the demand for a “cheap and good meal” quickly served.
British Restaurant meals were cheaper than hotel, restaurant or cafe meals. This was down to the use of some unpaid volunteers, council subsidies and a council priority in the purchase of equipment. They were also basically furnished.
|Interior of 38, Mill St JPI Media|
Also the report admits it was a “relief” to council officials to know that there was an “experienced service, available, if necessary at immediate notice for a 24 hr day.”
Children at all the town’s schools - including private ones – also got reduced cost meals. 182,661 were provided between March 1941 and December 1944 at a cost of 6d each. Four out of the five secondary schools benefitted as well as two of the three 3 evacuated schools.
The three restaurants made a “reasonable profit”. Most British Restaurants were funded directly by the government. But in Bedford the council funded them. The report says the decision to do so was “perhaps” influenced more by having control than concern about profit and loss.
It adds that at “no distant date” all capital debt will be paid off - including the purchase of Mill Street.
“This is a pleasurable prospect since there has been some agitation in the country that a number of British Restaurants have failed to pay their way, the deficit falling on the taxpayer.”
End of the Road
Even though Mill St was thriving, the seeds of its closure are clear from the 1945 report. It points out that a council is not a caterer and the reason for setting up British Restaurants has “diminished”.
It also acknowledges that the emergency may not end with the end of the war in Europe. “So long as there are transferred workers, the housing shortage, shortages in cooking and feeding utensils, and a deficiency of domestic help within the home, the need for BRs is likely to remain.”.
But in parliament Tory opposition grew to what was seen as unfair competition. By 1946 the number of British Restaurants nationally had halved.
In March 1948, Mill St was seeing a “steady increase” in customers and the council agreed to pay £520 (£20,000 in today’s prices) to extend it into the ground floor of the Old Fire Station.
But in July 1949, nearly a decade after opening, it closed. It was unusual in making money – and for so long. Miss Rogers who ran it throughout, got a British Empire Medal in the 195 New Year’s Honours list.
* All quotes and statistics are drawn from: The British Restaurants 1941-4. Report of the Bedford Borough Director of Education. March 1945.