Home front struggle as WWI took its toll

A steam threshing engine at Larkhill Farm, Abbeylands, Onchan, in 1917

A steam threshing engine at Larkhill Farm, Abbeylands, Onchan, in 1917

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The First World War was the first conflict in which the enemy possessed the capability of waging war on the British civilian population by curtailing food supplies, and by 1917 the German navy through its U-boat blockade had come perilously close to starving Britain into submission.

Even with the war just a few weeks old, its impact on food supplies and household economies was being felt on the Isle of Man.

Almost straight away the cost of basic staple goods began to climb alarmingly.

For those on smaller or fixed incomes, the end result would be great hardship caused by the war.

In those early weeks, as one diarist recounts, more cautious people prepared to return to traditional Manx fare: ‘Of late years …. the putting down of herring for winter stock has fallen very much out of fashion.

‘Farm labourers and the poor people who once dined on potatoes and salt herring, four days out of seven, have outgrown such food, but this year people are buying in larger stocks again.

‘“Aw, maybe thou’ll be glad of a salt herring yet gal,” I heard one man say. Maybe we will. It’s a good thing that the harvest of the sea promises to be a plentiful one this year.’

In February 1915 a meeting of Peel Commissioners noted that the war was pushing up the price of basic commodities, and that the poor were suffering disproportionately as a result.

In October of that year it was reported that bread prices were soaring above pre-war levels, and flour was fetching between 13 and 15 shillings a sack more than it had done in 1913.

A 60-year-old Jurby farmer’s widow, Eleanor Callister, recorded in a journal the steady increases in prices of daily commodities such as butter, oats and coal, adding: ‘Everything else dear in proportion through this great war.’

There were probably many others like her, who were suffering greatly from the rise in prices.

Some idea of the hardship now being felt on the home front comes from union leader Alfred Teare, who wrote in his memoirs that by 1917, the cost of living on the Isle of Man had risen 78 per cent above what it had been in 1914.

At the same time the only increase in wages for most workers had been a paltry shilling a week, taking the pre-war average wage of £1 a week up to 21 shillings a week, or an increase of just 5 per cent.

Yet these hardships were not being borne equally, for the surplus produce grown by the farmers of the Isle of Man was now fetching record prices, greatly enriching them.

By 1916 it was becoming clear that this war was a life-or-death struggle, and all resources available to the state would be required if defeat was to be avoided.

In the face of dwindling food imports the efforts of the farmers of the British Isles would be a critical factor.

In 1916, British Summer Time was introduced to enable them to make better use of the hours of daylight, but the increasing demands on manpower were making their task all the harder.

To some extent, machinery made up for the conscription of agricultural labourers, T.A.Brew remembering: ‘It was when I was going to school that I seen the first tractor, this must have been about the year 1918, the war was on and production was at its peak, those tractors were very awkward, the ploughs used with them were clumsy, the larger tractors were very much like steam engines, and seemed to run very badly.

‘Corletts, Ballamona, had these tractors, and the larger one was used for threshing. They tied it to a tree to keep it from creeping up toward the mill with the strain, it used to give great loud cracks out of it, which we could hear … more than a mile away, like guns going off.’

Nevertheless food stuffs continued to get scarcer.

Meatless days were followed by restrictions on cafes and restaurants serving cakes.

Manx newspapers published advice on how to make food go further, for example by adding potato flour when baking bread.

Only in the final year of the war was it felt necessary to introduce rationing on the Isle of Man, with sugar and potatoes controlled by coupons, but it was food that would be the undoing of the island’s Lieutenant Governor, Lord Raglan.

In July 1918 he suddenly announced the end of a government subsidy which had kept the price of a loaf artificially low. Such was the resulting consternation that the unions called a general strike, crippling the Isle of Man.

Tynwald Day was cancelled, and Raglan, humiliated, was forced to reinstate the subsidy. He resigned the following year.

More information about food and rationing is available in the Manx National Heritage publication This Terrible Ordeal, available at the Manx Museum and elsewhere.

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