Housekeeping history

How to Adapt Your Garden in Periods of Austerity

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I have recently come across a really terrific gardening book from the Second World War period, written by Richard Sudell, and while most of it was fairly predictable, there was a excellent chapter on ‘How to Adapt Your Garden in Wartime’, that has some relevance for this blog. I’m therefore looking at the chapter here to see what we can glean about what they call ‘cropping’ round where I live. The idea of gardening wearing a shirt and tie also appeals to me; this is a phenomenon we see in many early DIY books as well. In those days, clearly Britain Had Standards.

First of all, the garden it appears to be based on is large by modern standards (100ft by 35ft), and unless you live in the middle of nowhere, or are lucky enough to live in a house build before 1960, I doubt you’ll have enough space for most of their ideas. He also regards the average family as having 4-5 people, which again is large for present times. However it is possible to work from the same principles and develop a productive garden that might not meet all your food needs, but which will let you harvest something fresh and tasty to eat most days of the summer and early autumn.

Richard starts by suggesting you allocate half to two-thirds of the garden to the cultivation of fruit and vegetables, leaving an area with flowers and shrubs near where you are planning to sit, and near the bits of the garden you see most closely to the house. He also suggests widening the beds and reducing the size of the lawn so you can also grow flowers for cutting fairly easily (garden flowers rather than shop-bought flowers being a staple of this blog, so obviously we approve of that idea). I would add to his advice that there might be a case for losing the lawn completely, as they are high maintenance and the space might be put to better purpose with other things, but if you have football playing children this will be regarded as sacrilegious.

You then lay out your garden  with gravel paths near the house (I would recommend putting landscape matting underneath gravel to stop weeds poking through, by the way), and grass paths in the vegetable area. In the vegetable patch he recommends growing potatoes, cabbage, beans and so on as staples to last you through the year. In addition he suggests adding fruit trees and bushes, and having a good compost pit. A small greenhouse will allow you to raise seedlings (vegetables being cheapest when they are grown from seed), early vegetables, salads, and also force rhubarb (probably the easiest plant to grown in the country, and when you put a cover over it, you get early tender pale stalks that are delicious in a rhubarb fool (recipe in the Austerity Housekeeping eBook if you need it).

He goes further and suggests your Anderson Air Raid shelter might make a good chicken coop ‘on the intensive system’. Please could any readers of this blog discovering an Anderson shelter in their back garden, and who are planning to try this, get in touch immediately as the television production company I word with will most likely be both flabbergasted and impressed enough to send out a cameraman to record it for posterity. From the way this chapter reads, it appears you would be bedding down with the chickens should Jerry fly overhead, so I wonder if he was implying the chicken stage of development would be better achieved after the war.

Now in relation to the actual vegetable patch, you apparently need to divide it into three portions.

  • Greens (cabbages, sprouts, cauliflowers)
  • Legumes and root crops (peans, beans, carrots)
  • Potatoes

You also need a section for salads such as lettuce, celery, onions, small herbs and so on.

The beds are divided this way as each year you will need to rotate the crops, or in other words, only grow vegetables in the same bed once every three years. This is a method of avoiding pests and diseases, and not exhausting the soil. You’ll also need to feed the soil regularly with good compost from your pit, and he also recommends using an incinerator for burning garden waste to create good potash as extra soil nutrition.

Other additions from the Sudell book – a shallow pond can apparently become a watercress bed. I would never have thought of that. Also growing fruit up trellises and walls/fences is a real option to save space.

Overall it’s lovely to come across gardening books like these, as they take us back to a time when the craft of gardening was done in a more earthy way, working from basics, rather than the present convention of going to a garden centre and filling a massive trolley with expensive seedlings and plants somebody else has reared for you. I have a feeling that in the Sudell garden, growing your own fruit and vegetables might even be economical compared to that, which is presumably how he could afford to garden in a shirt and tie.

Incidentally, if you want a copy of this book for yourself, Ebay has several for sale at the moment.



Healthy diets, the 1910 way.

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As you have probably read on other pages of this blog, my starting point for investigations into housekeeping practices and their effect on family wellbeing started with a series of home management books produced for schools in 1910, written by Wilena Hitching (previously a headmistress and school inspector). These books were designed to give a thorough, almost scientific introduction to the study of housekeeping to girls between the ages of about 11-14, with a view to preparing them for lives as wives and mothers. While some of the advice she gave sounds dated today, most of it has surprisingly significant relevance for men and women a hundred years later, particularly in times of financial constraint. My focus today will be what Miss Hitching considered to be a healthy diet for families, viewed through a 21st century lens.

Breakfast options (served at 8am)


Bread crusts soaked in warm milk

Brown bread and butter and an egg


Smoked Finnan haddock

Hot milk for children

Cocoa for adults

Most of these are high in fibre and protein, with very little sugar evident and comparatively little fat (with the exception of the bacon). This is clearly an idealised diet – Miss Hitching does permit the drinking of tea and coffee, but regards it as somewhat stimulating and less preferable than cocoa.

Luncheon (which took place mid-morning, around 10.30 am, and was really for children)

Hot milk and a biscuit

Brown bread and butter and a banana

Dinner options (which took place in the middle of the day, around 1pm). A good housekeeper would prepare a two or three course meal, depending on the weather and the type of work family members were engaging in.

Pea soup

Lentil soup

Haricot soup

Roast meats, leftovers minced or served in shepherd’s pie (for example)

Chops or steaks


Poached fish



Savoury Yorkshire pudding (served alongside roast meats or before the meal with gravy as a kind of appetiser)

Savoury or sweet suet puddings, such as steak and kidney pudding or jam roly poly (but not both in the same meal!)

Macaroni or rice pudding

Stewed fruit and custard

These are high protein meals, comparatively high in saturated fat, but the amount of sugar used in the desserts is comparatively low – a teaspoon of sugar here, a little bit of jam there. There is ample use of fruit, vegetables and pulses, simply prepared, meaning the meals are comparatively high in fibre as well.

Tea (served mid-afternoon, around 4pm; again, mainly aimed at children)

Bread and butter

Watercress, lettuce or radishes

Stewed fruit (apples, rhubarb, prunes, etc)

Once again, this is a high fibre meal with more fruit and vegetables, designed to maximise satiety (feeling of fullness). Watercress is packed full of vitamins, iron and other minerals, representing a kind of Edwardian superfood.

Supper (served before bed, around 7pm) – one or more of the following might be served.

Bread and butter or bread and dripping

Hot milk


Boiled onions

Cream crackers, butter and cheese

Simple fare, and perhaps less extensive that in modern times for the time of day. This is presumably because the bulk of the calories needed was taken in during breakfast and lunch, and the family had had the opportunity to gather together for a hot meal during the middle of the day as well. The need to give the stomach a rest from meat overnight is emphasised in Miss Hitching’s book.

I look at all this food, and wonder whether personally I could plough my way through all of this every day, even taking out the ‘luncheon’ and ‘tea’ on the basis of not being a growing child. It is also intriguing to wonder what might happen to the body, were we to start eating like this regularly. Given that the calorific intake is probably higher than we are used to today, would we end up fatter? Or would the simple nature of the food allow our bodies to process the fats and sugars more effectively than we tend to now, leading to fewer metabolic problems such as diabetes and obesity. I think I have an inkling as to the answer, when I think about rationing that was to come thirty years later during World War II, which involved a diet not too far removed from what we are seeing in this 1910 list, albeit with less meat. This led to an improvement in the nation’s health, so perhaps the answers to the obesity epidemic lie in what our grandmothers already knew about choosing food for the family?

Do we need British Restaurants again?

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British Restaurants 2British Restaurants (originally called Community Feeding Centres) were a Second World War phenomenon, where people who had run out of rations were able to get a simple hot meal for the equivalent of about £1 or so in contemporary money. Meals included a single serving of meat, game, poultry, fish, eggs or cheese. They were set up on a not for profit basis and particularly popular in London.

It struck me that in the present financial climate there might be a case for introducing something similar, along the lines of cheap school dinners for grown ups, aimed at people whose benefits hadn’t arrived on time, for those struggling to find the money for a decent meal, for those people without access to a kitchen, and for those who were unable to cook properly or needed company at meal times (eg the elderly).

I can see local food producers and suppliers donating surplus or tasty but cosmetically unattractive stock to be turned into nourishing but simple fare, people being taught about nutrition and cooking from these centres, youth catering apprenticeships being offered and so on.

What do you think?


Towards a history of Home Economics

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In this blog, I write about historic housekeeping techniques updated for the modern age. However it’s most emphatically not a history research paper, so the original versions are subsumed within my text, and it’s hard to know where the real roots are. Therefore this post is the first of a series that will help you find out more about the history of how Home Economics (also sometimes called Home Management or Domestic Economy) came to pass, and where I have been getting my inspiration from over the years. You might be interested to know that it’s currently a research field in its own right, and if any active researchers are logging on, I’d really be intrigued to see comments about what you are working on at the moment, and what you think about the blog.

For those of us in the UK educated before the introduction of the National Curriculum in the early 1990s, we probably think of Home Economics as involving the production of desultory soggy biscuits and bizarre items of knitwear while our male compatriots were off making mug trees. However what is often forgotten is that there has been a long history of women engaging in the subject at university, particularly in the US. Indeed, Home Economics courses offered such women a foot in the door of many hallowed institutions of higher learning, where previously they might have been unwelcome. In this way, Home Economics paved the way for more academic engagement with learning today for women. This website tells you how this happened at Cornell University, and gives a rich account of the history.

Is fat good for us? An historical view of Denmark’s new ‘fat tax’.

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I was interested to read recently that Denmark has introduced a ‘fat tax’ on food. The question is whether this is likely to achieve the desired outcome of reducing obesity? You can read a related report here:

This was of particular interest as I’ve been ploughing through cookbooks and home economics books from the early part of the 20th century over the last year for this blog, and working out the costs and calories involved in these diets, heavy as they were in saturated fat and meat. There are some striking points of comparison to be made.

Most of us simple could not afford to eat as much meat as the average working family put away a hundred years ago (you’d end up spending £70-£80 a week on meat and fish alone for a family of four), and we could not afford to home grow as much produce as many families did – we rely on mass produced fruit and vegetables which works out a lot cheaper, but which are probably lower in nutritional values. The calorific values of our great-grandparents’ diets were much greater than ours, as the meals had a heavy emphasis on animal fats like suet, lard, whole milk, and carbohydrates.

However despite all this eating, people’s average weights were lower, and the only reason for this as far as I can see is the amount of walking they did, and the absence of TV, which meant they engaged in a lot more low level exercise throughout the day instead of slumping on the sofa for hours on end like many of us do. There was less snacking and use of processed foods as well, which may have meant that individual blood sugar and leptin levels may have been controlled differently by people’s bodies. Added to this, previous generations were also shorter on average, and children matured later, probably because of illness in early childhood, and in some cases a poor quality diet deficient in calcium and other vital minerals in the case of deprived households.

Bearing all this in mind, taxing fat seems pointless – it would surely make more sense to focus on increasing engagement in low level exercise for the whole population. However taxing things actively raises money for governments, which makes me suspicious about the motives here, given there is no evidence that just avoiding fat makes you slim (which it doesn’t – if only it were that simple!) Another vested interest might be the food industry, which processes foods to make them low fat, but potentially at the cost of some nutritional values.

Do comment on this blog post if you have views on Denmark’s new policy.

Image: Grant Cochrane /

What’s on your kitchen bookshelf? Here’s mine …

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Here’s my collection of wierd and wonderful books in the kitchen. Look on Amazon for the out of print ones if you fancy tracking them down.

Ager, Stanley and St. Aubyn, Fiona (1980)

Ager’s Way to Easy Elegance (New York, Bobbs-Merrill)

Conran, Shirley ( 1975) Superwoman (London, Sidgwick and Jackson)

Holcombe, Gill (2007) How to feed your whole family a healthy, balanced diet with very little money …. and hardly any time, even if you have a tiny kitchen, only three saucepans (one with an ill-fitting lid) and no fancy gadgets – unless you count the garlic crusher: simple wholesome and nutritious recipes for family meals (Oxford, How To Books)

Hitching, Wilena (1910) Home Management Manuals, Volume II: Second Year’s Course (London, W and R Chambers)

Innes, Jocasta (1993) The Thrifty Decorator: A DIY guide to style on a shoe string (London, Conran Octopus)

Jeremy, C (2003) Green and Black’s Chocolate Recipes (London, Kyle Cathie Ltd)

King, Aileen (1961) Better Home Management (London, Mills and Boon)

Luard, Elisabeth (1986) European Peasant Cookery (London, Bantam Press)

Oldknow, Jay (Ed) (1984) Toshiba Book of Microwave Cookery (Frimley, Toshiba)

Oliver, Jamie (2001) Happy Days with the Naked Chef (London, Penguin)

Smith, Delia (1977) Delia Smith’s Book of Cakes (London, Coronet)

Surety, Sarah (1997) Feng Shui for your home (London, Rider)

Tee, S (1987) Good Food Fast (London, Ebury)

Wilkes, Angela (1994) The Children’s Step-By-Step Cookbook (London, Dorling Kindersley)