Kieran’s Our City, Our Town Article,
Cork Independent, 12 January 2017
The Wheels of 1917: Addressing a Food Crisis
The theme of the shortage of food emanates throughout the press columns of Irish newspapers in 1917. In the second week of January 1917, or one hundred years ago this week, problems of labour shortage and supply and distribution of food were the key concerns of Westminster’s Food Controller. Lord Devonport or Hudson Ewbanke Kearley was a British grocer and politician. He founded the International Tea Company’s Stores, became the first chairman of the Port of London Authority, and served as Minister of Food Control during World War I. He was appointed as Minister in December 1916 by Lloyd George and he submitted a proposal for compulsory rationing in May 1917. He developed a set of proposals designed to reduce the consumption of certain articles of food such as bread and meat.
According to the editorials of the Cork Examiner in January 1917, the price of bread was high. There was a notable disparity between the price of bread in Cork and Dublin. The high costs of freight stood out. To provide a sustainable supply, regulation was enacted to create a new “standard” bread. The bread was rolled out in Cork in the first week of January and baked in the factories of the master bakers. It was proposed at the time that the scheme would continue during the war. The price charged for this bread was to be the same as that previously in operation for beet white bread. The price was to be 11d per pair when the bread was delivered, but would be a halfpenny less per pair when purchased at the counter, and another half penny per pair less in the case of “cold” bread. Under the new rule, no “household” bread was to be on sale.
Other debates on food shortages also began on encouraging citizens to grow vegetables such as potatoes, parsnips, turnips, beans and peas and to establish allotments in the city. The growing of vegetables was not a new concept in the city’s suburban market gardens but creating labourer allotments of one eight of an acre in Cork were a relatively new concept. In early 1917, between Dublin and Belfast there were 2,000 plots in working order. In the bigger picture in Britain and Ireland, the concept of allotments and the total number of plots has varied greatly over time. In the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the allotment system supplied much of the fresh vegetables eaten by the poor. Westminster reports record that in 1873 there were 244,268 plots and by 1918 there were around 1,500,000 plots. To fulfil the need for land, allotment legislation was enacted. The law was first fully ordered in the Small Holdings and Allotments Act 1908, then modified by the Allotments Act 1922. Under the Acts, a local authority is required to maintain an “adequate provision” of land, usually a large allotment field which can then be subdivided into allotment gardens for individual residents at a low rent. In August 1917, the Local Government Allotments and Land Cultivation (Ireland) Act was sanctioned.
Several months before the 1917 act, the lack of real legislation governing the legalities around Ireland’s allotment scheme is evident in Cork Corporation’s initial discussion in pursuing an actual scheme. As highlighted in the Cork Examiner on 15 February, an important meeting of the city’s allotments committee was held. The Lord Mayor Cllr Thomas Butterfield presided and he gave an account of the visit of a deputation to Dublin to the Local Government Board (LGB). There they asked questions which they considered would help them in rolling out Cork City’s allotment scheme. They asked for compulsory powers to acquire land and for an independent valuer from the LGB. Compulsory powers were not granted – the same applied to other public representatives from Irish towns seeking new legal powers. The second question they asked was to be allowed to increase the grant from one-eighth to a quarter of an acre, and the Corporation to take title land for a term of years. The Cork committee made the case that a family could work an acre. This also was not granted.
At the meeting on 15 February 1917, the allotment committee proposed that Fitzgerald’s Park display an eighth of an acre demonstration plot. Councillor Sir Edward Fitzgerald was to arrange to have his gardeners look alter the plot in the park. By late February the O’Donovans of Rutland Street offered four acres on Ballinlough Road at £4 an acre purchase price. Mr Joyce gave an offer of six acres in of Mayfield at £4 an acre purchase price. Fifty acres were offered at Beaumont, the estate of Mr R Woodhead free of rent. Part of these were only subsequently utilised and control was given to the Rural District Council in this part of the city’s county suburbs.
In early March 1917 Thomas Donovan wrote to the Corporation offering 6 acres of land at Gillabbey free of charge for nine months and Frank Murphy in Shanakiel gave 2 acres free of charge. By 23 March, the committee had 229 applications with 99 in the south of the city, 52 in the north-east, 56 in the north-west, 16 in the west, and 5 in the city Centre. The key problem was that only 19 acres of land was actually secured by the Corporation and applications could not be met. The struggle to secure land continued into 1918 and 1919.
If you missed one of the columns in 2016 and before, check out the Our City, Our Town index at my website, www.corkheritage.ie
Cork 1916, A Year Examined (2016) by Kieran McCarthy & Suzanne Kirwan is now available in Cork bookshops.
Cork City History Tour (2016) by Kieran McCarthy is also available in Cork bookshops.
877a. Fr Mathew Memorial Fountain at Fitzgerald’s Park, c.1917 (source: Cork City Through Time by Kieran McCarthy and Dan Breen)
877b. Present day pond area of Fitzgerald’s Park (picture: Kieran McCarthy)