The million plus meals dished up at Bedford's three British Restaurants
As we come out of lockdown, many are keen to have their first meal out in months. The same was true back in World War Two.
You might think with all food being rationed, you either had to be very rich or forget it. Not entirely true.
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 served up at so-called “British Restaurants” and there were three in Bedford.
It started out of simple necessity: feeding evacuees from London who turned up at short notice.
A canteen service was set up by the council at 38, Mill Street, run by Women’s Voluntary Service volunteers.
At first numbers were small and the place almost shut down. Then as the blitz struck London in the summer of 1940 demand soared.
In the first three weeks of November 1940, 5,047 meals were served, and an emergency meal was given at short notice to 120 people “stranded at the station”.
The Mill St restaurant was becoming very popular as locals came too. Two more were set up in Cauldwell St and Gwyn St.
The council-run 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 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.
From the start the war time government saw them as more than just feeding centres. They were seen as “community kitchens” that created “confidence, health and a sense of well-being.”
Churchill got personally involved, saying they should be called “British Restaurants” as he term was linked in peoples’ minds with 'a good meal'. The name stuck.
A typical lunch was soup followed by meat or fish & 2 veg, a desert and a cup of tea. There was usually cheese and biscuits and a variety of sandwiches too. Basic – but nourishing.
British Restaurant meals were cheaper than hotel, restaurant or cafe meals. This was because they used largely unpaid volunteers, and the council gave them priority in the purchase of equipment.
Children at all the town’s schools - including the 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 the evacuated schools.
When the war ended the days of the British Restaurants were numbered. Mill St was still making a profit right up to its closure in 1949, but councils had more important priorities than being caterers.
For more fascinating content like this go to bedfordiana.com