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Monday musings on Australian literature: Grateful Brits send books to Aussies

October 9, 2017

As I was searching Trove for another topic, I came across some articles that I just had to share, particularly given my recent posts on bookswapping and bookselling for charity.

These articles date from post-World War 2 when Britain was living under strict rationing, which continued for a long time – until 1954, in fact. To help the struggling Brits out, Australians – often through CWA (Country Women’s Association) groups – sent food parcels. The British people were very grateful, as an article from the Molong Express and Western District Advertiser (Wednesday 14 January 1948) conveys. Molong, a small town in central New South Wales, was one of the many towns to send food across the waves, and in this article, the editor writes that “almost daily, the Town Clerk (Mr. E. H. Scott) receives letters of appreciation from British people for gifts of food from the Molong municipality. The writers range from all walks of life — from hospital matrons to mayors and old age pensioners.”

Mr Scott, he continues, provided some of these letters for the paper to publish. Here’s a selection:

I wish to thank you and the residents of Molong for the generous gifts of food to our people. I wish you could have seen the gratitude of the old people  … Some of them could not express their thanks for tears, but so many said “Thank the dear people of Australia for me.” …  Mayor of Blackburn

AND

We thought it was really very kind of you to send us such wonderful food parcels, and, although we know that you have been thanked by the authorities here in England, we felt obliged to send you a personal letter of thanks. To people like us who have only one ration book, it is a little difficult at times, although, of course, we are not grumbling. We thank you very much for your kindness …

AND

We have today received at the hospital … a gift of tinned jams, marmalade and tinned rabbit from Australia … I felt that I must write, and tell you just what that thought means, for us. Not only are we extremely grateful for your kindness, but the thought and spirit behind the gift means perhaps more to us when we think that you, so many miles away, have spared such a lot of time and have given, so much that we may share the good things of your country. I am afraid it is beyond my powers of expression to make you realise exactly what we feel, but I do want you all to accept our most sincere and grateful thanks. With all good wishes and much happiness to you all, I remain, yours sincerely  … Matron, Liverpool.

AND

I have just been presented with two tins of jam, one tin of powdered soup, one tin of casserole rabbit and 2 lb. of dried pears, being a present from you … there is no name on the tins to go by, only “From the residents of Molong, N.S.W.” I address this letter to thank you very much … Hardly a week passes without a cut in our food ration, and a little extra food is very welcome. The extra food is for my wife and myself — both old age pensioners … may God bless you …

I guess it’s only right that we sent back to England some of those pesky rabbits! Seriously though, what wonderful letters. They would surely have encouraged continued kindness from the citizens of Molong. (And doesn’t your heart go to Eva Wood who says, “Of course, we are not grumbling”?)

That’s the background to this post!

“Book parcels for food”

Early on in this process of Australians sending food to Britain, the British wanted to reciprocate in some way. As London-based R. G. Lloyd Thomas wrote in The West Australian (7 September 1946):

For long the people of Britain have been rather worried by the one-sided traffic in gifts from Australia. They have received very gratefully enormous quantities of food parcels and found no tangible method of appreciation which would satisfy their independent spirit.

Book Stack

(Courtesy: OCAL, from clker.com)

But then, the “Women’s Institute, the equivalent in this country of the C.W.A.” lit upon an idea, that of reciprocating with parcels of books for distribution “to the people of the outback and the nearer but still amenity-remote areas which lack public libraries, and find it difficult to obtain an adequate supply of books”. What a wonderful idea, eh?

Not all the books would be new, Thomas writes:

Collections are being made of books regarded as suitable, some new, some from the bookshelves of the donors, and others purchased secondhand. They are being cleaned and repaired when necessary and made up into parcels which will be sent to the people and organisations who have been sending gift food parcels to Britain. The first consignment of books to Western Australia will be sent from Lancashire and Yorkshire Women’s Institutes.

An article in The Sydney Morning Herald (27 July 1946), describes the geographical arrangements a little more: “the Yorkshire and Lancashire institutes will send books to Western Australia, South Wales to New South Wales. Cheshire and Staffordshire to South Australia, Cambridgeshire and adjoining counties to Tasmania, Surrey and Middlesex to Queensland, and Essex and Bucks to Victoria”.

Lloyd Thomas, noting that “one of the few things here off the ration is books”, says that the women hope to reach every person and organisation responsible for sending food parcels. He comments on “the joy and humiliation these food parcels have brought to the women of England”, and that

the naturally proud independence of the people has been disturbed by the one-sidedness of the gesture. The majority could and would willingly pay for the parcels – but to do so would destroy the fundamental requirement of admission of these parcels, that they are unsolicited gifts.

These books, he says, will have special bookplates which will identify the donor and recipient, and it is hoped that the books will “form a valuable link of friendship between Britain, the Dominions and the Colonies who have shown such a spontaneous and generous attitude.”

Interestingly, Lloyd Thomas concludes by noting that while the food recipients are too grateful to offer suggestions, certain items are particularly appreciated:

Rich fruit cakes travel well in tins and provide an exceptional luxury these days. Tinned meats and milk are always welcome and (provided it is packed only with tinned food) soap of any sort. Jam (with special emphasis on marmalade) is a much-appreciated supplement, and, if Australians themselves can obtain any, tinned fruit. Dried fruits, sweets and nuts are welcome rarities. In fact, outside coffee (plentiful and unrationed) tinned soups and meat extracts, any foodstuff is welcome. Honey and dripping, provided they are melted into tins to ensure transport through the tropics, are other precious commodities for the English housewife.

Such a lovely insight not only into rationing, but also the food and cooking culture of the time. I mean, dripping! (But this just shows my fortunate life, doesn’t it?)

I apologise for the heavy use of quotations in this post, but in stories like this, there’s nothing like the expression of the times. Anyhow, I’d love to know how successful this reciprocal program was …

30 Comments leave one →
  1. October 9, 2017 11:46 pm

    I am delighted to see this post, raising awareness of just how tough it was for Britain in the post-war era, and indeed during my infancy!
    It is particularly pertinent, because I have not long despatched a peeved email to the publisher of a book sent to me for review, expressing my disappointment that said author would write something as misconceived as the remark that in the 1940s and 1950s “regardless of the expense of fighting and then recovering from two world wars, England’s economy had surely begun to improve”. Obviously this author (who made much of having done considerable research) had not discovered that not only was Britain suffering austerity on its own account, but was also feeding Germany as well. (People think it was just the USA that did this, *chuckle* perhaps they were better at the PR, I don’t know. Maybe the British government kept it quiet, because I imagine there would be some resentment over going without under rationing in order to feed the enemy that had caused such misery and hardship).
    And the ‘dripping’? When we left England in 1956, my father swore that he would never again eat dripping (or Marmite) – that was his staple lunch that he took to work each day.
    And my mother… What my mother used to say when she was asked if she ever wanted to go back to Britain was that she never wanted to live anywhere that couldn’t feed itself…

    • October 10, 2017 8:17 am

      Thanks Lisa for this, lovely to hear some first hand experience. Trove had some articles about food for Germany, but I don’t know if any are about England. Some were headed US, but they may have given a bigger picture, as often happens under specific headings. I didn’t have time to research those. Boy you can end up going down all sorts of paths once you get started in Trove!

  2. October 10, 2017 12:09 am

    Australians have always been proud of sending food parcels to Britain, so I’m glad they were able to send something we needed almost as badly. In all my second hand book buying I’ve never seen one with such a bookplate, I’ll keep a lookout from now on. I searched on ‘books from England’ for WA for the five years after the war and came up with one article – Sukarno wanted books from England and Australia for English language classes in Indonesia. Searching on books alone reminds you just how many ways ‘book’ can be used – booking a ticket, running a book on the races, booked for speeding, bookkeeping and so on.

    • October 10, 2017 8:23 am

      Yes, I agree Bill. Once I found the first article it was tricky because the words are all so generic.

      Re book plates, I have a friend whose late father collected books FOR their book plates. I discovered this in fact when he and I were at a conference in Fremantle. We’d dined with a colleague of mine then she heard back to the hotel while David and I visited some secondhand bookshops. The main ones he went for were school and Sunday School prizes. I must ask him what happened to all those books next time I see him.

  3. October 10, 2017 7:58 am

    What a wonderful example of reciprocal generosity! And the quotes are marvellous.

    • October 10, 2017 8:25 am

      Thanks Dorothy. I included a lot of them, I know, with minimal editing, but I felt it would have lost something if I’d paraphrased them.

  4. October 10, 2017 8:39 am

    I wasn’t aware of this but it’s quite an extraordinary thing to do considering how few possessions people had in Britain after the war so to give them up was an act of real generosity.
    As for dripping, it was something my mother loved to have on toast as a treat on a Sunday. Isn’t

    • October 10, 2017 8:47 am

      Yes I thought so too, Karen. Those books they have from their shelves would surely have been treasured, but it shows how much they wanted to reciprocate.

      I knew of dripping on toast in my parents’ and certainly previous generations, but the idea of sending it overseas was something I hadn’t heard of. Love the note about packaging it for transport through the tropics!

      • Lithe lianas permalink
        October 12, 2017 9:50 pm

        Not this parent unless I told you of my grandfather who loved ‘bread and dripping’ but this ‘dripping’ referred to the fatty juices exuding from the Sunday roast (which he always carved at the table). At the end of the meal a thick slice of bread would be used to soak the dripping which, of course, he ate with a knife and fork.

        But my mother used to make beautiful pastry with dripping during the war years here in Australia when butter was rationed. Her steak and kidney pies etc were legendary.

        • October 12, 2017 10:08 pm

          Thanks LL. I couldn’t exactly remember. You may have mentioned your grandfather.

      • October 13, 2017 7:40 am

        Wouldn’t it have smelled a bit rancid by the time it made it??

        • October 13, 2017 8:31 am

          You would think so wouldn’t you, Karen!

        • Lithe lianas permalink
          October 16, 2017 5:53 pm

          If it was tinned it probably had some preservative added or maybe the canning process preserves. Before plastic and the wide use of glass for tinned (or canned) jams, fruits,etc. the products had long shelf lives.

        • October 16, 2017 9:18 pm

          I found an article from 1948 that says this “DRIPPING PARCELS FOR GERMANY: A SHIPMENT of 150 cases of tinned dripping will shortly be sent from Tasmania to the British occupied zone in Germany, the general secretary of the Tasmanian Red Cross Division (Miss K. White) announced yesterday. …” So, there you are, probably tinned as you say.

  5. October 10, 2017 4:18 pm

    Off the topic of books sorry (but connected to your article), being an only child in rural South Wales during the War, my Mother didn’t really notice the rationing, but living in London immediately afterwards and experiencing it as a young adult, she was very resentful of it. The WI and the CWA are much maligned these days, but I think the roles they have played in the empowerment of women have been valuable to say the least. The CWA persists in WA even in the city, the youngest group I was told recently meets at Kings Park and is made up of young women from Subiaco and West Perth 🙂

    • October 10, 2017 4:37 pm

      Thanks for sharing all this Jenny. I think you’re right about the WI and CWA. And I think Perth is not the only city that the CWA is surviving in. ABC RN had a program about a branch in Collingwood, Melbourne – and the person they interviewed mentioned there were several suburban branches around Australia. The interviewee said it was about the “country of Australia”!

      • Lithe lianas permalink
        October 12, 2017 9:58 pm

        There is a CWA branch in Canberra, Australia’s capital city – but then Canberra IS often called the bush capital.

        • October 12, 2017 10:09 pm

          Good point LL. Are you a secret member? Planning to make some of your Mum’s pies with dripping?

  6. October 10, 2017 4:57 pm

    Lovely post.

  7. October 11, 2017 11:59 am

    Agree, this is a wonderful post. So much food for thought (ahem).

    • October 11, 2017 2:14 pm

      Haha. Love it, thanks Michelle.

      • ian darling permalink
        October 11, 2017 10:48 pm

        Such a fascinating slice of social history. It would be fascinating to know what sort of books went to Australia. I seem to remember Orwell writing with contempt about the measly amounts of paper that was allocated to books during the war. Donating books to overseas was a real sacrifice.

        • October 12, 2017 3:02 pm

          Thanks Ian. Yes, I agree it would. I had trouble finding a lot because all the search terms are very generic and maybe not much was reported in the newspapers. There could be all sorts of info in CWA group minutes – how many of those are available in archives though is an interesting question. If I were keener I could see myself making this a project.

          And yes, I wondered about the paper issue too.

  8. ian darling permalink
    October 12, 2017 7:50 pm

    It used to be easy to find in second hand bookshops volumes that were produced to war economy standards- with very pulpy paper and unimpressive binders. Some wartime Penguins or volumes of the Everyman library were often not too bad at all.

    • October 12, 2017 8:44 pm

      I guess as time goes on those “pulpy paper” ones will disintegrate and disappear from public places but hopefully legal deposit libraries have them (or, a representative of them.)

  9. October 12, 2017 11:29 pm

    Thanks for putting this together. Social history! My favourite. And the quotes were entirely justified and appreciated.

  10. October 13, 2017 8:37 am

    What an absolutely heartwarming discovery. Thank you so much for sharing this, it was like looking through a window of kindness into the past.

    • October 13, 2017 4:47 pm

      That’s a lovely way of putting it Angharad. It’s a lovely reminder that people can be kind.

      If only that kindness extended across “difference” more, eh? That seems so often to be the stumbling block.

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