Policing the Ploughs

As Britain faced the prospect of food shortages in 1917, panic mounted. One solution was to redeploy policemen to plough the land.

Greengrocer during the food shortage, March 1917 © Topfoto.

From December 1916, Britain was becoming desperate for food. Around 80 per cent of its grain was being shipped from the United States and Canada, so when increasing numbers of cargo ships were sunk by enemy action, staple foods such as bread became more expensive and more difficult to buy. A long, harsh winter then rotted the British potato crop in the ground, causing a potato famine in early 1917. The population feared starvation. With high inflation and a dwindling availability of foods, it was essential that Britain become more self-sufficient to avoid the food riots which occurred in other combatant nations such as Austria-Hungary, Germany, Russia and France.

Britain’s home food production, therefore, required considerable reorganisation. Estimates showed that four times more people could be fed from arable crops than by grazing cattle and, as 36 million acres were currently being used to graze livestock and only three million to grow crops, the campaign to change the balance from pasture to arable began on 20 December 1916. Although most farmers were willing to help, they were demoralised by their inability to increase food supplies. Many of their skilled ploughmen had been lured or conscripted into the army or navy, or had left to work in munitions where the wages were better. Indeed, it was estimated that between a quarter and a third of all farm labour had left the land. Yet farmers were unwilling to work with novices: skilled ploughmen were needed to turn the previously unploughed land and much of the machinery was broken, as those who could mend it had also gone to war, so horse-drawn ploughs were often used, which needed a strong physique and an ability to guide the horses.

On 19 December 1916 Neville Chamberlain was appointed as Director of National Service, responsible for recruiting men into work of national importance. Farming was designated a key area. In these desperate times the pressure was on to have sufficient ploughmen before the end of the sowing season at the end of April and Chamberlain exerted immense energy in the early months of 1917 to recruit men for ploughing. The Ministry of National Service placed prominent advertisements in newspapers, Chamberlain spoke in locations across the country and wrote letters to employers, including town and city councils, to plead for the release of men with ploughing experience. To encourage this, subsistence allowances were agreed for those who needed to stay away from home overnight and local authorities had funds to make up the pay of their workers, if wages from the farmers fell below their previous earnings. Some local authorities, such as Birmingham, also made an allowance of 6s 6d for suitable clothing.


Under pressure

Glasgow Corporation, the city council, in particular came under considerable pressure as the Glasgow Herald and other local newspapers continued to raise anxieties about the potato shortage. The Glasgow Citizen of 26 February claimed that stocks were exhausted. The Evening Times said on 9 March that shortages were ‘becoming daily more acute’ and warned its readers that the situation the following week was bound to be ‘very serious’. At the same time, deputations from the influential Glasgow and West of Scotland Potato Trade Association went to the Scottish Office and the Food Controller in London and Chamberlain visited Glasgow to speak with the sub-commissioners of National Service, where he gave a speech to 4,500 members of the public in Glasgow’s St Andrew’s Hall pleading for the recruitment of more ploughmen. After this he visited Sheffield and Cardiff with a similar message to drum up support for National Service Volunteers, particularly for agriculture.

In the meantime, working-class women’s labour groups twice demonstrated outside Glasgow Corporation about the potato shortage. The Corporation’s unwillingness to see a deputation of these women resulted in scenes inside the chamber in which four councillors were suspended. The provost commented that the women would be better off going home to look after their children instead of protesting and, had he appeared outside the council chambers, might have been attacked. The second of these demonstrations was called ‘a riot’ by the socialist newspaper Forward, although most of the historical accounts say there were no food riots in the UK during the First World War. The much-publicised protests only increased public anxiety and the fear of famine.

A steam plough in Richmond Park, London, April 1917 © Hulton/Getty Images.

It was noted by Glasgow Corporation, when the issue was discussed at a meeting on 1 March, that policemen were likely to be a particularly good solution to this problem and that there were possibly thousands around the country who might be released temporarily. Glasgow asked all heads of department to identify those of their staff who had ploughing experience; 200 members of staff responded, of whom 90 were policemen. Many of them, particularly in the West of Scotland, had previously worked as ploughmen or skilled farm workers and had relocated from rural areas further north, so were ideal to help farmers: agricultural workers were viewed as ideal recruits into the police service as they had strong physiques and were considered servile.


Jackets off

The offer of experienced ploughmen from the police across the country was welcomed and from mid-March many were temporarily released by local authorities, when the severe weather relented, until at least the end of May. In total, eight locations in Scotland temporarily released their policemen in early spring to plough. The most noteworthy of these was Glasgow, which agreed to release 84 policemen. One report says they were sent to Dunbartonshire, Stirlingshire and Renfrewshire; another shows them being sent to farms in Perthshire, Dumfriesshire and Kirkcudbrightshire. Edinburgh released 50 policemen; a few were sent to Aberdeenshire before the end of March, although the majority remained more locally. Dundee released 41 and another 40 were released from the smaller force of Berwick, Roxburgh and Selkirk. Other smaller local authorities released between three and four policemen each. In all, around 230 policemen were released in Scotland to plough and the journal the Scottish Farmer puts the total number of policemen released across Britain at between 500 and 600, including 150 from the Metropolitan Police.

It is not known when most returned, apart from in Edinburgh, where the police journal shows that most had resumed their roles by 13 July ‘filled with tales of their adventures’, looking bronzed and very fit. Many farmers said their loaned policemen were very good; one Birmingham farmer said his policeman was a ‘real good chap of good physique and a very willing worker’.

Page from the Illustrated London War News, 4 April 1917 48 © Illustrated London War News/Mary Evans Picture Library..

Although the government promised consignments of potatoes to Scotland in March and April, they did not materialise for many weeks and only then in very small quantities. In response, the prime minister David Lloyd George asked churches to allow their congregations to work on farms on Sundays and lights were brought out to some fields to allow ploughing 24 hours a day. At the end of March over 1,000 soldiers were also released for agricultural work in Scotland, so that the number of men placed on farms amounted to around 2,500. Within three weeks an additional 28,000 acres had been ploughed. By 28 March 1917 Chamberlain was able to claim in a speech in Manchester that in Scotland there was no farmer who ‘stood in want of a ploughman’. By mid-April, the panic subsided.


Bumper harvest

The substitution of ploughmen paid dividends. By autumn 1917 Britain claimed an increase of a million acres of arable land, producing over four million more tons of wheat, barley, oats and potatoes. This meant Britain could also send food to troops in France and Italy, supplementing the local harvests which had failed. Although less land was turned than planned in the government’s Plough Policy, by the 1918 harvest arable land had increased by nearly three million acres, while grain production rose by 38 per cent and potatoes by 68 per cent in two years. By December 1918 the individual calorific intake for the population of the United Kingdom was only slightly less than in 1914, at 97 per cent.

This period as Director of National Service was a success for Neville Chamberlain. Yet, despite this, he was soon criticised and undermined by the other more powerful national leaders of services, such as the army and munitions, and his role was attacked in Parliament. He never forgave Lloyd George for not supporting him through this and he resigned within a year of his appointment.


Mary Fraser is author of Policing the Home Front, 1914-1918: The Control of the British Population at War (Routledge, 2019). Data collection from the English police forces has been helped by a small grant from the Police History Society.