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Eating horse in austerity Britain

By Mark Roodhouse


On 27 April 1942, the Bow Street magistrates convicted The Waldorf Hotel, London, its head chef, and a London horseflesh dealer for ignoring the regulations fixing the maximum price of horsemeat. The chef paid the dealer £6 10s for 78 lb of horsemeat, nearly double the official price of £3 18s. Two American journalists, staying at The Waldorf while reporting on the enthronement of the new Archbishop of Canterbury, read the news with consternation. According to The Times, the hotel manager told the court that the chef, acting on his own initiative, bought the horsemeat to supplement the meat ration of the hotel staff, most of whom were foreigners “not unused to horse flesh and did not mind it.” (28 Apr. 1942, 2) Few people who read press reports of the case believed the manager’s account, suspecting that the chef diverted the staff’s meat ration onto customers’ plates and bulked out meat products with horseflesh.

One of the American correspondents, Clifford P. Morehouse, author of the memoir Wartime Pilgrimage, felt that he had “probed the secret of the strange tasting ‘sausage,’” which he ate on a tray in his hotel room every morning. Disgusted by the thought of eating horsemeat, a meat that he and many Britons associated with poverty and animal cruelty, Morehouse steered clear of sausage for the remainder of his stay at The Waldorf. His colleague “swore that he would eat no more of it for fear that while he was trying to swallow a bite someone might call out ‘Whoa’ and he would choke to death.” Although eating horse flesh repulsed him, Morehouse did not condemn those involved, appreciating Britons’ craving for red meat. In spring 1942, a British adult received a weekly ration of meat to the value of 1s 2d and 4 oz of bacon and ham. According to Morehouse, an adult American would eat a week’s meat ration for Sunday lunch. For middle-class Britons, it represented a 44 per cent cut in the amount of rationed meat they ate in 1944 compared to what they had eaten in 1936/7. Workers, who ate less meat to begin with, saw their consumption fall by 56 per cent over the same period.

Shoppers at Selfridge’s meat counter in 1942. Crown Copyright. © IWM (D 6587)

With shipping space scarce, the government had to cut imports of meat and animal feedstuffs to make room for essential war materials. This resulted in a dramatic fall in the quantity and quality of imported and home-produced beef, lamb, pork, bacon, and ham. To ensure that civilians received a fair share of limited supplies, the government introduced meat rationing and bacon rationing in 1940, fixing prices so that everyone could afford these foods. In addition they could use food points to buy tinned meats. People supplemented meagre rations by buying poultry, game, offal, sausages and meat pies, all off ration, or by eating coupon-free in restaurants and canteens. Eating out and substitute foods, which were also in short supply, did little to dent the public’s appetite for meat.

Meat became a regular part of the working-class diet towards the end of the nineteenth century as average incomes rose and cheap US and Argentinean imports brought the price of meat down. Workers prized meat highly as a source of energy. As in developing countries today, meat consumption indicated one’s affluence, conferring social status. It also played a role in forming masculine and national identities.

Faced with an apparently insatiable demand for ‘a little bit extra’ from their customers, unscrupulous butchers saw an opportunity to boost their profits by selling mislabelled horsemeat. Apart from fixing the retail price of horsemeat, the government left horseflesh dealers alone. The game was not worth the candle as the pre-war trade catered to a small working-class market. The government did not foresee the effects of war and rationing on the industry. With sales to the continent disrupted by war, dealers profited from a booming domestic market for horsemeat. In 1949 a government committee estimated that the number of horses slaughtered for home consumption in West Ham increased from none before the war to 2,000 in 1942. The peak came in 1947 when slaughterers in the Essex borough killed 19,000 horses. Demand was such that horses realised fantastic prices at auction. Rustlers went so far as to target ponies on Dartmoor and Exmoor.

A pony sale at Bampton Fair in October 1943. Crown Copyright, from the IWM Collections (© IWM D 16901).
Two Exmoor ponies being sold at Bampton Fair. Crown Copyright. © IWM (D 16896)

In wartime Sheffield, horseflesh dealers who combined the trade with butchery mislabelled horsemeat as beef or minced it with pork. This trickery allowed their more affluent customers, disgusted by the idea of eating horse, to deceive themselves as to the origin of their black market meat. It also allowed butchers to increase their profit margin by charging a premium price for a less desirable meat. Despite the best efforts of horse lovers, the Manchester Guardian, and the newsreel company British Pathé to alert Britons to the problem after the war, undiscerning consumers, craving a meat chop, continued to eat black market horsemeat until rationing ended in 1954.

Dr Mark Roodhouse is a Lecturer in History at the University of York. He studied history at Cambridge and Oxford before arriving at York, where he teaches modern British history. Mark is currently writing his second book about organised crime in mid-twentieth-century Britain. His first book is Black Market Britain: 1939-1955, published by Oxford University Press.

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