Heritage: Food gifts from Australia helped Havering in grim post-war years

Australia sent food parcels to ration-hit Britain after the war.

Australia sent food parcels to ration-hit Britain after the war. - Credit: Archant

Times were hard after the Second World War, says Professor Ged Martin, but our friends in Australia stood by us.

Britain had won the war, but life was tough in the 1940s. Basic goods, including food, were rationed. Everything was in short supply.

Across the world, a friendly nation rallied to help. Australians clubbed together to send food – usually tins of meat and fruit – to help our most vulnerable people.

There were luxury items too. In 1947, Romford’s Oldchurch Hospital thanked Lismore, New South Wales, for sweets and jam, “welcome additions to the diet of the patients and staff”.

In 1947, an Adelaide newspaper copied from an impeccable source – the Recorder – an account of “the distribution of tins of food that had been sent as a gesture of goodwill from the people of South Australia” for Romford’s over-seventies.

READ MORE: Havering people featured in Australia’s early newspapers

The Town Hall (now Havering’s headquarters) was “besieged” by seniors, all carrying proof of their age. Each pensioner received two tins, with a choice of bacon, lard or jam.

“The gifts were in no way a charity,” said the scheme’s organiser, who’d travelled 12,000 miles to oversee their distribution.

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Families collected money by having a “guest day”. An extra plate was set on the dinner table for an imaginary visitor from the Old Country.

To encourage recipients to feel they were actually dining in an Australian home, the name and address of a donor went with each gift.

The aim was “to cement the sincere bond existing between the two countries.”

Letters of thanks were heartfelt. Writing on behalf of her frail mother, Mrs Read, of White Hart Lane, Collier Row, drew a larger moral: “it is as if one nation to another speaks of peace. So prosperity to Australia’s future!”

Two years later, Emily Pittman wrote from Romford thanking the people of Bathurst in New South Wales for their generosity.

“Although we are not starving, we are still short of food. My meat ration is only enough for Sunday and the rest of the week I have salads.”

She’d planned to keep her Australian gifts for some special occasion, but succumbed to temptation.

“Your tin of sausages was too much for me and I could not resist opening it. They were very enjoyable.”

Emily added that popular entertainers from Down Under on BBC Radio made British people feel even closer to their faraway cousins.

She was a fan of Australian comedians Joy Nichols and Dick Bentley, stars of Frank Muir and Denis Norden’s popular Take It From Here, and Bill Kerr, “the boy from Wagga Wagga”, later the straight man in Hancock’s Half Hour.

Individual Australians made spontaneous gestures too.

David McBain lived in the South Australian ship-building town of Whyalla.

He spotted a small ad in a British trade magazine: Ralph Christian of Romford appealed for help in finding a lost toolkit.

David McBain didn’t have any tools, but he sent a food parcel instead.

Ralph gratefully replied, telling him about a friend in Dagenham who wanted to take his family to Australia, but needed a sponsor. Mr McBain obliged, and they emigrated to Adelaide in 1948.

READ MORE: Impish, irrepressible campaigner Walter Southgate was a national benefactor

Perhaps it wasn’t only food that came from Australia in those grim years.

In 1947, a Sydney newspaper published a letter from Mr Long of Oldchurch Road.

He was helping to start a youth club in Romford “but we are prevented from making it a real success by the difficulty in buying sports gear”.

Could sports-crazy Australians help by sending unwanted equipment?

“I am sorry to have to make this appeal for our young folk, but I know you are a very generous people, from my contact with you while in the Royal Navy.”

Mr Long called the youth club “Romford LP League of Youth”. The description was a little coy: “LP” stood for “Labour Party”!

Playing at Southend in 1948, the Australian cricketers humiliated Essex by scoring a massive 721 in a single day – probably because they were better fed than us.