"Police as Ploughmen": How the police helped Britain to overcome starvation in the First World War

Research Institution / Organisation

University of Glasgow

In Collaboration With

The Police History Society, who have provided a small grant.

Principal Researcher

Dr Mary Fraser

Level of Research

Professional / Work-based

Project Start Date

October 2019

Research Context

This study shows the role of the police in helping the population in crisis. In my 2019 book [1] I show that policemen were released to plough the fields from across Britain in the severe food shortages of 1917-1918. One estimate [2] shows that between 500-600 policemen were released from March/April for approximately six weeks to help to increase home food production through ploughing to increase arable land. Estimates [3] showed that four times more people could be fed from arable crops than by grazing cattle, therefore urgent action was needed to prevent the population from starvation.The Derby Scheme [4] identified that many policemen had previous occupations in farming and were experienced ploughmen. Although farmers were willing to plough up their grassland, many experienced ploughmen had left the land, therefore substitution was urgently needed. The police were one of the first groups to provide substitution through Neville Chamberlain’s Department of National Service [5].
The food crisis due to Germany's submarine warfare on shipping from December 1916 sunk disproportionately more British ships. Britain relied on 80% of grain imports, furthermore, the long harsh winter rotted the potato crop, leaving poorer families nearing starvation unless urgent action was taken. Therefore, it is reasonable to say that policemen helped to save the nation from starvation in early 1917, before the army was sufficiently mobilised to help and the women’s land army developed; the release of prisoners of war to help farming was also a later development.

To write a national study of police as ploughmen.
References and bibliography
[1] Fraser, M. (2019) Policing the Home Front, 1914-1918: The control of the British population at war. Abingdon: Routledge Chapter 10, The police as ploughmen and farm workers, pp. 192-212.
[2] Current Topics: The Scottish Farmer, March 31st 1917 p. 231 shows J Harling Turner, Director of Agriculture, Department for National Service claiming that 500-600 men across Britain were released in response to an "appeal for the temporary release for agricultural work of employees of municipalities who were at one time ploughmen."
[3] The 1915 Milner Committee Report showed "growing crops directly for human food could support many more people per acre than if devoted to animals" Dewey, P.E. (1989) British Agriculture in the First World War. London; Routledge p. 92. Also Middleton, T.H. (1923) Food Production in War. Oxford: The Clarendon Press pp. 83-84.
[4] The National Register (National Registration Act, 1915 [5 & 6 Geo.5.CH60]) required everyone aged 15 and 65 who remained in civilian life to submit data on their marital status, address, date of birth, number of dependents, current employment and whether they had other skills than their current job.
[5] Fraser, M. (2020) 70, (5), 58-65 "Police as Ploughmen: Neville Chamberlain’s success in 1917" History Today

Research Methodology

​Initial searches of The Police Review and Parade Gossip, the Organ of the British Constabulary, the most popular weekly journal read by policemen on the beat during 1914-1918 showed many columns headed "Police as Ploughmen" or "Police to the Plough" in March/April 1917. These identified the initial locations. Searches of the British Newspaper Archive developed and confirmed these locations. Further searches of local archives for police and local authority reports added to the picture. During searches a further 2 locations for the release of policemen were uncovered and added to the known locations. It also became evident that some locations had been asked for further help from the police in autumn 1917, records show that Scotland responded by doubling the number released, however, no composite records were found for England. Furthermore, some locations, such as Birmingham, lent policemen to farmers from March/April 1917 until at least June 1918.
You can see an initial analysis of my findings at https://doi.org/10.1080/14780038.2021.1958443  

Interim reports and publications

Fraser, M. "Police as Ploughmen": temporary release to help farmers in the food crisis of First World War Britain. Cultural & Social History. Published online 5 August 2021. https://doi.org/10.1080/14780038.2021.1958443  

Fraser, M. (2020) Policing the Ploughs. History Today. Vol 70, Issue 5, May pp. 58-65

Fraser, M. (2020) Food Control in the First World War: Another role for the police. British Police History Journal. Issue VI, Spring 2020 http://british-police-history.uk/cgi-bin/journal.cgi?a=a2142d42a288d075&m=ac8fa3ca90a9256f

Conference presentations:
British Crime Historians symposium, 2021. Police as Ploughmen in 1917/18: How Britain’s policemen helped local populations by temporary release into agriculture. University of Leeds 2-3 September 2021.

Police as Ploughmen in 1917/18: How Britian’s policemen helped localpopulations by temporary release into agriculture. Lecture to the British Agricultural History Society, Spring Seminars, 12 April 2021.

Police as Ploughmen in 1917-1918. Labour, Gender and Consumption in Historic perspective. Department of History, University of Essex 13-14 September 2019.

Date due for completion

December 2021
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