The ration card domestic goddess: She showed housewives how to make the most of their pantries in the pages of the Mail – and it turned Mrs CS Peel into a sensation
When Vicky Straker inherited her great-great-grandmother’s cookery book, she was only expecting a scrapbook of family recipes.
But then she discovered that the woman she refers to affectionately as Granny Dot was the feisty cook who set up the Daily Mail Food Bureau in 1918 and taught millions of housewives how to manage their WWI rations.
At the height of her fame letters poured in from all over the world – there were even some from British POWs in Germany who weren’t supposed to receive English newspapers but had evidently got hold of the Mail.
‘They asked for help to cook their scanty rations in such ways as would make them more palatable and nourishing,’ explained Granny Dot, who wrote professionally under her married name, Mrs CS Peel. One soldier wrote asking for recipes. ‘They have made me cook of the Officers’ Mess,’ he said. ‘God help them.’
Vicky, a trained cook, grew up under the eye of Granny Dot whose portrait hung in her parents’ home.
‘But I never knew who she was!’ Only when she discovered an old family book that she’d stashed away in her attic – a well-thumbed copy of The Daily Mail Cookery Book, published in 1920 – did she become intrigued. Now she’s writing a book of her own and has spent the past year updating and blogging Granny Dot’s recipes.
Some sound rather unappealing: Victoria sandwich cake made from potato and filled with beetroot jam… no wonder Granny Dot conceded that wartime cakes could be nasty. She gave instructions for jam made with salt and little sugar, and mayonnaise made with condensed milk instead of oil.
Granny Dot was Constance Dorothy Bayliff, born in 1868 to a family of social standing (her grandfather’s cousin was Prime Minister Robert Peel) but limited means. Her father was a retired Army captain and his father, a clergyman, had squandered a comfortable income by gambling.
Dorothy had a patchy education but by the age of 18 she was financially independent. On a railway journey she’d bought a copy of Woman magazine and dashed off a fashion article for it, which won a prize, launching her journalistic career.
She married her second cousin Charles Steers Peel, an electrical engineer, in 1894, and their struggles running a home with a nurse (they had two daughters), manservant, housemaid and cook, gave Dorothy inspiration for her first books on balancing budgets.
Her preoccupation was how a middle-class family and servants could be fed for ten shillings a head per week. Some readers were angry, saying her sums were likely to cause marital arguments in less well-managed households!
But Dorothy’s finest hour came during the First World War when food prices soared, and servants handed in their notice and went into munitions factories. Dorothy turned out book after book, notably The Eat-Less-Meat Book in 1917 and The Victory Cookery Book the next year.
When she began working for the Ministry of Food in 1917, food reserves were low and her task was to promote ‘voluntary rationing’.
For the first time, working-class women had decent wages – ‘munitionettes’ earned from 25s to £5 a week – but they were being asked to hold back from buying food. Dorothy experimented with cocoa butter (‘Whatever one did to it, it was horrid,’ she said) and toured the country giving lectures in factories, pubs and even music halls. Her recipe leaflets were distributed to millions.
Food shortages were hardest on poorer women, who faced endless queues. Dorothy reminisced. ‘”Why wait hours to get meat?” I asked a woman once, “When you could get fish without waiting?”. “An’ get a black eye for me pains,” she observed.’
After a year of this, Dorothy was worn out. So when the Daily Mail’s proprietor Lord Northcliffe – acting as Director for Propaganda – told her he wanted to send her on a lecture tour of America, she refused. ‘Very well,’ said Lord Northcliffe.
‘If you won’t go to America, then you can come to the Daily Mail.’ She did, and The Mail’s Food Bureau launched on 4 March 1918, just as rationing became compulsory. Millions of readers wrote in asking for recipes, and those same dishes are now being tested by Vicky – who’s discovered most of them are delicious. And many would be fashionable today, for Dorothy promoted home-made pasta, ravioli, polenta and gnocchi.
Dorothy was at the Daily Mail office just off Fleet Street when news of peace came through on the telephone.
‘I longed to go into the street but could not, for whatever happens, newspapers must go to press,’ she wrote. She was awarded an OBE that year for her war work and for a time, Dorothy edited the Daily Mail’s woman’s page. But the war had taken its toll.
She had diabetes and angina – and, cruelly, faced a diet of cabbage, milk and soda water. She died in 1934 – but her legacy was teaching a generation of British housewives how to cook.