Pigs, Coffee Tables and Making Do


Some years ago, we purchased our first two pigs. They were to be the traditional cottager’s pigs fattened solely for our benefit in much the same way as generations had done before us on the same site. Words were hard to find that were adequate to describe the success of the whole venture, and we did not hesitate to repeat it all the following year. The pigs were easy to maintain, cheap to feed and produced enough meat to see us through from autumn to late spring. We still miss the well-stocked freezer they provided, which was always so reassuring as temperatures dropped and the days darkened.

For us it is sad to now not have that meat but it is not a disaster as the shops and supermarkets are well stocked with alternatives; never has the British shopper had so much choice. It is hard to imagine that not so long ago a pig’s death or non-arrival would have meant real hardship.

The last major time that the British people faced severe food shortages was during and after the Second World War where the few items still available were rationed, self-help was encouraged with allotments and there was plenty of having to make do. This was a time made for the pig where its’ perfection as a meat producer signalled the rebirth of cooperative pig clubs, the mainstay of villages for many generations, and first given official approval in the First World War.

By 1940 70% of imported bacon, ham and other pig products had ceased and meat was now part of the rationing system. Although the rationed amounts varied throughout the war on average each week a person was allowed 4oz (100g) of bacon or ham, and meat to the value of 1 shilling and 6d. Sausages were not rationed but difficult to come by, and offal, although originally not controlled, sometimes formed part of the meat ration. Alongside these figures were those showing that if one out of every five rural allotment holders and householders fattened only one pig a year, the countryside might produce annually something like half a million fat pigs in addition to those fattened on farms.

The Government responded to this in 1940 by launching the Small Pig Keepers’ Council whose remit was to encourage people to keep pigs, and provide all the information they needed to set up a pig club or to care for their animals. This was introduced at the same time as Lord Woolton set in motion his famous anti-waste campaign, and suddenly those who fed their pigs on waste were seen to be performing a valuable national service.

The pig clubs could be just a few neighbours banding together to buy a single pig, right up to a work based pig club who had enough money to buy several hundred. They were all based whatever their size on the cooperative ideal of mutual self-help. Members contributed extra payments to cover insurance, turns were taken to collect and boil waste for feed, and all the work was divided equally among all or done by an assistant paid for by the club.

In the clipped Oxford English kind but firm teacher style now synonymous with the Second World War was the Small Pig Keepers’ Council produced a veritable stream of leaflets about pig husbandry and clubs. There was a great emphasis on ensuring all the food the pigs were consuming was converted into meat and not energy, so there are strict instructions in Housing the Pig Leaflet Number 4 on how to insulate pens with straw and pine needles. These cladding materials would have worked well alongside the multitude of improvised pig pens, which had become very individual pieces with the ever-decreasing supplies of building materials and the decision in 1940 to end the need to refer to local authorities, landlords or amenity agreements before building.

With the Government patriotically proclaiming that household scraps from ten average families was sufficient to keep two pigs going from weaning to 100lb live weight, much ingenuity and resourcefulness was shown by those having to collect these scraps. Household waste was collected in the galvanised bins complete with smiling bin logo that appeared on street corners. Waste food was also collected in bulk from restaurants, canteens, camps and institutions, as well as from bakeries that donated the sweepings from inside their ovens.

Allotments, as well as being dug for victory, not only provided grass clippings or spoilt fruit and vegetables, but were in part often turned over to a feed crop for the pigs such as sugar beet, potatoes, kale, Belgium carrots or Jerusalem artichokes. The Small Pig Keepers’ Leaflet Number 3 entitled “Feeding the Pig” provides the same strict nutritional guidelines for animals that were already being dictated in advice given out to citizens on how best to use their rations. It seemed that all had to make do, even the pigs, in the war years.

The utilisation of what had until then been rubbish was all part of the wider anti-waste campaign, which threatened and prosecuted those who were found to have thrown away an item that could have been consumed or reused. Even the Small Pig Keepers, Council, when advising all its’ members to boil waste under The Foot and Mouth (Boiling of Animal Foodstuffs) Order 1932, did not forget to add that the fat that would rise to the surface with this boiling should be skimmed off and disposed of locally for industrial use.

By 1942 there were approximately 4000 pig clubs, and it was to be this quantity that was soon to make them victims of their own success. Originally pig club members had been able to automatically buy feed in lieu of reduced meat rations, but by 1942 this routine entitlement was severely restricting feed for commercial pig producers which in turn reduced the pork products available to the population. The Government’s response was severe with an immediate halving of the meal allowance, and an order that pig owners should forfeit a year’s bacon ration or give The Ministry of Food half the animal after slaughter.

To some of a war weary population the price was one that was too high to pay, and the ingenuity that was helping them to survive the hardships produced the answer; some pigs simply disappeared. The legislation stated that pigs had to be moved under licence and killed at an approved abattoir by a registered slaughter man but with a war on many simply never were.

In our sitting- room we have the tangible evidence of this in the form of a coffee table, or for those in the know a solid beech five by two pig killing bench. As a teenager, I had always admired one put to the same use in a friend’s house, and when I married having never forgotten it I asked my husband if he too could find one for me. The very one he found turned out to be the last resting place of the local village’s war time black market pigs, killed by a part time butcher who had carried the bench to each house in turn and then, when not in use, hid it in the actual place in a barn where my husband was shown it decades later. Those who were party to these activities, after finding the Ministry’s order one too many, have sadly since passed away. Their only testimony a salt stained and scrubbed smooth innocuous coffee table.

In June 1954, all meat rationing finally came to an end, and with it the final reason for many to continue their pig clubs. Their bequest to us was realising the quality of an animal that could provide so much on so little and the ideal of mutual self-help, both of which should be justifiable boasts of the war time generation and a good lesson learnt for a cottage pig owner.


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