You Want to Grow What?!

Brussels sprouts, celery, and mustard. What do they have in common? They were just some of the crops that English farmers in 1918 had to get special permission to grow.

When the British Government began to conclude that they really couldn’t just hope that farmers would start planting more grain, War Agricultural Executive Committees across the country were formed. Their forerunners, the War Agricultural Committees, had been set up to try and ‘encourage’ farmers to grow more wheat, but lacked any coercive powers. All this was to change from early 1917, with the Corn Production Act. The government was now interested in exactly what farmers were growing, and, delegating the responsibility out to county committees, would remove farmers from their land if they weren’t growing sufficient corn, or if they weren’t farming their land well enough. It was a huge government intervention, and an excellent way for farmers to push grievances against one another if they so desired. There are one or two bits in the minutes of the Cambridgeshire War Agricultural Executive Committee (sadly only 1918 survives/can currently be found in Cambridgeshire Archives – the other volumes may yet be lurking somewhere) that suggest a few farmers were engaging in a bit of a feud. But, for the most part, all farmers were trying far too hard to make their own land work, what with the shortage of labour, to really want to take anyone else’s land on too.

English farmers were meant to grow wheat, corn and other grains. So, if a farmer wanted to grow, for instance, Brussels Sprouts, he would need to get special permission from his local committee to do so. On 27 May 1918, a Mr W Brockett of Guilden Morden was granted just such permission.

As you can imagine, not everyone was too impressed with these new laws about what you could and couldn’t grow, and several farmers complained at being made to grow wheat on land that simply wasn’t suited to it. Matters were made even more difficult by a massive shortage of labour, especially skilled labour. One particularly irate farm owner (most actual farmers were tenant-farmers, while huge tracts of land were owned by others who didn’t actually work the land), wrote a pamphlet ‘The New Agriculture and the Coming Chaos’. I had no idea Conservatives got so angry about the First World War! He basically claimed a massive socialist plot was going on, and that while the land owners and the farmers were being good and patriotic, the farm labourers were busy seeking out a minimum wage that they’d get paid regardless of whether their work was any good or not, and that this was only one small step along the line to total chaos and the destruction of Britain. (It is a hilariously angry tract. If you can find a copy of it, you’ll find yourself sat silently giggling in whatever rarefied room you’re allowed to read it in.)

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Private Joseph Copeman

Private Joseph Copeman was not an important historical figure, though no doubt he was important to his wife and family. As far as I can tell, his wound did not even merit a mention in the local newspaper, though as he was awarded a 75% disability pension it must have been serious enough.

He will be the first in my series of ‘life stories’, based on service records, census data, and anything else I can find about ordinary men and women of the First World War. Because of my research focus, most of them will be from Cambridgeshire – there were far too many lives affected by the First World War for one person to cover even a fraction of them.

Joseph Copeman was born in March in 1874. He moved to Whittlesey sometime later, where he worked first as a brickyard labourer, and then became a horsekeeper on a farm. This was one of the most prestigious – and most highly paid – agricultural jobs. While in Whittlesey, he met Eliza Fitzjohn. Their first son was born on 29 May 1908, a few months before their marriage at the parish church on 7 October 1908. Their second son was born in December 1909.

In August 1914, war with Germany broke out, and, a few months later, a local battalion was formed in Cambridge, for men from Cambridgeshire and the Isle of Ely. This would become the 11th Suffolk Regiment, but for a while it was known variously as the Cambs Kitcheners or the Cambs Suffolks.

It was in May 1915, the day before his oldest son’s seventh birthday, that Joseph Copeman enlisted in this battalion. He was then transferred to the 13th Suffolks, which was a reserve battalion for the 11th Suffolks. It’s unclear why he chose to enlist at that time, perhaps in response to stories of the German’s use of poison gas and Kitchener’s call, published in the local papers on 21 May, for more men.

In April 1916, Joseph Copeman joined the 11th Suffolks at the Front, nearly four months after the rest of the battalion had arrived. He would have been part of a draft sent to relieve some of the early casualties the battalion suffered.

He was in the battalion on 1 July when they went ‘over the top’ as part of the Battle of the Somme, and was wounded in the neck. Returning to England, he found himself in the Cambridge Military Hospital at Aldershot. This was the hospital at which plastic surgery was first performed, and it may be that he was operated on by one of the pioneers of reconstructive surgery.

He returned to civilian life, a third son being born in December 1916, and seems to have resumed some sort of work on a farm. In any case, that was what he applied for on his leaving certificate from the army, and as the farms were desperate for hands during the latter part of the First World War it’s likely that he was taken on in some capacity. He died in 1940 in Whittlesey, the village where he had spent most of his life.