A History of the Ministry of Information, 1939-46

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No. 44. 14th May 1943


At the request of the Campaigns Division of this Ministry, Intelligence Officers were recently asked to find out whether housewives appear to be confused by, or resentful of, the various appeals and instructions issuing from Government Departments by way of the press, radio, cinema, posters, leaflets or other means.

The Intelligence Officers' enquiries have produced little evidence of either confusion or annoyance, beyond “good natured grumbling”, but a number of specific criticisms have been reported. On the whole, housewives seem very willing to comply with official instructions and advice, for some of which, notably in Ministry of Food publicity, there is said to be considerable appreciation.

Reports from four Regions suggest, however, that housewives are now impervious to “the flood of official propaganda” and that they select from it only the information that seems essential to them.

Three reports suggest that working-class housewives are, generally speaking, more receptive to the Government's appeals and publicity than are women of other classes. But some of the economies that have been suggested are regarded as “piffling” by working-class women, on whom such forms of thrift have long been imposed by necessity.

Opinions seem to vary as to the best or most popular medium of propaganda. On the whole, the radio and the cinema seem to be liked rather better than the press; neither posters nor leaflets are thought “to cut much ice”, and are considered by some housewives to be a waste of paper.

The chief complaints that have been reported are in connection with: (a) Appeals for salvage - which remains uncollected, (b) “Fuel Flashes” on the wireless, (c) Fire watching instructions; these still appear to cause confusion and some resentment, (d) The boosting of potatoes, which in pre-war days were decried as “starchy”, (e) The complexity of official forms, (f) Recipes that need ingredients which are difficult to get.

Northern Region

On the whole, there now appears to be “very little confusion .... about (Government) regulations and instructions”. Those referring to food and clothes rationing have caused more uncertainty in the past, but as housewives have grown more accustomed to them, this uncertainty seems to have disappeared. Confusion, where it still occurs, is generally dealt with in towns - at the Food Office or the C.A.B.; in country districts housewives go to “the Women's Institute, the parson, the police, or the schoolmaster”.

A certain amount of “good natured grumbling and grousing” is reported about the “flow of new regulations and campaigns” directed at the housewife who is thought to accept or reject them as it suits her. Generally speaking, women seem “anxious to fall in line with the Government's wishes”.

The only matters which are at present thought to be causing resentment or ill-feeling among women are: (a) Firewatching regulations. These are thought to need “classification and thorough revising”. (b) Household salvage, donors of which are aggravated to see it left “rusting in dumps”. (c) Campaigns for recruitment of women into industry or other appeals for housewives with children to take up war work. As a by-product of this last point the Intelligence Officer mentions that confusion, resentment and “a sense of injustice” sometimes arise through uncertainty about Local Appeal Boards. “Arrangements for women are so complicated that they do not clearly understand their position and sometimes feel that they are being bluffed”. It is suggested that “if they knew their obligations in clear, non-official language”, such suspicions would be less likely to arise and women would be more co-operative in their attitude towards Appeal Boards.

Some criticism and confusion is reported about the appeal to “Eat More Potatoes”. This is thought to be at variance with “past campaigns and advice .... to cut out starchy foods”. A clear explanation of the fact “that no harm comes from replacing bread by potatoes” is thought to be needed.

North Eastern Region

The majority of reports give no sign that housewives complain of Government instructions and publicity. “Indeed, there is some evidence that the various announcements are welcomed” and are given “interested and intelligent attention”. One report mentions that they are thought to be “more fully and quickly comprehended” by working-class women.

There is a certain amount of grousing and some housewives find it “difficult to remember all these things”; but there is apparently no real resentment. Where there is confusion this is overcome “in 99 per cent of cases ...... by a neighbourly spirit and the helpfulness of shopkeepers”.

Again it is reported that the appeal to “Eat More Potatoes” is regarded as being inconsistent with pre-war advice to eat less of them. “A little more frankness as to the real reasons for such instructions would be appreciated”. It is suggested too that cooking recipes should not be issued unless it is known that the necessary ingredients are to be had.

Some complaints are reported about salvage appeals, which, so far as housewives can see, result in the material they save being “left to rust in dumps”.

North Midland Region

There does not appear to be such confusion or resentment though some criticisms are reported. Middle-class women are described as being “browned off by the repetition of various Government campaigns”, but it is thought that “among the working classes ..... if ideas are pushed hard and often enough some result will be obtained in the end”. Women of this class are said to regard some suggestions for economy (e.g. sifting cinders) as “piffling”, having always done such things as a matter of course.

The cinema appears to be “the most palatable form of propaganda, and the press the least popular. Posters and leaflets (these “belie the need for paper economy”) are both thought to arouse only slight interest, except for leaflets giving food recipes or gardening hints”. Instructions and suggestions given out through the B.B.C. usually appear to be well received. Freddie Grisewood's “Fuel Flashes” are an exception; they are described as “childish” and “a hopeless failure”. The Radio Doctor is also criticised for making suggestions “which flatly contradict the precepts of pre-war days ..... Mothers do not agree with him that children don't need sweets”. Radio and press reminders of ration periods and changes in points' values are much appreciated. But when publicity is given to official schemes or arrangements (e.g. certain forms being obtainable from C.A.Bx. on a given date) and these are not ready when they are expected, “much confusion and resentment” is caused.

Confusion seems also to arise, particularly among elderly and working-class people, over the filling in of forms, to do with income tax, rationing, pensions, etc. A Magistrate is quoted as saying: “Every day I get women asking me to fill in forms, and the general opinion is that most of them are too involved and vague”.

The complaint is again reported that where salvage has been collected it is left lying about in dumps.

Eastern Region

No “real resentment or confusion” is reported, but occasionally it is said that there is so much Government publicity “that it is impossible for housewives to take it all in”. This “flood of information” is regarded, however, as inevitable, and from it “people.... pick out what they need”. “Hints and ideas .... to do with food, fuel, mend and make do, etc,” are much appreciated. The Radio Doctor's talks are also “specially commended”.

Some criticism is made of “superfluous” appeals for economies which have long been imposed upon people through lack of money or which they have always practised as a matter of course. “Fuel Flashes” are another cause of irritation, as are cooking recipes for which the ingredients may be unobtainable.

London and South Eastern Region

There is not much evidence of confusion, but many people seem to think that “there is a limit to the degree to which the public can be successfully nagged, and this stage now appears to have been reached”. A minority, however, appreciate the Government's efforts to instruct them in such subjects as cookery and gardening. Scepticism about the truth of Government announcements is said to be increasing; this applies particularly to statements about the standard of health and the adequacy of our diet.

As to the most effective forms of propaganda, opinions seem to be divided equally between the cinema, the press and radio. Posters and pamphlets are deemed less successful, and both are condemned as a waste of paper. “The poor and uneducated ......... are thought to be much more responsive to propaganda of all kinds” than are people of other classes.

Southern Region

Again there is no direct evidence that the public is either confused or annoyed. There are signs, however, “that a fair number of housewives .... have developed a protective shell as regards Government instructions, and in fact, ignore all those which they can safely ignore”. The Ministry of Food's announcements are said to be “fairly closely followed and fairly widely appreciated”; their “Food Flashes” in cinemas “are also said to get home”.

The Board of Trade's instructions about clothing coupons, especially regarding towels and household linen, “perhaps arouse the most adverse criticism”. Women's firewatching instructions are another cause of complaint.

South Western Region

No confusion or resentment is reported from this Region. “The things which seem to produce restrained dissatisfaction are facts rather than publicity”, particularly when such facts “seem at variance with notions of what publicity has said on the matter, e.g. that fish zoning would ensure fairer distribution”.

Complaints are also reported, particularly from rural districts and the poorer urban areas, about the filling in of forms. There are also occasional suggestions that too much money and paper is wasted “on such things as Wings for Victory weeks”.

Welsh Region

There is little evidence here of confusion or annoyance. The “usual wartime grumbling” is reported, but generally speaking, people seem ready, if not always altogether willing, to comply with most of the Government's instructions.

One report mentions that housewives are confused by the official praise of potatoes, of which they used to be told before the war “not to eat too many”.

The complaints reported from other Regions about Salvage are reiterated in this report.

Midland Region

“On the whole, women seem to take an intelligent interest and make a pretty good endeavour to understand Government instructions”. There are, however, two subjects about which women of all classes seem to be confused; they are compulsory work and firewatching. On the first of these the following points have been raised:-

  1. What is “the next thing to expect after registration”? How soon will an interview follow? Which age groups are likely to be directed into the forces and which into industry, etc.?

  2. How can one appeal against compulsory direction? (Tribunals are said to be “suspect”).

  3. Which women are likely to be classified as “mobile” and which as “immobile”?

  4. If an unregistered woman is doing essential work voluntarily, can she resign from her job?

  5. “Can a woman take a non-essential job without going to a Labour Exchange?

  6. What are the classifications of essential and of non-essential work?

On the subject of firewatching these are the points about which there is said to be confusion:-

  1. The number of hours per week that are “expected to be given”.

  2. Must one stay “up and awake” all the time, or may one go to bed?

  3. The way to deal with incendiary bombs.

Salvage is another matter that causes confusion - and also resentment, for the reasons already mentioned under this heading. How to store or where to deposit various types of salvage (e.g. bones, jars, rubber, etc.) seem to be a problem for some housewives.

“Very many women” seem to be ignorant or vague about income tax and the problems arising from it, and more explanations are asked for.

Though a number of minor criticisms or suggestions are made on other matters to which official publicity has been given, regulations and advice about food, clothing, fuel, savings and health seem to be fairly well understood.

North Western Region

“The general attitude to Government instructions seems to be one of co-operation”. Reports suggest that “housewives are grateful for instructions that are clear and helpful, and have apparently adjusted themselves to the steady flow”, from which they select what they need, and ignore the rest. “The majority seem to be singularly conscientious in endeavouring to support the Government on all aspects of the domestic front.” There is little evidence of confusion except when such instructions are thought to contradict each other, e.g. “Use Less Fuel” and “Stock up with Fuel”. The “boosting of certain foodstuffs”, because they are plentiful rather than nutritious is also criticised, as are recipes that need ingredients which may be difficult to get. On the whole, however, “the Ministry of Food is regarded as very helpful”.

The most effective medium for official propaganda is thought to be the radio (though “Fuel Flashes” are derided), after which the cinema and the press are about equal in favour. Leaflets are put lowest on the list. Posters are thought to be “useful in a more limited way”, as for instance in British Restaurants or Canteens.

Scottish Region

“Housewives in Scotland do not seem to be specially harassed by the official flood of propaganda.” The majority are thought to rely on their tradesmen “to keep them right so far as rationing and coupons are concerned” and upon shopkeepers, C.A.Bx. and “the younger members of the family” when it comes to filling up forms. The suggestion is made that there should be film shorts “to explain the filling up of forms which are common to all”.

The radio seems generally to be regarded as the best medium for propaganda, though the type of publicity for which it is used is not always regarded with approval. Freddy Grisewood's “Fuel Flashes”, for instance, “annoy large numbers of people”, and the Kitchen Front recipes are said to be “laughed at as being commonplace and ordinary”.

Northern Ireland

Little information is available from this Region. What there is suggests that there is not much grumbling or confusion. The majority of women are described as “anxious to be helpful in the war effort and welcome any advice or instructions that will enhance their usefulness in that direction”.

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