Find Out More About Rose Hips
The British campaign to collect rose hips during World War Two.
The British government’s Rose Hip collecting campaign was the most prominent example of foraging in Britain during World War Two. Following the discovery that rose hips had a high concentration of vitman C, a syrup manufactured from them was meant to be used as a substitute for citrus fruit, which was difficult to obtain due to restrictions on imports.
The collection campaign was organised on a voluntary basis, offering children three pence per pound to gather them, and with a heavy involvement from Women’s Institutes. In her history of Women’s Institutes during the war years, Julie Summers quotes a letter from one member of a WI, who wrote in 1945: “During the past four years members of WIs all over the country have gathered hundreds of pounds of rosehips, so that it is natural the Association should now appeal to them in continuing production this summer at the rate of five hundred tons of hips a year. The demand is likely greatly to exceed the supply for children here and on the continent.”
While many people we spoke to as part of the Hedgerow Harvest project remembered the rose hip collection campaign, few knew what was done with the hips after they had been gathered. Documents in the National Archives, produced by the Ministry of Food, reveal what was happening behind the scenes, which turns out to have been a lot more conflicted than popular memory suggests. This story is worth telling because it shows some of the conflicts which could arise when a wild food was treated as a national resource.
Between 1939 and the summer of 1941, the Ministry of Food were approached by a number of people about the possibility of making use of rose hips, notably the German Jewish nutritionist Claire Loewenfeld (who subsequently made a career a food writer and early member of the Soil Association). There was also quite a correspondence on this subject in the British Medical Journal. Jack Drummond, a biochemist who was the scientific liaison office at the Ministry of Food, was at first dismissive of the idea that rose hips could be collected on any large scale. An internal memo of October 1940, for example, argued that a national collection would be uneconomic, and a more ad hoc, voluntary scheme would be preferable.
Drummond’s attitude began to shift in June 1941, when he learned of a collaroation between of a young chemist named Magnus Pyke, then working for a company called Vitamins Ltd, and subsequently very famous as a television presenter, and the botanist and pharmacist Ronald Melville at Kew Gardens, who had been analysing the vitamin C content of different species of rose. The work was still largely speculative, concerning not nly rose hips but also mountain ash and hawthorn. In September 1941, Drummond learned that the Ministry of Health was attempting to find a manufacturing chemist which would be able to manufacture a syrup.
The Ministry of Health had, earlier in 1941, formed a “Vegetable Drugs Committee” to explore the possibility of gathering large numbers of British medicinal plants and vegetable drug resources in the wider empire. The staff at the Ministry of Food loathed this Committee, fuming at its interference with what they saw as their areas of expertise and mocking them for collecting stinging nettles and conkers, which were used for no better purpose than colouring Lucozade.
Nevertheless, with the support of the Ministry of Health, the national campaign was launched in September 1941. Around 100 tons of hips were gathered the first year. To manufacture the hips which had been collected, a number of chemists gathered together as the National Rosehip Products’ Association. Official documents show that an ice cream company sought membership of the Association so that it could obtain sugar and continue to operate despite conditions of rationing, while another company tried to obtain supplies of the enzyme pectinol from the USA. There were claims by the chemical company Roche that natural sources of vitamin C would always be inferior to synthetic ascorbic acid. The process of manufacturing a syrup with a stable vitamin C content on a large scale turned out to be remarkably tricky as well, and research into different species of rose had discovered that those common in Scotland were much superior to those from the south.
Some regarded the industrial syrup as less nutritious than a smaller scale production would have been. Loewenfeld wrote to Drummond again, reporting on German use of the hips and saying that “Quite besides the possibility that the natural product may contain something which is necessarily lost in industrial manufacturing of the standardised syrup, it seems also very valuable from the psychological point, esp. for the country woman. It would mean to bring her more in touch with the resources of their own fields [sic] and hedgerows and to enable them to produce themselves this life giving stuff for their children.”
The campaign continued through the rest of the war years. Collections of hips increased before collapsing in 1942, some 350 tons were collected, while in 1943 the quantity was 500. In 1944, however, only 270 tons were gathered and after the war the National Rose Hip Products Association petered out, despite attempts to revive it in 1948.
National Archives collection on Rose Hips.
Laura Hastings on “the Botanic Gardens at Kew and the wartime need for medicines”.
Julie Summers, Jambusters.