Q: Can you help with ideas for researching the availability and use of herbs during the First World War?

Answer: This was a really interesting question which came in to us from an HLF project in Arundel (www.arundelmuseum.org ). We sent out a request for help to members of the Centre. Owen Davies, who has worked on popular medicine, was aware of concerns around shortages of herbs for medicinal purposes during the war as the main suppliers were Germany and Austria. A search of the British Newspaper Archive online revealed there were real concerns around this dependence on foreign herbs; as an item in The Dundee Telegraph put it, ‘It is astonishing to discover how insidiously our German enemies have, within the last half-century, invaded even the precincts of our gardens’.[1]

The British Newspaper Archive can be found at www.britishnewspaperarchive.co.uk . It is a subscription service but you can search for free to identify possible items of interest. It can also be accessed for free at the British Library www.bl.uk and it is worth checking your local library to see if they offer free online access. A reminder that any researcher can access material at the British Library, but will need to join first so check their application procedures to save a wasted journey.

If you are not able to access the newspaper search facility, but do have access to newspapers in your local library then a good starting point for checking out local initiatives would be from spring 1916 onwards as this seems to be when concerns around shortages really kick in, although the government were aware of the potential problems around supply from the start of the war.

A quick online search revealed articles in newspapers from across the country, and in particular on the formation of a National Herb-Growing Association which was set up in spring 2016. It was not just about encouraging people to grow herbs in pots to fill the gap left by the failure of imports, but had the larger aim of meeting the demand for herbs for the chemical industry.[2]

Of particular interest are the references to the Women’s Herb Growing Association.[3] A search for the association in google books  https://books.google.co.uk/  throws up mention of them quite frequently in 1916, including this in a suffrage journal


An alternative source was suggested by Centre member, Jennifer Evans, who works on early-modern medicine. Her thought was that books on botany, cookery books and medical herbals aimed at the popular market which were published during the war might offer insights into which herbs were particularly valued or in short supply. A search of the British Library online catalogue www.bl.uk threw up several including:

David Ellis, Medicinal herbs and poisonous plants (1918)

Medicinal Herbs and their cultivation (1915) in Archives and Manuscripts

M.A. Fairclough, The ideal cookery book (1919)

Girl Guides collecting herbs, June 1918’ courtesy of the Imperial War Museum (www.iwm.org.uk ) © IWM (Q 27917)

Girl Guides collecting herbs, June 1918’ courtesy of the Imperial War Museum (www.iwm.org.uk ) © IWM (Q 27917)

Again, though, check with your local library or archives as many of these hold older material which is of local interest but may not be on the open shelves.

There is also a lovely image of Girl Guides collecting herbs which can be accessed for free at http://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/205288420 This is clearly a staged photograph which was one of many taken of Boy Scouts and Girl Guides ‘doing their bit’ during the war. It’s not clear what type of herbs the girls are gathering, but it is a lovely photo.

If anybody knows of the existence of the archive for the Women’s Herb-Growing Association, or has ideas for alternative sources, then do get in touch. This is a fascinating subject and appears to be one which has not received a lot of attention from researchers.

[1]The Herb Garden’, Dundee Evening Telegraph, 3rd July 1916, p.4. www.britishnewspaperarchive.co.uk

[2] ‘Herb Growing Association’, Newcastle Telegraph, 28th September 1916, p.7. www.britishnewspaperarchive.co.uk

[3] ‘Women’s Herb-Growing Association’, Somerset and West of England Advertiser, 10th March 1916, p.2.

Comments are closed.