‘The right kind of cooking utensil is as important as the right kind of weapon’

by Clare Wichbold

‘The right kind of cooking utensil is as important as the right kind of weapon’

This quote was penned in June 1942 at the height of the Second World War by Constance Chellingworth Radcliffe Cooke (1877-1963), who campaigned on a wide range of causes. She was the oldest daughter of Charles Walwyn Radcliffe Cooke (1840-1911), an anti-suffragist MP. The family lived at Hellens, Much Marcle, a large country estate where Charles bred pedigree Hereford cattle and spearheaded a major revival of the Herefordshire cider industry. Constance attended Guernsey Ladies’ College and went on to continental finishing school but was afterwards discouraged by her father from going to university to become a home economics teacher. Constance maintained her love of cookery, attending Elise Randall’s School of Domestic Science in Eastbourne. She then joined the Women’s Social and Political Union in 1908 (however, that’s for another blog…)

1910 Portrait of Constance Cooke (image courtesy Herefordshire Archives and Records Centre)

She travelled again to Europe in 1910 and was fascinated by the insulated wicker baskets used by Italian labourers to keep their meals warm. In Germany she saw cooking boxes in action: the technique involves briefly boiling food in a saucepan with a close-fitting lid, and then cooking in the box for several hours, saving fuel, and freeing up time. Constance brought a box and some pans back to create a prototype cooking box, insulated with woollen scraps, sawdust, wood shavings and kapok. 

Draft illustrations for cooking box (image courtesy Herefordshire Archives and Records Centre)

After the outbreak of the First World War, Constance became concerned about the availability of decent food for the British Army. Her half-brother Charlie served with the Royal Engineers and wrote plaintive letters during training before deployment to France, complaining about how poorly his regiment was being fed. He wasn’t alone! Constance, therefore, organised a letter and petition from 57 householders in Much Marcle to Lord Kitchener, on 14 April 1915, requesting better food and suggesting that soldiers be taught cooking. Within a week, the Daily Citizen had an announcement inviting ‘women with a practical knowledge of open-air cooking to communicate with the Military Aid Department of the Women’s Emergency Corps.’ 

Constance also highlighted the increasing cost of food for agricultural labourers and their families. In a letter published in Votes for Women on 13 August 1915 she noted that over the previous year the cost of bread, groceries, meat and coal had risen by 34% – particularly impacting on women who had to manage household budgets. By this time Constance had produced an effective cooking box which she was using herself and went on to write an accompanying cookery book. Published in 1917, it sold thousands of copies and was adopted by domestic science schools, leading cooking experts and housewives keen to improve efficiency and save fuel. 

I discovered Constance in 2019 during research for my book on the Herefordshire suffrage campaign. Intrigued, I decided to recreate her cooking box myself. Once functioning, the first attempt at macaroni cheese was dreadful (my fault!), but the subsequent apple chutney was fantastic. The biggest issue that Constance encountered was finding suitable pans to fit into the cooking box. In Britain the majority of homes had coal ranges, and long handled saucepans were the norm. She ended up importing more pans from German during the 1920s with clap over handles and continued to use her cooking box for her own meals, refining recipes and cooking times.

Recreated cooking box (own image)

An untiring activist, Constance went on to become a member of the Women’s Institute, worked for the Women’s Cooperative Guild, joined the Labour Party, served on Public Health Committees, lectured on behalf of the Worker’s Educational Association, and, inspired by Sylvia Pankhurst, began what became a lifetime’s study of the origins of language. 

When war broke out in 1939, Constance was soon working on an updated version of her book with the Auxiliary Territorial Service (ATS) and the British Dietetic Association. There was a lot of backing from her previous collaborators who wrote testimonials and letters of support. It was of course impossible to source saucepans from the continent, and frustrated, Constance took to writing to MPs, giving talks to women’s groups, and lobbying the Ministry of Supply to procure the necessary pans for domestic use – using the title quote on many occasions. She didn’t succeed despite her strong rhetoric. The controversial ‘Saucepans for Spitfires’ campaign for the war effort prevailed over the Home Front. 

The Cooking-Box: how to make and use it together with eighty economical recipes adapted for fireless cookery, by Constance C Radcliffe Cooke, National Society’s Depository, London, 1917 (out of print)

Hard Work – But Glorious: Stories from the Herefordshire Suffrage Campaign, by Clare Wichbold, Hereford, 2021. Available in store and online from Ledbury Books and Maps, https://www.ledburybooksandmaps.co.uk/, £15. 

About the Author

Clare Wichbold retains a keen interest in history after her early career as an archaeologist. Having thrown in the trowel in 1996 she subsequently turned to grant-making and is currently working as Fundraising Manager at The Courtyard Centre for the Arts in Hereford. Clare and her husband Dave had a smallholding in west Herefordshire for 20 years, but she never got round to writing about their experiences. A latecomer to suffrage research through the 2018 centenary of the Representation of the People Act, Hard Work – But Glorious: Stories from the Herefordshire Suffrage Campaign is Clare’s first book; her next, a biography of one of the Herefordshire suffragettes discovered during her research, is currently in the early stages. 

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