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"Police as Ploughmen": How the police helped Britain to overcome starvation in the First World War

This study shows the role of the police in helping the population in crisis.

Key details

Lead institution
Principal researcher(s)
Dr Mary Fraser
Police region
Collaboration and partnership

The Police History Society, who have provided a small grant.

Level of research
Professional/work based
Project start date
Date due for completion

Research context

This study shows the role of the police in helping the population in crisis. In my 2019 book I show that policemen were released to plough the fields from across Britain in the severe food shortages of 1917-1918.

One estimate shows that between 500-600 policemen were released from March/April for approximately six weeks to help to increase home food production through ploughing to increase arable land. Estimates showed that four times more people could be fed from arable crops than by grazing cattle, therefore urgent action was needed to prevent the population from starvation.

The Derby Scheme identified that many policemen had previous occupations in farming and were experienced ploughmen. Although farmers were willing to plough up their grassland, many experienced ploughmen had left the land, therefore substitution was urgently needed. The police were one of the first groups to provide substitution through Neville Chamberlain’s Department of National Service.

The food crisis due to Germany's submarine warfare on shipping from December 1916 sunk disproportionately more British ships. Britain relied on 80% of grain imports, furthermore, the long harsh winter rotted the potato crop, leaving poorer families nearing starvation unless urgent action was taken.

Therefore, it is reasonable to say that policemen helped to save the nation from starvation in early 1917, before the army was sufficiently mobilised to help and the women’s land army developed; the release of prisoners of war to help farming was also a later development.

Research methodology

Initial searches of The Police Review and Parade Gossip, the Organ of the British Constabulary, the most popular weekly journal read by policemen on the beat during 1914-1918 showed many columns headed "Police as Ploughmen" or "Police to the Plough" in March/April 1917. These identified the initial locations. Searches of the British Newspaper Archive developed and confirmed these locations.

Further searches of local archives for police and local authority reports added to the picture. During searches a further two locations for the release of policemen were uncovered and added to the known locations.

It also became evident that some locations had been asked for further help from the police in autumn 1917. Records show that Scotland responded by doubling the number released, however, no composite records were found for England.

Furthermore, some locations, such as Birmingham, lent policemen to farmers from March/April 1917 until at least June 1918.

You can see an initial analysis of my findings at

Interim reports or publications

Fraser, M. "Police as Ploughmen": temporary release to help farmers in the food crisis of First World War Britain. Cultural & Social History. Published online 5 August 2021.  

Fraser, M. (2020) Policing the Ploughs. History Today. Vol 70, Issue 5, May pp. 58-65

Fraser, M. (2020) Food Control in the First World War: Another role for the police. British Police History Journal. Issue VI, Spring 2020

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