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Beekeeping in Swindon during WWII
By Joy Simpson
Swindon Beekeepers Association

Ration books
Sugar was rationed in WWII, so honey was a valuable commodity

Beekeeping in the Swindon area has been practised for many years, but it certainly gained in popularity during World War II.

Due to sugar rationing in World War II, honey was in great demand by local authorities, and a special allowance of sugar per hive was allowed.

However it was useful in other ways other than just as a food stuff.

It could be used to dress wounds due to its antiseptic properties and was said to speed up the healing process.

It was also used until penicillin became available and, it was believed, helped reduce scars. It is still used today in the treatment of burns, and is a component in some medications for ulcers.

In 1943, the Ministry of Food announced that beekeepers qualified for supplies of sugar not exceeding 10lbs per colony to keep their beehives going through the winter, and 5lbs for spring feeding.

When it was suspected that most of the sugar wasn't reaching the bees because crops of honey were so small, someone had the bright idea of colouring the sugar green to prevent it getting onto the black market. This was soon stopped when the bees started to produce green honey!

With a hive ready for bees and basic equipment costing about £7 10s, and a colony of honey bees costing between £2-£4, you could start beekeeping for about £10.

If you were making your own hives, you could obtain a pound's worth of timber, and plans without a permit. One elderly beekeeper remembers the advice his father gave: "Measure twice, cut once, my boy: it saves timber and heartache."

As part of the war effort, everyone was encouraged to grow their own produce, and it was quite common to see two or three beehives in a garden or on the allotments. The bees helped to pollinate the crops and the honey boosted the meagre sugar ration.

During the war, the average price for honey was 2/6s. From 9 June 1947, the price of home-produced honey was decontrolled and it could be sold freely at any price the beekeeper could obtain, usually 4/6d - 5/- per lb - that's 25p today.

Sidney Lewis
Sidney Lewis from Cliffe Pypard was a keen beekeeper in the 1940s

In the Swindon area, Jean Tuck was a child in the 1940s and her father, Sydney H. Lewis, was a beekeeper in Wood Street, Cliffe Pypard.

She remembers being told that her father got very badly stung when tending his bees - he was so covered in bees he ran into the outside privy and stripped all his clothes off!

We couldn't go into the house, because Jean was there as a young baby. The doctor said it was touch and go whether he lived, but he wasn't put off beekeeping!

It was usual for the children of a family to come home from school and help at home or on the farm, and Jean remembers that they used to bang old tin cans to break up a swarm and make the bees come down from trees for easier capture!

The tin cans were specially selected because they sounded exactly the right pitch to drown out the sound of the queen bee so that the workers wouldn't know who to follow! For this the family became known as "The Mad Lewis's".

There was no need for Sydney to advertise his honey - lots of local people used to buy it and he had a bicycle with a box on the back for deliveries. The doctor from Wootton Bassett used to come by car to buy honey and Sophie Grigson's father Jeffery, from Broad Town, was a regular customer.

Mrs Dugdale of Bushton Manor also bought Sydney's honey as did their regular visitors Laurie Lee (who wrote Cider with Rosie), and his wife. The honey was produced from mixed flowers from old hedgerows, but Sydney used to grow borage for them and of course, there was apple blossom.

Hand-painted honey labels
A German prisoner of war billetted at Cliffe Pypard hand-painted labels for the honey jars

Jean has a collection of wonderful hand painted honey labels created by one of a group of German prisoners of war, who were billeted on a nearby farm at the end of the war and lived in cottages opposite the Goddard Arms in Cliffe Pypard. Because rations were short they were very pleased to have some honey and painted large sea shells by way of payment.

Jim Melsome, a veteran beekeeper, sadly, recently passed away, was a member of first Malmesbury and then Honorary member of Swindon Beekeepers Association.

He started keeping bees in 1942, when he bought two colonies from a land army girl who kept bees at Sherston, and was leaving the district. He paid just £7-10s for the two hives. With a friend, he even built his own honey extractor! They soldered two biscuit tins together, and used the gearing from a butter churning machine with two cake stands.

Swindon Beekeepers' most senior member, John Woolford, now 84-years-old, first became interested in beekeeping when he was at St Mary's Church of England School in Purton. Boys were taught woodworking and gardening, and the Geography teacher, Mr Freegard, kept bees at the back of the vegetable garden.

John persuaded his father to start beekeeping, and in 1938, the first beehive was installed among the chickens on their smallholding. At the age of 15, John built his own beehive from packing case wood - he must have done a good job, because that hive lasted 30 years!

John left school aged 16 in 1939, and he wanted to go into the railway, perhaps as a clerk, as did many of Swindon's 60,000 population. At that time, GWR employed 14,500 workers.

However, although all his friends were taken on, John was turned down because his father no longer worked at the works. With little other employment to be had, John's father offered to pay him ten shillings a week, plus board and lodgings, to work with him on the farm.

In 1940, John remembers visiting the beehives and workshops of Alec Gale, (of Gale's Honey), in Marlborough and Savernake Forest.

Ration poster
Home grown produce was bottled and honey was often used to sweeten fruit

In 1943, John joined the Royal Air Force, flying Halifax bomber planes, and his father looked after the bees.

In 1945, after retraining on Dakotas, he was sent to India on transport duties. He spent his twenty first birthday in October, flying to Singapore to pick up some of our Japanese prisoners and take them to Calcutta - a three day trip in those days.

However, his birthday hadn't been forgotten - his father had written to him to say that his twenty first birthday present would be all his hives of bees and his second hand honey extractor!

John wasn't very impressed to get a special birthday present that could sting him. However, this did help maintain his interest in beekeeping when the war ended, and by now he had met Beryl, who later became his wife. They now live in Lydiard Millicent.

John continued as a very successful hobby beekeeper, developing his own beekeeping philosophy, as an active member of Swindon Beekeepers Association, and is now an Honorary Member.

The demand for honey dropped when sugar came off ration in the 1950s and changes in agriculture - such as the increased use of pesticides and destruction of hedgerows to make larger fields - made life hard for bees and beekeepers.

Now beekeeping is again increasing in popularity, as people become more aware of the importance of pollination by bees, the dangers to honey bee populations and the hazards of pests and diseases.

The Swindon Beekeepers Association are building a historical archive of records, pictures and information about the group and its members since its inauguration. If you have any information contact Chairman Dennis Simpson on (01793) 854063.

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