This film is held by the BFI (ID: 13289) and Imperial War Museum (ID: COI 258).


Film showing the food contributions supplied to Britain by various colonies and dominions.

Although more land has been given over to food production, a significant contribution is made by the British Commonwealth of Nations. The sources of items in a shopping bag are described by people from the countries involved: lamb, sultanas, wheat and fruit from Australia, New Zealand butter and cheese (90% of produce going to UK), West African cocoa and cocoa butter, vegetable oil from the Gold Coast, tea from Ceylon. Distribution of these items when in Britain is handled by 19 Divisional Food Offices who coordinate the movement and storage of the foodstuffs, and redirect supplies in times of emergencies. The link between producers and suppliers is sea power - tribute is paid to the convoys. This chain of production, distribution and sales culminates in the food being served in ordinary British households.


Credits: "grateful acknowledgement is made to:- Messrs Cadbury Bros Ltd, the Co-operative Wholesale Society Ltd, the English and Scottish Joint Co-operative Wholesale Society Ltd, the Government of New South Wales (Australia), the Great Western Railway, the Miller's Mutual Association for their co-operation during the making of this film."



Documentary News Letter reviewed Food From the Empire in October 1940, and considered it ‘an unpretentious film describing the contribution to our food supplies being made by the Dominions and Colonies’. The director Theodore Thumwood worked in animation and the review noted that the film ‘is based on the familiar trick shot of the basket’. It concluded that ‘while there is nothing very striking about the film it does quite competently put across a useful reassurance message’ (Documentary News Letter, October 1940, 9).

Merton Park Studios, the producer of Food from the Empire, was based in Wimbledon and advertised itself extensively in Documentary News Letter throughout this period. One advertisement claimed that ‘this studio began to specialise in industrial and advertising films during the last war’. It further noted its necessary role as part of the war effort; ‘Official and commercial bodies are increasingly aware of the advantages of using films as their mouthpiece. Merton Park Studios specialise in film propaganda and this is our second war’ (Documentary News Letter, August 1940, 19).

Ashley Jackson noted that the ‘war witnessed an intensification of agriculture in all colonies’. ‘The overriding need, even ahead of a surplus for export’, Jackson argued, ‘was to increase production for domestic consumption and aim for food self-sufficiency’ (Jackson, 2006, 49). Most colonies had to diversify, especially as they sought to economize on shipping, but as food shortages increased, crops were exported throughout the Empire. The British government acquired colonial crops through bulk purchasing schemes, which ensured stable price levels. Yet, while ‘the increased demand for these commodities might bring local prosperity’, Keith Jeffery argued that ‘some – for example, much of the West African cocoa crop – were never exported at all. The purchases were simply made as an indirect subsidy to the growers in order to prevent social or economic hardship’ (Jeffery, 1999, 325).  



Food from the Empire emphasises the solidarity and unity of the British Empire during the early part of the War. This is apparent initially through a commentary which asserts that ‘there are 500 million people inhabiting roughly one quarter of the globe who have pledged themselves with us to preserve a way of living that is called the British Commonwealth of Nations’. The film then illustrates this solidarity through the example of food production and distribution.

Formally, the film provides a succession of industrial sequences relating to different parts of the Empire and unites these images through the commentary and the animation used. The commentary positions these films in the context of the ‘British housewife’, as it explains that ‘these men and women all over the world are helping to fill the shopping basket of the British housewife’. This link to the ‘British housewife’ is also established through the film’s animation. Items are removed from the shopping basket and then discussed. Furthermore, the industrial films are initially depicted within a globe –illustrating the significance of these industrial processes to the rest of the Empire and the world –before extending to the full screen.

Food from the Empire highlights the severity of the food issue, by discussing food production as a battle – ‘But we are not alone in this struggle’ –and by subsequently emphasising the scale and organisation of the food divisional officers. The commentary states that if supplies are blocked the ‘whole of the emergency machinery goes into action’, and refers to the ‘men available to be called upon at a moment’s notice’. This seemingly unthreatening image – the housewife’s shopping basket – becomes symptomatic of broader war-time struggles, as the commentary attests that the ‘full shopping basket’ would not be possible but ‘for the might of the Royal Navy and the courage and endurance of our sailors and merchant seamen’.

Food from the Empire also offers insights into British attitudes towards its colonies and dominions. The commentary notes that the ‘free people’ of these countries are ‘anxious to send every ounce they can to the United Kingdom for they know that upon the ability of Great Britain to hold out depends their own freedom’. Britain is depicted as a dominant power, fighting to protect those within the Empire, while the colonies are loyal and ‘anxious’ to help.

Documentary News Letter complained in December 1940 that ‘for all we see of the Empire on the public screens … we neither see the imperial scene nor hear the imperial voice’ (Documentary News Letter, December 1940, 2). Yet, Food from the Empire attempts to provide a voice for these countries, stating ‘Let their voices speak to us through the products they send us’. Each country is assigned a first-person narrator –scenes from Canada for example are introduced with the announcement that ‘You folk over there can be assured of Canada’s contribution’. Yet there is one notable exception. Whilst showing ethnographic shots of Africans cutting down beans and transporting food on their heads, a very well-spoken British voice announces ‘I speak for West Africa from which among other things comes your cocoa’. The failure to assign an authentic, or even enacted, local voice would seemingly illustrate the lack of autonomy granted to the Africans, and a controlling British paternalistic attitude distinct from that shown to other areas of the Empire.

Tom Rice (April 2008)


Works Cited

‘Food from the Empire’, Documentary News Letter, October 1940, 9.

Documentary News Letter, August 1940, 19.

‘The Imperial Theme’, Documentary News Letter, December 1940, 2.

Jackson, Ashley, The British Empire and the Second World War (London: Hambledon Continuum, 2006).

Jeffery, Keith, ‘The Second World War’, The Oxford History of the British Empire Vol. IV: The Twentieth Centuryedited by Judith M. Brown and Wm Roger Louis (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999), 306-328. 




Technical Data

Running Time:
10 minutes
Film Gauge (Format):
866 ft

Production Credits

Production Countries:
Ministry of Information
Thumwood, T R
Production company
Merton Park Studios