Which came first, the chicken or the egg?

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The age old riddle about chickens and eggs, and which came first, has been around for ever, and confounds all who try to give an answer one way or the other. But during the First World War, both the chickens and the eggs were of vital importance in helping the recovery to health of the nation’s wounded soldiers.

The National Egg Collection Scheme started in November 1914 following an original plan suggested by Frederick Carl, editor of ‘Poultry World’. With the initial aim of providing 20,000 newly laid eggs for the wounded soldiers in hospital in Boulogne, the scheme proved popular. People were asked to commit to donate one or more egg each week, or offer an equivalent money donation. By Easter 1915, more than 200,000 eggs had been collected from all over Britain.  Over two thousand local collection depots were established, often by local groups and churches. Special boxes and labels were provided for the eggs and free transport was offered on the railways. The central collection point was in South West London at a warehouse initially provided free by Harrods.

Churches were a common local collection depot, and services would be held where parishioners would be thanked for their donations but encouraged to keep collecting eggs. Posters, leaflets and badges were produced to promote the scheme and even the famous postcard illustrator Donald McGill played his part. His illustrated postcard showed a vicar in his pulpit, humorously telling his congregation that:

‘it would greatly assist the collectors of eggs for the wounded soldiers if, upon coming to church, each lady would lay an egg in the font!’

The parish magazines from the First World War period highlight the success of various townships in Teesdale and the results of their egg collections. For example, the parish of Barningham had collected 694 eggs in the first six months of 1918, to add to the 3568 eggs donated since the start of the scheme. By July 1915, with the national scheme only up and running for nine months, the Vicar of Bowes was able to tell his parishioners they had collected 1153 eggs.

Nationally it was expected all eggs would be sent to the main depot in London. However, some donations were kept locally and Teesdale was no exception. During the war years, the Parish Magazines record eggs being sent to Stanwick Park Hospital near Darlington, and other Red Cross hospitals in Darlington and Richmond.

Donors were encouraged to write their names and addresses on the eggs, some people going even further and decorating their eggs. As testament to the safe delivery of eggs across the Channel to hospitals in France, some donors received letters of thanks from grateful soldiers.

Certificates were awarded to many collectors who reached their target of eggs.  Enthusiasm for egg collection was maintained right through the war and to the end of the National Egg Collection Service in March 1919. The scheme’s original target of collecting 20,000 eggs was well and truly surpassed with a staggering 41 million eggs having been collected up and down the country. Of this total, 32 million eggs were sent to hospitals in France and Belgium.

So even after the enormous success of the National Egg Collection, the infamous riddle is still with us; ‘Which came first, the chicken or the egg?’ What do you think?

By Jane Wilson