At the start of the Second World War in 1939, the United Kingdom was importing 20,000,000 long tons of food per year, including about 70% of its cheese and sugar, nearly 80% of fruits and about 70% of cereals and fats. The UK also imported more than half of its meat, and relied on imported feed to support its domestic meat production. The civilian population of the country was about 50 million. It was one of the principal strategies of the Germans in the Battle of the Atlantic to attack shipping bound for Britain, restricting British industry and potentially starving the nation into submission.
To deal with sometimes extreme shortages, the Ministry of Food instituted a system of rationing. To buy most rationed items, each person had to register at chosen shops, and was provided with a ration book containing coupons. The shopkeeper was provided with enough food for registered customers. Purchasers had to take ration books with them when shopping, so that the relevant coupon or coupons could be cancelled.
In line with its business as usual policy during the First World War, the government was initially reluctant to try to control the food markets. It fought off attempts to introduce minimum prices in cereal production, though relenting in the area of control of essential imports (sugar, meat, and grains). When it did introduce changes, they were limited. In 1916, it became illegal to consume more than two courses while lunching in a public eating place or more than three for dinner; fines were introduced for members of the public found feeding the pigeons or stray animals.
In January 1917, Germany started unrestricted submarine warfare to try to starve Britain into submission. To meet this threat, voluntary rationing was introduced in February 1917. Bread was subsidised from September that year; prompted by local authorities taking matters into their own hands, compulsory rationing was introduced in stages between December 1917 and February 1918 as Britain's supply of wheat decreased to just six weeks' worth. To help the process, ration books were introduced in July 1918 for butter, margarine, lard, meat, and sugar. For the most part, rationing benefited the health of the country. During the war, average energy intake decreased by only 3%, but protein intake by 6%.
The government made preparations to ration food in 1925, in advance of an expected general strike, and appointed Food Control Officers for each region. In the event, the Trades Unions of the London docks organized blockades by crowds, but convoys of lorries under military escort took the heart out of the strike, so that the measures did not have to be implemented.
After the Second World War began in September 1939 the first commodity to be controlled was petrol. On 8 January 1940 bacon, butter and sugar were rationed. This was followed by successive ration schemes for meat, tea, jam, biscuits, breakfast cereals, cheese, eggs, lard, milk, and canned and dried fruit. In June 1942 the Combined Food Board was set up to coordinate the world supply of food to the Allies, with special attention to flows from the U.S. and Canada to Britain. Almost all foods apart from vegetables and bread were rationed by August 1942. Strict rationing inevitably created a black market. Almost all controlled items were rationed by weight but meat was rationed by price.
Fresh vegetables and fruit were not rationed but supplies were limited. Some types of imported fruit all but disappeared. Lemons and bananas became unobtainable for most of the war; oranges continued to be sold but greengrocers customarily reserved them for children and pregnant women, who could prove their status by producing their distinctive ration books. Other domestically grown fruit such as apples still appeared from time to time, but again the sellers imposed their own restrictions so that customers were often not allowed to buy, for example, more than one apple each. Many people grew their own vegetables, greatly encouraged by the highly successful "Dig for Victory" motivational campaign. In 1942 numerous children between five and seven years old had become used to wartime restrictions. When questioned about bananas, many did not believe such items existed. Game meat such as rabbit and pigeon were not rationed but were not always available. A popular music-hall song, written 20 years previously but sung ironically, was "Yes! We Have No Bananas". During the food rationing, British biologists ate laboratory rats.
Most controversial was bread; it was not rationed until after the war ended, but the "national loaf" of wholemeal bread replaced the ordinary white variety, to the distaste of most housewives who found it mushy, grey and easy to blame for digestion problems. In May 1942, an order was passed that meals served in hotels and restaurants must not cost over 5 shillings per customer, must not be of more than three courses, and at most one course could contain meat, fish or poultry. This was partly in response to increasing public concerns that "luxury" off-ration foodstuffs were being unfairly obtained by those who could afford to dine regularly in restaurants.
Fish was not rationed, but prices increased considerably as the war progressed. The government initially allowed this, since it realised that fishermen would need to be able to collect a premium for their catch if they were at risk of enemy attack while at sea, but prices were controlled from 1941. Like other non-rationed items, fish was rarely freely available, as supplies dropped to 30% of pre-war levels, and long queues built up at fishmongers and fish and chip shops. The quality of wartime chips was often felt to be below standard, because of the low-quality fat available.
As the war progressed rationing was extended to other commodities such as clothing. Clothing was rationed on a points system. When it was introduced, on 1 June 1941, no clothing coupons had been issued, and at first the unused margarine coupons in ration books were valid for clothing. Initially the allowance was for about one new outfit per year; as the war progressed the points were reduced, until buying a coat used almost a year's clothing coupons. On 1 July 1942 the basic civilian petrol ration was abolished; this had been announced on 13 March 1942. (Ivor Novello was a British public figure sent to prison for four weeks for misusing petrol coupons.) After that, vehicle fuel was only available to official users, such as the emergency services, bus companies and farmers. The priority users of fuel were always, of course, the armed forces. Fuel supplied to approved users was dyed, and use of this fuel for non-essential purposes was an offence.
Certain foodstuffs that the 1940s British consumer would find unusual, for example whale meat and canned snoek fish from South Africa, were not rationed. Despite this they did not prove popular.
In addition to rationing, the government equalized the food supply through subsidies on items consumed by the poor and the working class. In 1942–43, £145 million was spent on food subsidies, including £35 million on bread, flour and oatmeal, £23 million on meat and the same on potatoes, £11 million on milk, and £13 million on eggs.
Restaurants were initially exempt from rationing but this was resented, as people with more money could supplement their food rations by eating out frequently. The Ministry of Food in May 1942 issued new restrictions on restaurants:
About 2,000 new wartime establishments called British Restaurants were run by local authorities in schools and church halls. Here a plain three-course meal cost only 9d and no ration coupons were required. They evolved from the London County Council's Londoners' Meals Service, which began as an emergency system for feeding people who had been blitzed out of their homes. They were open to all and mostly served office and industrial workers.
In December 1939 Elsie Widdowson and Robert McCance of the University of Cambridge tested whether the United Kingdom could survive with only domestic food production if U-boats ended all imports. Using 1938 food production data, they fed themselves and other volunteers one egg, one pound of meat and four ounces of fish a week; one quarter pint (0.14 litre) of milk a day; four ounces of margarine; and unlimited amounts of potatoes, vegetables and wholemeal bread. Two weeks of intensive outdoor exercise simulated the strenuous wartime physical work Britons would likely have to perform. The scientists found that the subjects' health and performance remained very good after three months; the only negative results were the increased time needed for meals to consume the necessary calories from bread and potatoes, and what they described as a "remarkable" increase in flatulence from the large amount of starch in the diet. The scientists also noted that their faeces had increased by 250% in volume.
The results—kept secret until after the war—gave the government confidence that, if necessary, food could be distributed equally to all, including high-value war workers, without causing widespread health problems. Britons' actual wartime diet was never as severe as in the Cambridge study because imports from the United States avoided the U-boats, but rationing improved the health of British people; infant mortality declined and life expectancy rose, excluding deaths caused by hostilities. This was because it ensured that everyone had access to a varied diet with enough vitamins.
The standard rations during the Second World War were as follows. Quantities are per week unless otherwise stated.
|Item||Maximum level||Minimum level||April 1945|
|Bacon and ham||8 oz (227 g)||4 oz (113 g)||4 oz (113 g)|
|Sugar||16 oz (454 g)||8 oz (227 g)||8 oz (227 g)|
|Loose tea||4 oz (113 g)||2 oz (57 g)||2 oz (57 g)|
|Meat||1 s. 2d.||1s||1s. 2d. (equivalent to £2.31 in 2016)[a 1]|
|Cheese||8 oz (227 g)||1 oz (28 g)||2 oz (57 g)
Vegetarians were allowed an extra 3 oz (85 g) cheese
|Preserves||1 lb (0.45 kg) per month
2 lb (0.91 kg) marmalade
|8 oz (227 g) per month||2 lb (0.91 kg) marmalade
or 1 lb (0.45 kg) preserve
or 1 lb (0.45 kg) sugar
|Butter||8 oz (227 g)||2 oz (57 g)||2 oz (57 g)|
|Margarine||12 oz (340 g)||4 oz (113 g)||4 oz (113 g)|
|Lard||3 oz (85 g)||2 oz (57 g)||2 oz (57 g)|
|Sweets||16 oz (454 g) per month||8 oz (227 g) per month||12 oz (340 g) per month|
|Item||Army Rations Home Service Scale||Seamen on weekly articles|
|Meat||5 lb 4 oz (2.4 kg)||2 lb 10 oz (1.2 kg)||2 lb 3 oz (0.99 kg)|
|Bacon and ham
(uncooked, free of bone)
|8 oz (230 g)||9 oz (260 g)||8 oz (230 g)|
|Butter and margarine||13 1⁄4 oz (380 g) (in any proportions of butter and margarine)||10 1⁄2 oz (300 g) (margarine only)||10 1⁄2 oz (300 g)
(not more than 3 1⁄2 oz (99 g) butter)
|Cheese||4 oz (110 g)||4 oz (110 g)||4 oz (110 g)|
|Cooking fats||2 oz (57 g) (may be taken in the form of margarine)||-||-|
|Sugar||1 lb 14 oz (850 g)||14 oz (400 g)||14 oz (400 g)|
|Tea||4 oz (110 g)||2 oz (57 g)||2 oz (57 g))|
||7 oz (200 g)
jam, marmalade or syrup)
|10 1⁄2 oz (300 g)
(jam, marmalade, syrup)
1s 2d bought about 1 lb 3 oz (540 g) of meat. Offal and sausages were only rationed from 1942 to 1944. When sausages were not rationed, the meat needed to make them was so scarce that they often contained a high proportion of bread. Eggs were rationed and "allocated to ordinary consumers as available"; in 1944 thirty allocations of one egg each were made. Children and some invalids were allowed three a week; expectant mothers two on each allocation.
Milk was supplied at 3 imp pt (1.7 l) each week with priority for expectant mothers and children under 5; 3.5 imp pt (2.0 l) for those under 18; children unable to attend school 5 imp pt (2.8 l), certain invalids up to 14 imp pt (8.0 l). Each consumer received one tin of milk powder (equivalent to 8 imperial pints or 4.5 litres) every eight weeks.
Persons falling within the following descriptions were allowed 8 oz (230 g) of cheese a week in place of the general ration of 3 oz (85 g):
|Quantity||Coupons to be
|Diabetes||Butter and margarine||12 oz (340 g) (not more than 4 oz (110 g) butter)||Sugar|
|Diabetes||Meat||2s. 4d., adult 1s, 2d., child under six||Sugar|
|Diabetes—vegetarians only||Cheese||8 oz (230 g)||Sugar|
|Hypoglycaemia||Sugar||16 oz (450 g)||-|
|Steatorrhoea||Meat||4s. 8d. adult, 2s. 4d. child under six||Butter and margarine|
|Nephritis with gross
albuminuria and gross oedema,
|Meat||3s. 6d. adult, 1s. 9d. child under six|
There were 66 points for clothing per year; in 1942 it was cut to 48, in 1943 to 36, and in 1945 to 24. In 1945, an overcoat (wool and fully lined) was 18 coupons; a man's suit, 26–29 (according to lining); men's shoes, 9; women's shoes, 7; woollen dresses, 11. Children aged 14–16 got 20 more coupons. Clothing rationing points could be used for wool, cotton and household textiles. People had extra points for work clothes, such as overalls for factory work. No points were required for second-hand clothing or fur coats, but their prices were fixed. Before rationing lace and frills were popular on knickers but these were soon banned so that material could be saved. From March to May 1942 austerity measures were introduced which restricted the number of buttons, pockets and pleats (among other things) on clothes.
Clothes rationing ended on 15 March 1949.
All types of soap were rationed. Coupons were allotted by weight or (if liquid) by quantity. In 1945, the ration gave four coupons each month; babies and some workers and invalids were allowed more. A coupon would yield:
The Fuel and Lighting (Coal) Order 1941 came into force in January 1942. Central heating was prohibited "in the summer months". Domestic coal was rationed to 15 long hundredweight (1,680 lb; 762.0 kg) for those in London and the south of England; 20 long hundredweight (2,240 lb; 1,016 kg) for the rest (the southern part of England having generally a milder climate). Some kinds of coal such as anthracite were not rationed, and in the coal-mining areas were eagerly gathered as they were in the Great Depression (see The Road to Wigan Pier).
Newspapers were limited from September 1939, at first to 60% of their pre-war consumption of newsprint. Paper supply came under the No 48 Paper Control Order, 4 September 1942 and was controlled by the Ministry of Production. By 1945 newspapers were limited to 25% of their pre-war consumption. Wrapping paper for most goods was prohibited.
The paper shortage often made it more difficult than usual for authors to get work published. In 1944, George Orwell wrote:
In Mr Stanley Unwin's recent pamphlet Publishing in Peace and War, some interesting facts are given about the quantities of paper allotted by the Government for various purposes. Here are the present figures:
Newspapers 250,000 tons H. M. Stationery Office 100,000 tons Periodicals (nearly) 50,000 tons Books 22,000 tons
A particularly interesting detail is that out of the 100,000 tons allotted to the Stationery Office, the War Office gets no less than 25,000 tons, or more than the whole of the book trade put together. ... At the same time paper for books is so short that even the most hackneyed "classic" is liable to be out of print, many schools are short of textbooks, new writers get no chance to start and even established writers have to expect a gap of a year or two years between finishing a book and seeing it published.
Whether rationed or not, many consumer goods became difficult to obtain because of the shortage of components. Examples included razor blades, baby bottles, alarm clocks, frying pans and pots. Balloons and sugar for cakes for birthday parties were partially or completely unavailable. Many fathers saved bits of wood to build toys for Christmas presents, and Christmas trees were almost impossible to obtain due to timber rationing.
On 8 May 1945, the Second World War ended in Europe, but rationing continued. Some aspects of rationing became stricter for some years after the war. At the time this was presented as needed to feed people in European areas under British control, whose economies had been devastated by the fighting. This was partly true, but with many British men still mobilised in the armed forces, an austere economic climate, and a centrally-planned economy under the post-war Labour government, resources were not available to expand food production and food imports. Frequent strikes by some workers (most critically dock workers) made things worse. A common ration book fraud was the ration books of the dead being kept and used by the living.
In the late 1940s the Conservative Party exploited and incited growing public anger at rationing, scarcity, controls, austerity and government bureaucracy. They used the dissatisfaction with the socialistic and egalitarian policies of the Labour Party to rally middle-class supporters and build a political comeback that won the 1951 general election. Their appeal was especially effective to housewives, who faced more difficult shopping conditions after the war than during it.
Although rationing formally ended in 1954, cheese production remained depressed for decades afterwards. During rationing, most milk in Britain was used to make one kind of cheese, nicknamed Government Cheddar (not to be confused with the government cheese issued by the US welfare system). This wiped out nearly all other cheese production in the country, and some indigenous varieties of cheese almost disappeared. Later government controls on milk prices through the Milk Marketing Board continued to discourage production of other varieties of cheese until well into the 1980s, and it was only in the mid-1990s (following the effective abolition of the MMB) that the revival of the British cheese industry began in earnest.
Petrol coupons were issued for a short time as preparation for the possibility of petrol rationing during the 1973 oil crisis. The rationing never came about, in large part because increasing North Sea oil production allowed the UK to offset much of the lost imports. By the time of the 1979 energy crisis, the United Kingdom had become a net exporter of oil, so on that occasion the government did not even have to consider petrol rationing.
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