Why was there lack of food during WW2 in the UK?

Why was there lack of food during WW2 in the UK?

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Why was there lack of food during the WW2 in the UK?

I understand the lack of food in the countries occupied by Germans, as they recruited a lot of agricultural products for their war machinery. But why there had to be ration books in the non-occupied UK, which had to feed more or less the same amount of people as before the war? What was the mechanism leading to the lack of food there?

There wasn't a lack of food in the UK, not in the sense that people weren't getting enough to eat or were suffering malnutrition. What there was is a lack of variety of food. Anything which was imported (citrus, tropical fruits, tea, coffee, sugar), expensive (meat) or important to the war effort (fats, meat, canned anything) would be rationed. Rationing was also introduced to prevent hoarding, shortages, price gouging and ensure everyone got their fair share.

Ian McCollum spent a week eating according to the British rationing plan to see what it's like. His British Ration Week series records his findings, as well as discusses the rationing plan in detail, its architect Lord Woolton, and its egalitarian aspects. I'd suggest watching it to get a visceral feel for what they were eating.

It has even been claimed that people in the UK were healthier during the war because they were eating a healthier diet prescribed by the Ministry Of Food. The ration cards ensured everyone got enough, and also that few ate to excess. The study assumed everyone "could eat as much potato, vegetables, and wholemeal bread as they wanted". This was a fair assumption, they were not rationed during the war.

The UK had to feed a population of about 50 million during WWII. At the start of the war it imported…

70% of its food; this required 20 million tons of shipping a year. 50% of meat was imported, 70% of cheese and sugar, 80% of fruits, 70% of cereals and fats, 91% of butter. Of this, 1/6th of meat imports, 1/4 of butter imports and 1/2 of cheese imports came from New Zealand alone, a long ways away by shipping lanes.

It's wrong to conclude that Britain could not feed itself. Some of this would be imported as luxuries, others for economic reasons, that it was cheaper to import food than produce it locally. When Britain realized it was going to war, local food production was ramped up. (If anyone has UK agricultural production numbers for 1935-1950 that would be great)

On top of food, Britain imported fuel, raw materials and manufactured goods. Wartime requirements increased these needs dramatically requiring a million tons of imported material per week to stay alive and in the fight. Wartime priorities meant luxurious food items would be skipped.

British shipping was quite vulnerable to attack, and the early loss of France and Norway allowed the Germans to put aircraft and submarines even closer to the UK. The British were losing hundreds of thousands of tons of shipping each month putting further strain on their supply line.

Finally, the wartime needs meant that much of the traditional farming population were needed for the war effort. By war's end 7.6 million people, 15% of the population, served in the British military. Plus more working in factories producing war goods. This left a shortage of farm labour. The Women's Land Army was formed, first as volunteers and later by conscription, to make up the shortfall.

Farmers increased the number of acres under cultivation from 12,000,000 to 18,000,000, and the farm labor force was expanded by a fifth, thanks especially to the Women's Land Army.

UK, like most other developed (and not so developed) countries, does not produce all food that it consumes. Some food is imported. In the case of UK during WW2 much of the food was imported. As the war started,

a) the oceans became dangerous. Because of the German cruisers and submarines.

b) the shipping capacities were needed for other purposes (to ship troops and military supplies) So there was a shortage of shipping.

For these reasons, there was a shortage of food, and they had to introduce rationing.

A less important reason in the case of UK, but important for other countries like Soviet Union, was the shortage of labor in agriculture, because of the military draft. But I don't think this third reason was important for UK.

EDIT. On the discussion in comments about "when was the world globalized". It is well known that the major source of food for ancient Rome was Egypt. And sometimes this was reason for major wars.

UK you see was prepared for the ravages of the incoming war. Proper policymaking during war times prevented UK from the ravages the axis occupied countries experienced. UK also had an advantage of having occupied a country like India from where they supplied food to both the civilians & the soldiers however this was also the reason of massive food shortages in India which resulted in the 1943 Bengal Famine.

Rationing and ultimately food "shortages" are an inevitable consequence of command economies.

What happens is that the government orders that certain goods must be sold at a particular prices. They do this so that THEY, meaning the government need only pay low amount to feed their soldiers. This process is contagious, because if you just fix the price of, say, wheat, then farmers will stop growing wheat and grow corn instead. Therefore, ALL prices have to be fixed.

Once prices are fixed, production decreases because it is less profitable to make the good. Therefore, you have smaller amounts of goods at lower prices. Everyone scrambles to buy at the artificially low prices. For various reasons suppliers will often prefer to sell to retail customers, not to the government at these low prices. To stop this the government uses "rationing". Private people are only allowed to buy limited amounts, all the rest must be sold to the government (at the artificially low price).

In many cases even this is unworkable, so the government simply makes it illegal to sell to anyone except the government. For example, in both England and the USA it was illegal to sell butter or eggs or meat to private people. Only the government (or privileged people like doctors) could legal buy such things. Private people could only legally buy margarine and other such substitutes.

My grandmother described the margarine she (and everyone else) had to buy instead of butter. It came in a plastic bag and had a packet of a red dye. You would empty the dye packet into the margarine bag, which was a white goo. Then you would squish it around inside the bag and it would turn yellow. That was your "butter". The limited amount of real butter went to government officials and soldiers.

Question Politics Radar

Obviously this a politically sensitive subject. As can been seen from the apologetic nature of the other (so-called) answers (and nit-picking my answer), noone wants to suggest that Britain (or the USA) did something wrong or oppressive by rationing. Thus, what you may read (even in economics textbooks) is a long list of rationales and excuses--explanations of why rationing was "necessary". One answer above even went so far as to excuse rationing because it supposedly was HEALTHIER, LOL. By that logic we should praise concentration camp starvation because it cleaned out the arteries of all the inmates, no heart disease! My answer above honesty explains why rationing occurs and why it causes shortages. You can read economists like Mises for more detailed explanations along the same lines. Mises, who believed rationing is never necessary, brilliantly led Austria's economy to stability as a chief advisor and minister, even though Austria LOST the Great War. Compare to Britain which WON WW2, yet was still rationing years later.

Why was there lack of food during WW2 in the UK? - History

Why was food rationed in Britain in World War II?

Before the Second World War started Britain imported about 55 million tons of food a year from other countries. After war was declared in September 1939, the British government had to cut down on the amount of food it brought in from abroad as German submarines started attacking British supply ships. There was a worry that this would lead to shortages of food supplies in the shops so the British government decided to introduce a system of rationing.

Rationing made sure that people got an equal amount of food every week. The government was worried that as food became scarcer, prices would rise and poorer people might not be able to afford to eat. There was also a danger that some people might hoard food, leaving none for others.

Ration books - notice the dates
These ration books were issued to Doris and Montague Corri .

How long was food rationed for?

Rationing of food lasted for 14 years and ended on July 4, 1954.

How did food rationing work?

Every person in Britain was given a ration book. They had to register and buy their food from their chosen shops. There were no supermarkets, so people had to visit several different shops to buy meat, vegetables, bread and other goods.

When people wanted to buy some food, the items they bought were crossed off in their ration book by the shopkeeper.

Page inside a ration book

What were the first food items to be rationed?

On 8 January 1940, bacon, butter and sugar were rationed.

What other food items were rationed?

Many different foods were added to the food ration list during the war. These included:

meat (Mar 1940) jam (Mar 1941) biscuits ( Aug 1942),
fish tea (Jul 1940) breakfast cereals,
cheese (May 1941) eggs (June 1941) milk,
tinned tomatoes (Feb. 1942) peas (Feb. 1942) dried fruit Jan 1942
rice (Jan 1942) canned fruit, cooking fat (Jul 1940)

Some foods such as potatoes, fruit and fish were not rationed.

How much food was one person allowed to buy per week during the war?

The weekly ration varied from month to month as foods became more or less plentiful.

A typical ration for one adult per week was:

Butter: 50g (2oz) Bacon and ham: 100g (4oz) Margarine: 100g (4oz)
Sugar: 225g (8oz). Meat: To the value of 1s.2d (one shilling and sixpence per week. That is about 6p today) Milk: 3 pints (1800ml) occasionally dropping to 2 pints (1200ml).
Cheese: 2oz (50g) Eggs: 1 fresh egg a week. Tea: 50g (2oz).
Jam: 450g (1lb) every two months. Dried eggs 1 packet every four weeks. Sweets: 350g (12oz) every four weeks

A weeks supply of rationed food for an adult

In addition to the above food, everyone was allowed 16 points per month to use on what ever food items they wished.

How did the government make sure people had enough food?

People were encouraged to provide their own food at home. The 'Dig for Victory' campaign started in October 1939 and called for every man and woman to keep an allotment. Lawns and flower-beds were turned into vegetable gardens. Chickens, rabbits, goats and pigs were reared in town parks and gardens.

Food rationing lasted for 14 years in Britain, from 1940 until 1954.

Rationing continued even after the war ended:

In 1946, when food was just as short as during the preceding years, bread was added to the ration and the sweet ration was halved.

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Food queue in Reading during the First World War

Food shortages and rationing were not only an issue during the Second World War, as this food queue in Reading during the First World War highlights. The need to queue was lessened when rationing was introduced during 1918. Rationing also ensured equality of food distribution.

In Russia and Turkey the distribution of food broke down. The Russian revolution had its origins in urban food riots. In Turkey many starved. Austria-Hungary eventually succumbed to the same calamity.

Germany introduced numerous government controls on food production and sale, but these proved to be badly thought out and worsened the effects of the British naval blockade. Substitute foodstuffs were produced from a variety of unappetising ingredients, but their nutritional value was negligible and Germans became increasingly malnourished from 1916 onwards.

The weekly food ration for two people, UK, 1943

This photograph shows the amounts of butter, milk, bacon, lard, sugar, cheese, tea and jam received by two people per week in Britain.

Every citizen was issued with a booklet, which he took to a registered shopkeeper to receive supplies. At first, only bacon, butter and sugar were rationed. But gradually, the list grew: meat was rationed from 11 March 1940 cooking fats in July 1940, as was tea while cheese and preserves joined in March and May 1941.

Allowances fluctuated throughout the war, but on average one adult’s weekly ration was 113g bacon and ham (about 4 thin slices), one shilling and ten pence worth of meat (about 227g minced beef), 57g butter, 57g cheese, 113g margarine, 113g cooking fat, 3 pints of milk, 227g sugar, 57g tea and 1 egg. Other foods such as canned meat, fish, rice, condensed milk, breakfast cereals, biscuits and vegetables were available but in limited quantities on a points system.

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.

Many people grew their own vegetables, greatly encouraged by the highly successful digging for victory motivational campaign. 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.

After the war had finished, the pain continued. On 27 May 1945, just three weeks after Victory in Europe Day, rations were actually reduced, bacon from 4oz to 3oz and cooking fat from 2oz to just one. So it is of no surprise that when restrictions were lifted on 30 June 1954, when meat stopped being rationed, people reacted with delight. That December, color returned to the once dull streets of Britain, and shop windows were piled high with sweets.

The sheer joy of this moment comes across in a report in The Times, on 20 December: “The shops display an almost Dickensian abundance of sweets and foods to supplement the turkey and the pudding which are the mainstays of the season’s menu. Besides the usual crop of spaniels, galleons and crinolined ladies, the lids of the biscuit tins sport any number of quasi-artistic designs, from a cross-stitch sampler to a gaudy circus scene”.

Saving food, saving lives: rationing in the Second World War

This week marks the anniversary of food rationing being introduced in Britain, beginning with bacon, butter and sugar, during the Second World War. Feeding the nation during wartime was a serious business. Ina Zweiniger-Bargielowska describes the women's war on the kitchen front

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Published: January 7, 2021 at 9:00 am

A report by the social research organisation Mass Observation on the food situation in 1941 noted the “difficulty of eking out rations with unrationed foodstuff, the high prices, particularly of perishable foods, shortages and the consequent queues, occupy the first place in the average working woman’s present-day life”. The point was made succinctly by a Mass Observation diarist who “invariably” asked his wife what her friends said about the war before writing his entry. She “always” replied, “‘Nothing, they don’t discuss it. They are more concerned about what to get for tea’ – which is, I suppose, after all a war topic”.

In the Second World War the civilian population had to cope with extensive rationing of food and clothing as well as severe shortages of other consumer goods as economic resources were diverted towards the war effort. During this period of austerity, housewives acquired an increased status because the successful implementation of rationing and other domestic economy measures was vital in maintaining civilian health and morale.

This pivotal female contribution was recognised by the government. For example a Ministry of Food leaflet declared: “The line of Food Defence runs through all our homes … The woman with the basket has a vital part to play in home defence. By saving food you may be saving lives”. The housewife’s daily battle on the kitchen front was as critical to victory as that of the soldier or the worker in essential industries.

Food was undoubtedly a major concern for women in wartime, but this did not mean that they were uninterested in the wider war effort. Clara Milburn, a middle-aged, middle-class housewife who lived in a village a few miles from Coventry, commented on the progress of the war in considerable detail in her diary.

Anxious about her son who was a German prisoner of war, Milburn accepted wartime sacrifice. She considered the extension of food rationing in the summer of 1940 as “all to the good”. Nevertheless, Milburn lamented rising prices and growing shortages of unrationed foods and other goods.

Following the introduction of clothes rationing in 1941, she commented that, “Life is certainly queer now, with coupons for clothes (margarine coupons at that) and very ordinary commodities like potatoes kept in the shops for regular customers only!”

Timeline: when did food rationing begin and end?

January 1940 | Food rationing begins: butter, bacon, ham and sugar rationed

March 1940 |Meat rationed

July 1940 |Tea and margarine rationed

May 1941 |Cheese rationed

June 1941 |Clothes rationed

December 1941 |Points rationing introduced for canned and processed foods

February 1942 |Soap rationed

July 1942 |Chocolate and sweets rationed

May 1949 |Clothes rationing abolished

May 1950 |Points rationing abolished

September 1950 |Soap derationed

October 1952 |Tea derationed

February 1953 |Sweets rationing abolished

May 1954 |Cheese and fats derationed

July 1954 |Meat, bacon and ham derationed, marking the end of food rationing

How to stop the grabbing

Nella Last, a middle-aged, working-class housewife, started writing her diary as a Mass Observation volunteer. She lived in Barrow-in-Furness, which like Coventry suffered severely from bombing raids. Last, who remembered the look of “beyond” in the faces of young men volunteering in 1914, responded to Chamberlain’s declaration of war with resignation and she worried about her two adult sons.

Last was rather more critical than Milburn and in 1942 she wrote that the “present rationing system has been a farce”. Last deplored the fact that there were many who “got more than their share”. She grudgingly endorsed strict rationing. “Much as I dislike coupons and chits, I think it’s the only fair way to stop overlapping and grabbing”. Wartime surveys show that housewives generally welcomed the introduction of a comprehensive food policy and nine out of ten supported rationing.

Food rationing and shortages made the housewife’s task more arduous and women’s time became an important national resource in the exceptional circumstances of war. Women’s tendency to spend their time caring for their families rather than indulging in personal leisure pursuits was utilised by the state as an indispensable aspect of the austerity policy.

An avalanche of propaganda informed housewives on the details of food policy, advised them on how to make the most of scarce resources and suggested new recipes such as ‘mock’ dishes. With the introduction of clothes rationing, soap rationing and shortages of virtually all household goods, housewives learned how to “make do and mend” to maintain at least a semblance of customary standards and domestic rituals.

The introduction of clothes rationing affected women to a greater extent than men. The policy was not just a concern of the young and fashionable. Mothers worried about clothing children under rationing and surrendering coupons for household linen – part of the ration since 1942 – became a continuous source of grievance. Satisfaction with food increased as ration levels stabilised from 1942 onwards, but there was no shift towards contentment with regard to the clothing situation in Home Intelligence morale reports. Another problem was the shortage of soap and in 1943 Milburn wrote in her diary: “never in all my life have I been so short of soap – a nasty feeling”.

Shopping became increasingly difficult in the course of the war. Milburn lamented the “miserable” look of shops in 1942 as shelves were “getting emptier and emptier”. “Many things were not obtainable” any more “so one just had the weekly ration”. Likewise, Last wandered around a market with many stalls closed and few goods available with “sadness” in her heart. In contrast with the “joyous” prewar atmosphere of “meet-a-friend-and-have-a-chat” nowadays “grim-faced women queue and push – and hurry off to another queue when served”.

To purchase unrationed foods and other scarce items required queuing, and food queues were an unremitting problem. Home Intelligence morale reports described food queues as a “bigger menace to public morale than several serious German air raids” in February 1941. Housewives did most of the queuing, yet this was a task that working women and mothers of young children had real difficulty finding time to do. According to a Mass Observation report, to a “great extent queues have been the trial of the women rather than the men. Men have felt the lack of variety of food at the dinner table, but they have not gone through the tiring ordeal of queuing, for what there is in front of them”.

Used to economising, Last prided herself on being a “good cook and manager”. She did all her own baking and cooked stews stretching cheap cuts of meat into a filling meal. Her husband appreciated her abilities: “By Jove, when I hear some men talking about what they get to eat, I realise how lucky I am”.

Making sacrifices in war

The Milburns had a large garden and homegrown vegetables augmented the family’s rations considerably. However, digging for victory required not only access to a suitable plot of land, but also time and Clara Milburn’s diary reveals the effort and frustrations involved. By contrast, relatively little came of Nella Last’s plan to grow vegetables in her back garden. However, she kept hens and the family had plenty of eggs.

Housewives frequently shielded men and children from the full impact of the reduction in consumption that accompanied rationing, a sacrifice that extended across the social spectrum. Nevertheless, female morale was generally high during the war, the overwhelming majority of housewives considered themselves to be well fed and they accepted the necessity of sacrifice for the duration.

How wartime affected cosmetics and fashion

Stimulated by women’s magazines and the cinema, demand for fashionable clothes and beauty products was high on the eve of war. With unprecedented levels of female employment, demand for cosmetics increased further during hostilities. In the wake of clothes rationing, women focused on elaborate makeup, inventive hairstyles and coupon-free accessories to counterbalance the limitations of their wardrobe. As Doris White, a young engineering worker, put it: “Our aim in life seemed to concern our faces and hair”. A wartime survey shows that the overwhelming majority of working women and 90 per cent of the under-30s used cosmetics regularly.

Women’s right and duty to maintain a fashionable appearance was portrayed as critical to female morale. The magazine Woman proclaimed in December 1939: “Nowadays beauty is a duty, since it cheers and inspires both yourself and others”. The firm Yardley coined the slogan “Put your best face forward” and one advert declared, “Never should we forget that good looks and good morale go hand in hand”.

Cosmetics or toilet preparations were never rationed, but official production was cut by 75 per cent of prewar output to economise on labour and raw materials. According to the Board of Trade, which was in charge of controlling domestic consumer goods, the industry actually produced over half of prewar output in 1941. At the same time, the only cosmetics “normally” seen in shops were of “very obscure and, in most case, illegal origins”. The report concluded that new legislation would “deal with the most important abuses, but there is little doubt that the black market will merely move on to some other forms of evasion”.

The possibility of prohibiting the industry entirely was discussed in 1942. This proposal was rejected in view of the “uproar which prohibition would evoke” because in order to sustain morale “women must have lipstick and powder”. Instead, the Board introduced increasingly tight regulation, and legislation governing the control of cosmetics was changed eight times in six years. This policy dealt a “blow at the Black Market”, but new loopholes continued to be exploited.

One example was the appearance of a product called Laddastop following the prohibition of nail varnish, which required scarce solvent-based substances, in 1943. Marketed to stop ladders in silk stockings, Laddastop was pink and sold in small bottles with a brush for application. A Board of Trade official lamented that the “Black Market has defeated us”, because manufacturers claimed that they were not producing a toilet preparation at all. The predicament was resolved by a Ministry of Supply order which prohibited preparations containing the banned solvents in bottles less than half a pint in size.

Ina Zweiniger-Bargielowska is an associate professor of modern British history at the University of Illinois, Chicago. She is author of Austerity in Britain: Rationing, Controls, and Consumption (Oxford University Press, 2000).

Food in Britain in the 1950s and 1960s

Ask any American in their 60s or 70s who is the best cook he or she knows, and they will almost certainly reply, “My mom”. Ask any English person of a similar age and they will almost certainly name anyone BUT their mother.

You could be kind and blame this lack of British culinary skill on rationing. Rationing continued even after the end of World War II indeed, when the Queen came to the throne in 1952, sugar, butter, cheese, margarine, cooking fat, bacon, meat and tea were all still rationed. Rationing did not actually finish until 1954, with sugar rationing ending in 1953 and meat rationing in 1954.

Rationing and the meagre choice of ingredients and flavourings, whilst concentrating the cook’s mind on creating filling and satisfying meals, would preclude even the best of cooks from creating cordon bleu dishes. Food was seasonal (no tomatoes in winter for example) there were no supermarkets, no frozen food or freezers to store it in and the only takeaway was from the fish and chip shop.

The 1950s were the age of spam fritters (now making a comeback!), salmon sandwiches, tinned fruit with evaporated milk, fish on Fridays and ham salad for high tea every Sunday. The only way to add flavour to this bland plain cooking was with tomato ketchup or brown sauce.

There were no salad dressings as we know them today. Olive oil was only sold in very small bottles from the chemist, to be warmed and placed in the ear to loosen ear wax! Salad in the summer consisted of round lettuce, cucumber and tomatoes, and the only dressing available was Heinz Salad Cream. In the winter, salad was often thinly sliced white cabbage, onions and carrots, again served with Salad Cream. Heinz also did a range of tinned salads: Potato Salad, Vegetable Salad and Coleslaw.

Sample menu for a week’s meals from a 1951 cookery book

‘Meat and two veg’ was the staple diet for most families in the 1950s and 1960s. The average family rarely if ever ate out. The closest most people came to eating out was in the pub. There you could get potato crisps (three flavours only – potato, plain or salted – until Golden Wonder launched ‘cheese and onion’ in 1962), a pickled egg to go on top, and perhaps a pasty or some cockles, winkles and whelks from the seafood man on a Friday, Saturday or Sunday evening.

Things started to change when the UK’s answer to the burger bars in America arrived in the 1950s to cater for that new group of consumers, the ‘teenagers’. The first Wimpy Bars opened in 1954 selling hamburgers and milkshakes and proved extremely popular.

The late 1950s and 1960s saw a rise in immigration from the former British colonies. And with them came at last…flavour!!

Although the first Chinese restaurant in London was opened in 1908, the real spread of Chinese restaurants began in the late 1950s and 1960s with the influx of migrants from Hong Kong. These proved very popular indeed in 1958 Billy Butlin introduced chop suey and chips into his holiday camps!

The 1960s also saw a dramatic rise in the number and spread of Indian restaurants in Britain, especially in London and the South East. During rationing it had been very difficult if not near impossible, to obtain the spices required for Indian cooking but with the rise in immigration from the Indian subcontinent and the end of rationing, this was no longer a problem and the restaurants flourished.

So much so that in the late 1960s, the first Indian and Chinese ‘convenience foods’ became available: the famous Vesta curries and Vesta Chow Mein, the first taste for many Britons of ‘foreign food’.

Also about this time a new drink in town appeared – lager. This light cold beer was the perfect partner for the new spicy food.

The late 1960s saw a boom in the British economy and a dramatic rise in the standard of living. The first package holidays to Europe started in the late 60s and made overseas travel affordable to all. This too played its part in tempting the British palate with tasty new foods and ingredients.

By the late 60s and early 70s dinner parties had become very popular, featuring the new fashionable ‘foreign’ dishes like Spaghetti Bolognese, often accompanied by wine. Before the 1960s wine was only drunk by the upper classes, everyone else drank beer, stout, pale ale and port and lemon. Now Blue Nun, Chianti and Mateus Rose were the wines of choice. Many spaghetti novices spent their evenings chasing their food around the plate attempting to catch it in the fork and spoon provided, whilst trying to avoid splattering themselves with thick tomato sauce.

Pre-dinner drinks were often accompanied by cubes of tinned pineapple and cheddar cheese on sticks, stuck into a melon or grapefruit to look like a hedgehog – the height of 60s sophistication!

Also at this time, chains of restaurants such as the Berni Inns began to appear in every British town and city, serving the classic 1970s favourites of Melon or Prawn Cocktail, Mixed Grill or Steak, and Black Forest Gateau or Lemon Meringue Pie for dessert.

Even nightclubs began to offer food. The Tiffanys chain of nightclubs served that great 1970s snack of sausage, chicken or scampi ‘in a basket’ to late night revellers.

The decades between 1954 and 1974 saw a dramatic turning point in British eating habits. From a nation still dealing with rationing in 1954 and whose staple diet was plain home cooking, by 1975 not only were we eating out on a regular basis, we were becoming addicted to the new spicy foods available and the nation’s love affair with Chicken Tikka Masala had well and truly begun.

Shopping for Food In World War Two Britain

Once the ration booklets were received for that year, you would take them and register them at the grocery stores you intended to use them at.

British WW2 ration booklet stores registration

Note the plural, stores. This was before the days of supermarkets. You went to different stores for different items: the greengrocer, the butcher, the baker, the fishmonger, etc. You would register at one store for meat, another for dry goods, etc. Sometimes, a grocer would sell more than one of the rationed items, and you could register for purchasing both there, if you wished. Shoppers would debate whether it was best to spread their registration slots around to different stores, in the hopes of spotting more items suddenly appearing for sale, or to concentrate them all at one store, in hopes of gaining favoured customer status for special items held back under the shop counter.

The exception was tea ration coupons: you could use them at any store you wished. You did not need to register them. Note that the tea then would have been loose tea, not tea bags, as tea bags hadn’t caught on at the time. And as for using it, the Ministry of Food advised “one spoonful for each person and none for the pot.”

New ration books were issued about once a year. That was a good time to change who you were registered with, if you wanted to. You could change at other times, if you wished, but it was tricky to do so without offending a shop keeper that you might later need to return to or want favours from later.

Shopkeepers got just enough food for the customers they had registered with them. Stores were encouraged to form Traders’ Mutual Aid Pacts, to allow each other to temporarily take over looking after a store’s registered customers if that store were bombed out.

A family member could go to the store with all the ration books for that family (in practice, it was usually the mother.) You showed the shop keeper your coupons that allowed you to make the purchases. If they were regular ration coupons, the shop keeper then cancelled them in the booklet with a stamp. If you were using points coupons, they were cut out. Then, you passed over the money for that purchase.

If you had used up all the coupons for an item for that week, or points for that four week period, then that was that until the next time period. No amount of money could get you the items in question.

Even if you didn’t want your rations or need all of a particular rationed item that you were entitled to, most people bought them anyway, and sold them, usually at cost, or traded them, to friends or neighbours who would want them.

The Black Market

The black market was a response to rationing that was introduced during World War Two. While illegal, the black market became a driving force in the Home Front especially in the cities – for those who could afford the prices.

The activities of German U-boats in the Atlantic greatly restricted the amount of food that came into the country. Therefore the government had to introduce rationing so that everyone got a fair share – primarily of food. However, this led to a gap in the market, which was filled by those involved in black market activities. While cigarettes and alcohol were never rationed they were in short supply. Both these commodities were invariably acquired via the black market. The Ministry of Food investigated complaints against those suspected of being involved in the black market and the penalties for those caught could be severe – a fine of £500 and a possible two years in prison. The government also required offenders to pay three times the value of what they had been caught selling on top of the fine. By the standards of the time, a fine of £500 alone should have been a major deterrent let alone a prison sentence. However, these did not put off many of those involved. Their customers had no reason to inform the government, as they themselves would lose out if the only way to acquire what they wanted was through the black market. Therefore, the government fought a never-ending battle with those involved in the black market and possibly one that they could not win despite appointing 900 inspectors to enforce the law.

“You’d probably hear that there’d be some sugar about somewhere, if you could find your way to it, which had ‘fallen’ off the back of a lorry. Pheasants ‘came’ out of trees too.” (Jennifer Davies)

People most associated with the black market were commonly known as ‘spivs’. This was thought at the time to be ‘VIPS’ back-to-front. However, some believe that it came from a horse racing background or from the London Police who had SPIVS – ‘Suspected Persons and Itinerant Vagrants’. ‘Spiv’ was also the nickname of Henry Bagster, an infamous London crook from the start of the century.

In numerous post-war films and in the 1960’s/1970’s sitcom ‘Dad’s Army’, spivs were frequently portrayed as loveable rogues. There is little research to ascertain just how accurate such a portrayal was. However, it is probably a mythical one simply because so much money was at stake and the profits made by those involved in the black market could be great. The main source of food for the black market came from farmers. They got more out of the relationship than if they provided the government with all their food. Within towns and cities the blackout helped those involved in the black market, as it was easier to break into warehouses undetected. Docks were another source of illicit goods.

However, as might be expected in wartime when everyone was expected to ‘do their bit’, the activities of the spivs and their suppliers were not well received by all. A Member of Parliament called their activities “treason of the worst kind” and there were Parliamentary calls for the maximum five-year term in prison to be increased.

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UK Ministry of Food Ration Book. Source: Imperial War Museum (EPH 1751)

The Second World War began in September 1939, when Nazi Germany's invasion of Poland resulted in Britain and France declaring war on Germany. Based on their experiences during the First World War, the British government expected that the conflict would become a ‘Total War’, meaning that all resources of society would be have to be mobilized, and that civilians would also be affected by the war. At the time, Britain was a net importer of food, which made the country particularly vulnerable to disturbances in the global food market. In order to prevent serious shortages, as early as 1936 the British Ministry of Food had begun to make plans for the supply, control and distribution of foodstuffs. In addition to making stockpiles and preparing food control policies, by the summer of 1939 the Ministry had already printed 50 million ration books, ready to be used when necessary.

The first commodity to be rationed in late 1939 was petrol, followed in January 1940 by the first foodstuffs: bacon, ham, butter, and sugar. Other products soon followed, especially foods that were normally imported or came from scarce animal sources, such as meat, cheese, margarine, eggs, milk, tea, breakfast cereals, rice, and biscuits. By mid-1942 most foodstuffs were rationed, except fresh vegetables, fruit, fish and bread. Other scarce commodities were rationed too, such as clothing, shoes, fuel, and soap.

As the war progressed, the rationing system was refined to accommodate different needs. In order to ensure the fairest allocation of food possible, the Ministry of Food created classifications according to age and profession. Workers doing heavy labour were entitled to larger rations than other adult workers children received smaller rations but relatively higher proportions of fats and proteins, and nursing or expectant mothers were entitled to larger allotments of milk and other animal-source foodstuffs. Supplementary rations were also given to the sick and people doing work that was considered to be detrimental to their health.

Rationing involved a complex purchasing system. Similar to the situation in many German-occupied countries, each person received a personal ration card with a certain number of coupons – later supplemented by a points system – that could be used at shops where they were registered. Officially, none of the rationed articles could be bought or sold without these coupons or points. Unofficially, many people also bought foods clandestinely and, in common with other countries, the black market thrived in wartime Britain.

To support the rationing scheme, in 1940 the Ministry of Food also established canteens. These so-called ‘British Restaurants’ were run by local authorities on a non-profit basis, and provided meals for those not able to cook at home, such as victims of the German air raids. Other canteens catered those in need of extra meals, such as factory and company workers, as well as schoolchildren. The number of school meals increased from about 160,000 before the war to 1.6 million in 1945 (about 40 per cent of the British children). These meals provided them with up to 1,000 calories a day, or half of their daily requirements.

Although rationing meant a major change for the British people, generally speaking, the wartime food policies made sure that nobody fell short of basic nutritional requirements. The main exception to this was the German-occupied Channel Islands, which suffered a severe food crisis during final months of the war and occupation.

The end of the war in May 1945 did not mean an end to rationing. Shortages persisted and bread, which had been freely available during the war, was rationed for two years from July 1946. Animal products such as cheese, bacon, ham, meat and fats as well as sugar also remained scarce. It took until mid-1954 before rationing finally ended.

Rationing in Britain during World War II

Main discussion questions: Why was there food rationing in Britain during WWII? What was the impact of rationing on the British people, and which groups were most affected by its implementation? Use the following sources to support your argument.

Source 1. Winston S. Churchill on rationing, January 1940

We are embarking upon a widespread system of rationing. That is not because there is a danger of famine or because the Navy has not done its part in keeping open the oceans, the seas and the harbours. We are rationing ourselves because we wish to save every ton of imports, to increase our output of munitions, and to maintain and extend our export trade, thus gaining the foreign credits wherewith to buy more munitions and more materials of war, in order that the whole life-energy of the British nation and of the British Empire, and of our Allies, may be directed to the last ounce, to the last inch, to the task we have in hand. This is no time for ease and comfort. It is the time to dare and endure. That is why we are rationing ourselves, even while our resources are expanding. That is why we mean to regulate every ton that is carried across the sea and make sure that it is carried solely for the purpose of victory.

Source: ‘A Time to Dare and Endure’, Address given in the Free Trade Hall Manchester, 27 January 1940. Published in: R.S. Churchill (ed.), Into Battle: Speeches by the Right Hon. Winston S. Churchill (London 1941), 164-165.

Source 2. Calorie and protein intake in the UK by social class/income group, 1936-1959

The table below shows the daily consumption of calories and protein per person in the UK from 1936 to 1959. The percentage columns show the working-class intake as a percentage of the middle-class intake. Any figures under 100 mean that the working-class intake was comparatively lower.

Source: Ina Zweiniger-Barbielowska, Austerity in Britain: Rationing, Controls, and Consumption 1939-1955 (Oxford 2000), 45.

Source 3. Daily rations (kcal) average adult consumers in nine European countries, 1941-44

Source: John Lindberg, Food, Famine and Relief 1940-1946 (Geneva 1946), 21.

Source 4. Recipes/information brochures on how to deal with rations

Source 4a. Ministry of Food recipe leaflet

Source: West Sussex Record Office (Add Mss. 54,872)

Source 4b. Rations advertising by Sainsbury’s

Source: The Sainsbury Archive, Museum of London Docklands (SA/WAR/2/IMA/1/7)

Source 4c. Weekly ration for two people in the United Kingdom, 1943

Source: Imperial War Museum (D 14667)

Source 5. Propaganda

Source 5a. Propaganda poster ‘Doctor Carrot: The Children’s Best friend’

Source: Imperial War Museum (Art. IWM PST 8105)

Source 5b. Propaganda video ‘Rationing in Britain’, 1944

Source 6. Attitudes to food rationing in 1942 (in percentages)

The survey below is based on a sample of 2,047 people from different occupational, regional, sex, and age groups in the UK, interviewed between 9 and 26 June 1942. Respondents were asked, ‘What do you think about food rationing?’ Percentages do not add to 100 because some people gave miscellaneous answers or responded ‘Don’t know’.

Source: Ina Zweiniger-Barbielowska, Austerity in Britain: Rationing, Controls, and Consumption 1939- 1955 (Oxford 2000), 73. Based on Wartime Social Surveys, held at Nuffield College Library, Oxford.

Questions for classroom discussion

  1. What do you think were the Ministry of Food’s main considerations when devising the rationing system? How are these motivations reflected in Churchill’s address (Source 1)?
  2. Looking at Source 2, what effect did the rationing system have on the level of inequality between social classes? Could you explain why?
  3. In Source 3, what do the differences in rationing regimes across countries and across time tell us about the dynamics of the Second World War?
  4. What do you think is meant by ‘profiteering’ in Source 4b? Why do you think this was important?
  5. Can you identify the food groups in Source 4c? Why do you think they were prioritized?
  6. Looking at Source 5a, why do you think the Ministry of Food promoted the eating of carrots?
  7. According to Source 5b, how were men and women affected differently by the rationing system? Do you agree with this video?
  8. Looking at Source 6, how would you explain the differences in the attitudes of different groups towards rationing? Do you think this information is reliable?
  9. Do you think rationing would be possible in Britain these days? How do you think the public would react?

Optional exercise for home

Do you know what your daily calorie and protein intake is? And where does the food you eat originate from? This is displayed on most packaging these days. Record the protein and calories of each item you eat tomorrow and compare it to the wartime diets described above.

Background for teachers

Source 1. Churchill delivered this address shortly after the first foodstuffs were rationed. The speech clearly shows how the people were informed that they had to endure rationing for the ultimate goal of an Allied victory, as part of the home front’s contribution to the war effort.

Source 2. The table shows how different income groups in the UK were affected differently by the rationing. Generally speaking, middle-class food consumption standard deteriorated while the poorer sections of the working class were the main beneficiaries of the wartime policies. In sum, food rationing and control ‘improved’ the social class distribution of the diet by reducing the imbalances that were significantly present prior to the outbreak of the war.

Source 3. Comparing the situation in Britain with other European countries during the war, one observes that rations in those countries were considerably lower. This large discrepancy also resulted from the fact that in most occupied countries, unlike Britain, all foodstuffs were rationed, and not much was available to buy outside of the rationing system. In these countries, people relied much more on the black market to provide for their basic needs. The differences between occupied countries are also telling of how the Germans perceived their inhabitants. For example, the Dutch rations were only slightly lower than those in Germany and the Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia, which is a clear indication that the ‘Germanic’ Dutch maintained a relatively ‘privileged’ position among the occupied countries and enjoyed a well-functioning rationing system. Most other occupied territories in Western and Eastern Europe had to cope with much less. For example, Belgium already had to deal with food shortage and hunger as early as the winter of 1940-41 as it was much less prepared for a self-sufficient wartime food supply. Shortages of food and other primary resources started in France in the first year of the war as well.

Source 4a. The Ministry of Food distributed many recipe leaflets during the war, encouraging people to make the most of their rations. To reach the masses, the Ministry also published ration recipes in the local and national press. By encouraging people to make creative use of their rations, these recipes discouraged dissatisfaction with the rationing regime, thereby improving morale. They also discouraged people from engaging with the black market.

Source 4b. As part of the rationing system, people were required to register with a particular shop. Consequently, shops tried to get as many registrations as possible. 'Profiteering', the unethical seeking of excessive profits, or taking advantage of the war for private gain, was seen as unpatriotic, so advertisers had to be careful to avoid this charge.

Source 5a. The Ministry of Food promoted the consumption of carrots, as they did not need to be imported, were easy to grow in people’s gardens, and were a good source of vitamin A. British wartime propaganda popularized the myth that carrots help you see in the dark a super-power that would have been particularly useful during the blackouts of the Blitz. Although scientists have subsequently shown that vitamin A is beneficial for eye health, there is no truth to the claims of the propagandists.

Source 5b. This video is a good example of the traditional intra-household gender division. Commonly responsible for housekeeping, collecting food, and preparing meals, housewives bore the main burden of rationing.

Source 6. After initial discontent with the rationing system because of shortages, high prices, and inequalities in distribution, by the end of 1941 a comprehensive system of food rationing and control was in place, which largely remained unchanged until the end of the war. As a result, most of the initial uncertainties and discontent had been overcome, and people had gradually adjusted to the new wartime diet. This table shows that more than half of the interviewees approved of rationing, and 27 per cent had no criticism at all. Only 14 per cent indicated dissatisfaction. Comparing the different groups, the table shows that women showed a slightly higher approval rate than men, and people in rural areas – the main food-producing areas – were more satisfied than city-dwellers. The most important differences are shown between occupational groups. Manual workers in heavy industry were least satisfied with food rationing, while rations were most popular among white-collar workers. This was mostly due to a widespread belief among manual workers that their diet was inadequate and that rationing was unfair for people doing heavy labour.

How Clothes Rationing Affected Fashion In The Second World War

Clothes were rationed in Britain from 1 June 1941. This limited the amount of new garments people could buy until 1949, four years after the war's end.

Despite the limitations imposed by rationing, clothing retailers sought to retain and even expand their customer base during the Second World War. Britain's high street adapted in response to wartime conditions, and this was reflected in their retail ranges. The government intervened in the mass manufacture of high street fashions with the arrival of the Utility clothing scheme in 1942.

Shoppers carefully spent their precious clothing coupons and money on new clothes to make sure their purchases would be suitable across spring, summer and autumn and winter. Despite the restrictions, the war and civilian austerity did not put an end to creative design, commercial opportunism or fashionable trends on the British home front.

War Didn't Mean the End of Fashion

When Britain went to war in 1939 it seemingly spelt an end for fashion. The people of Britain now had more pressing concerns, such as widely expected air raids and possible German invasion. In many ways war did disrupt and dislocate fashion in Britain. Resources and raw materials for civilian clothing were limited. Prices rose and fashion staples such as silk were no longer available. Purchase tax and clothes rationing were introduced. But fashion survived and even flourished in wartime, often in unexpected ways.

Functional Fashions for Wartime Life

For men and women not in uniform, the war changed how they dressed both at work and at home. It became important for civilian clothes to be practical as well as stylish. Clothing and accessories manufacturers were quick to see commercial potential in some of the war's greatest dangers. By the outbreak of war in September 1939, over 40 million respirators had been distributed in Britain as a result of the potential threat of gas warfare. Although not compulsory, people were advised to carry their gas masks with them at all times. Usually they were issued in a cardboard box with a string threaded through so it could be carried over the shoulder. Retailers were quick to spot a gap in the market for a more attractive solution. The handbag seen here, like many others specially produced, has a compartment for a gas mask.

Blackout Restrictions Sparked a Bright Trend

A 'blackout' was enforced in Britain before the war had even begun on 1 September 1939 to make it harder for much-feared German bombers to find their targets. Street lighting and illuminated signs were extinguished and all vehicles had to put caps over their lights to dim them. The blackout caused a rise in collisions. A government campaign urged people to wear white clothes to make them more visible to fellow pedestrians and drivers. The blackout and its dangers provided an unexpected commercial opportunity. A range of luminous accessories, from pin-on flowers to handbags, were produced that would reflect light and help make their wearers more visible. These also included the buttons seen here in normal conditions and when aglow in the dark.

Wartime 'Onesies' for the Air Raid Shelter

The 'siren suit' was an all-in-one garment which could be pulled on quickly over night clothes if the wearer had to escape to an outdoor air raid shelter. Some suits had a stylish twist - this woman's siren suit has puffed shoulders, bell-bottom cuffs to the legs and a fitted hood. It also has a detachable belt and piping decoration. A more practical drop down panel is attached to the rear so the wearer could visit the lavatory without removing the whole garment. Siren suits were a popular wartime trend with many retailers advertising their ranges. Prime Minister Winston Churchill was often photographed in his own tailor-made siren suits.

Utility Fashions Hit the High Street

In 1942, the first 'Utility' clothes went on sale on the British high street as part of a government scheme. These clothes were made from a limited range of quality controlled fabrics. The Utility scheme developed out of a need to make production of civilian clothing in British factories more efficient and to provide price-regulated better quality clothing. Until Utility clothing was introduced, the less well-off had to use the same number of coupons for cheaper garments that might wear out in half the time. Utility fabrics - and clothes made from these materials - gave the public a guarantee of quality and value for their money and coupons.

In autumn 1941 it became compulsory for all Utility cloths and garments to be marked 'CC41'. The distinctive logo - often likened to two cheeses - stood for 'Civilian Clothing 1941' and was designed by Reginald Shipp. It is seen here printed onto a pair of men's socks

Strict Rules for Fashion - the Austerity Restrictions

Utility clothing came in a limited range of garments, styles and fabrics. In 1942 and 1943, the Board of Trade introduced the Making-up of Civilian Clothing (Restrictions) Orders to make further savings of labour and materials and minimise manufacturing costs. These orders, often known as the 'austerity regulations', applied to the production of both Utility and non-Utility clothing.

Some of the most unpopular austerity regulations were those that applied to men's clothing. Single-breasted suits replaced double-breasted. Lapels had to be within a certain size. The number of pockets was restricted and trouser turn-ups were abolished. The ban on turn-ups was particularly unpopular, and many men circumvented this regulation by buying trousers that were too long and having them altered at home. The length of men's shirts was restricted and double cuffs were banned.

It is estimated that these measures saved about 4 million square yards (approximately 5 million square metres) of cotton per year. Braces would have been a vital element of a man's outfit as both zip fasteners and elastic waistbands were banned under the austerity regulations. Elastic was in very short supply throughout the war, and women's knickers were one of only a small number of garments where the use of elastic was permitted.

Designer Fashion in Wartime

There were worries that Utility clothing meant 'standard' clothing, with people dressed too similarly. The government was at pains to reassure the public that 'the Board of Trade have no wish to adopt the role of fashion dictator'. It brought in leading fashion designers to design a prototype range of Utility clothing which were attractive, stylish and very varied.

The Incorporated Society of London Fashion Designers (IncSoc) was founded in 1942 to represent the collective interests of the fashion industry in Britain, promote exports and develop standards of design. There were originally eight members: Peter Russell, Norman Hartnell (pictured here), Bianca Mosca, Digby Morton, Victor Stiebel, Elspeth Champcommunal and Hardy Amies. Edward Molyneux and Charles Creed joined soon after. They were commissioned by the Board of Trade to produce designs for stylish yet economical outfits that could be produced under the Utility scheme. As well as using Utility materials, the designers also had to work within the austerity regulations.

Utility was a Surprise Hit

This is an example of Utility design at its best, featuring simple lines and minimal trimmings. It is a style that could easily be worn today without looking dated. Utility clothing covered a range of dresses, coats, jackets, trousers, shirts, socks, gloves and shoes. Utility ranges were produced for men, women and children. To encourage long production runs of Utility clothing, only 15 styles were permitted for infants' and girls' dresses.

Although there was a maximum price set for Utility garments, there was a spectrum of pricing and cheaper items were also available. Once launched, the clothes received many favourable reports, despite the initial hesitation. Celebrity endorsement was sought, and a March 1942 edition of Picture Post featured the actress Deborah Kerr modelling Utility clothes.

The End of War and Peacetime Style

By 1945 British people had grown tired of rationing, restrictions, and calls to 'Make Do and Mend'. Advertisements promised new styles but often shops lacked many new offerings. Production of clothes and other civilian goods did increase after the war, but most of what was made was exported. Clothes rationing - albeit in a reduced form - continued until 1949.

The best-dressed were those leaving the military services. Demobilised men were issued with a full set of clothes, known as the 'demob suit'. Reactions varied - although there was some degree of choice, and quality could be very good, many simply felt that they had swapped one uniform for another. Women leaving the military services were given an allocation of coupons rather than a new outfit. The coupons gave women more freedom to choose what clothes they wanted, but they were still limited by what was available in the shops.


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. [4] 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. [5]

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' consumption. [6] To help the process, ration books were introduced in July 1918 for butter, margarine, lard, meat, and sugar. [7] During the war, average energy intake decreased by only 3%, but protein intake by 6%. [8]

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 organised 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. [9]

When World War II began in September 1939, petrol was the first commodity to be controlled. On 8 January 1940, bacon, butter and sugar were rationed. Meat, tea, jam, biscuits, breakfast cereals, cheese, eggs, lard, milk, canned and dried fruit were rationed subsequently, though not all at once. In June 1942, the Combined Food Board was set up by the United Kingdom and the United States 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 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. Apples were available from time to time.

Many grew their own vegetables, encouraged by the "Dig for Victory" campaign. In 1942, many young children, questioned about bananas, did not believe they were real. [10] Game meat such as rabbit and pigeon was not rationed. A popular music-hall song, written 20 years previously but sung ironically, was "Yes! We Have No Bananas". During food rationing, British biologists ate laboratory rats. [11] [12] [13] [14] [15] [16]

Bread was not rationed until after the war ended, but the "national loaf" of wholemeal bread replaced the white variety. It was found to be mushy, grey and easy to blame for digestion problems. [17] In May 1942, an order was passed that meals served in hotels and restaurants might not cost over five shillings per customer, might not be of more than three courses, and not more than one course might 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. [18]

Fish was not rationed, but prices increased considerably as the war progressed. The government initially did not ration fish, for fishermen, at risk from enemy attack, had to be paid a premium for their catch in order to fish at all. Prices were controlled from 1941. [19] [ page needed ] Like other foods, fish was seldom available in abundance. Supplies dropped to 30% of pre-war levels. [19] Wartime fish and chips was often felt to be below standard because of the low-quality fat available for frying.

All drinks except beer were scarce. Beer was considered a vital foodstuff as it was a morale booster. Brewers were short of labour, and suffered from the scarcity of imported barley. [20] A ban on importing sugar for brewing and racketing made beer strengths weaker. [21]

As the war progressed, rationing was extended to other commodities such as clothing, which was rationed on a points system. When it was introduced, on 1 June 1941, no clothing coupons had been issued. At first, unused margarine coupons in ration books were valid for clothing. In the beginning, the allowance was enough 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, announced on 13 March 1942, was abolished [22] [ page needed ] (Ivor Novello, a prominent British public figure in the entertainment industry, was sent to prison for four weeks for misusing petrol coupons). Thenceforth, vehicle fuel was only available to official users, such as the emergency services, bus companies and farmers. The priority users of fuel were always the armed forces. [ original research? ] Fuel supplied to approved users was dyed, and use of this fuel for non-essential purposes was an offence.

Certain foodstuffs that the average 1940s British citizen would find unusual, for example whale meat and canned snoek fish from South Africa, were not rationed. Despite this, they did not prove popular. [2] [23] [ page needed ]

In addition to rationing, the government equalised 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. [24]

Public catering

Restaurants were initially exempt from rationing but this was resented, as people with more money could supplement their food rations by eating out frequently. In May 1942, the Ministry of Food issued new restrictions on restaurants: [25]

  • Meals were limited to three courses only one component dish could contain fish or game or poultry (but not more than one of these)
  • In general, no meals could be served between 11:00 p.m. and 5:00 a.m. without a special licence
  • The maximum price of a meal was 5 shillings (equivalent to £12 in 2019). Extra charges allowed for cabaret shows and luxury hotels.

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 (equivalent to £1.76 in 2019) 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 had their houses bombed and could no longer live in them. They were open to all and mostly served office and industrial workers. [26] [27]

Health effects

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 (450 g) of meat and four ounces (110 g) of fish a week one-quarter imperial pint (140 ml) of milk a day four ounces (110 g) 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. [28]

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, [28] 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. [27] [29]

The standard rations during the Second World War were as follows. Quantities are per week unless otherwise stated. [30]

Food rations

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 [31]

Army and Merchant Navy rations

  • 8 oz (230 g) jam
  • 2 oz (57 g) syrup
  • (
  • 10 + 1 ⁄ 2 oz (300 g) for boys and young soldiers battalions)
    (jam, marmalade or syrup)

1s 2d bought about 1 lb 3 oz (540 g) of meat. Offal and sausages were rationed only 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 [citizens] 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.

  • 1 egg per week or 1 packet (makes 12 ersatz eggs) of egg powder per month (vegetarians were allowed two eggs)
  • plus, 24 points for four weeks for tinned and dried food.

Arrangements were made for vegetarians so that other goods were substituted for their rations of meat. [31]

Milk was supplied at 3 imperial pints (1.7 litres) 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 person received one tin of milk powder (equivalent to 8 imperial pints or 4.5 litres) every eight weeks. [34]

Special civilian rations

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):

  • vegetarians (meat and bacon coupons must be surrendered)
  • underground mine workers
  • agricultural workers holding unemployment insurance books or cards bearing stamps marked "Agriculture"
  • county roadmen
  • forestry workers (including fellers and hauliers)
  • land drainage workers (including Catchment Board workers)
  • members of the Auxiliary Force of the Women's Land Army[33]
  • railway train crews (including crews of shunting engines but not including dining car staffs)
  • railway signalmen and permanent way men who have no access to canteen facilities
  • certain types of agricultural industry workers (workers employed on threshing machines, tractor workers who are not included in the Agricultural Unemployment Insurance Stamp Scheme, hay pressers and trussers).

Weekly supplementary allowances of rationed foods for invalids

Disease Food
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,
also nephrosis
Meat 3s. 6d. adult, 1s. 9d. child under six

Non-food rations


Clothing rationing was announced on 1 June 1941. A major cause was the increased need for clothing materials to be utilised for producing uniforms. By this point in the war, one fourth of the population was wearing uniforms. Many of the female population who needed uniforms were part of the women's auxiliary forces. There were also a lot of volunteer services and organizations. The materials to make tarpaulins and tyres were heavily affected by this rationing. It also became difficult for civilians to get shoes and boots.

Another major part of rationing was the implementation of a coupon system. There were 66 points for clothing per year in 1942 it was cut to 48, in 1943 to 36, and in 1945 to 24. This system operated through a "points" system. Clothing was ranked and based on this ranking, civilians would be able to purchase clothing. Clothing rationing points could also be used for wool, cotton and household textiles. Before rationing, lace and frills were popular on women's underwear, but these were soon banned so that material could be saved. The number of points that each piece of clothing would be valued at was determined by not only how much labour went into making it, but also how much material was used. A dress could cost someone 11 coupons, whereas a pair of stockings only cost two. Similarly, Men's shoes cost seven tickets, while women's cost only five. In 1945, an overcoat (wool and fully lined) was 18 coupons a man's suit, 26–29 (according to lining) Children aged 14–16 got 20 more coupons.

When purchasing clothing, not only did civilians need to have coupons, but they also had to purchase things with money. No points were required for second-hand clothing or fur coats, but their prices were fixed. People had extra points for work clothes, such as overalls for factory work. [35] Manual workers, civilian uniform wearers, diplomats, performers and new mothers also received extra coupons.

The civilian population was encouraged to repair and remake old clothes by pamphlets produced by the Ministry of Information, with the slogan "Make Do and Mend". [36] [37] Stockings, which were popularly worn by women before the war, were difficult to obtain, because the silk required to make them was needed to make parachutes. Many substituted by painting their legs and drawing a line at the back to give the appearance of stockings.

From March to May 1942, clothing austerity measures were introduced which restricted the number of buttons, pockets and pleats (among other things) on clothes. [38]

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. [38] A coupon would yield:

  • 4 oz (113 g) bar hard soap
  • 3 oz (85 g) bar toilet soap
  • 1 ⁄ 2 oz (14 g) No. 1 liquid soap
  • 6 oz (170 g) soft soap
  • 3 oz (85 g) soap flakes
  • 6 oz (170 g) powdered soap

The Fuel and Lighting (Coal) Order 1941 came into force in January 1942. Central heating was prohibited "in the summer months". [38] 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). [38] 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).


Petrol rationing was introduced in September 1939 with an allowance of approximately 200 miles of motoring per month. The coupons issued related to a car's calculated RAC horsepower and that horsepower's nominal fuel consumption. From July 1942 until June 1945, the basic ration was suspended completely, with essential-user coupons being issued only to those with official sanction. In June 1945, the basic ration was restored to allow about 150 miles per month this was increased in August 1945 to allow about 180 miles per month. [39]


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. [40]

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.

Other products

Whether rationed or not, many personal-use 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. Couples had to use a mock cardboard and plaster wedding cake in lieu of a real tiered wedding cake, with a smaller cake hidden in the mock cake. [43] Many fathers saved bits of wood to build toys for Christmas presents, [44] and Christmas trees were almost impossible to obtain due to timber rationing. [45]

On 8 May 1945, the Second World War ended in Europe, but rationing continued. Some aspects of rationing became stricter for several 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. [2] 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. [2] A common ration book fraud was the ration books of the dead being kept and used by the living. [22] [ page needed ]

Political reaction

In the late 1940s, the Conservative Party utilised and encouraged growing public anger at rationing, scarcity, controls, austerity and government bureaucracy 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. [46]


  • 27 May: Bacon ration cut from 4 to 3 ounces (113 to 85 g) per week. Cooking fat ration cut from 2 to 1 ounce (57 to 28 g) per week. Soap ration cut by an eighth, except for babies and young children. [47] The referenced newspaper article predicted that households would be grossly hampered in making food items that included pastry.
  • 1 June: The basic petrol ration for civilians was restored. [22] [page needed] [39]
  • 19 July: In order to preserve the egalitarian nature of rationing, gift food parcels from overseas weighing more than 5 lb (2.3 kg) would be deducted from the recipient's ration.
  • January–March: Winter of 1946–1947 in the United Kingdom: long hard frost and deep snow. Frost destroyed a huge amount of stored potatoes. Potato rationing started.
  • Mid-year: A transport and dock strike, which among other effects caused much loss of imported meat left to rot on the docks, until the Army broke the strike. The basic petrol ration was stopped. [22] [page needed] [39]
  • 1 June: The Motor Spirit (Regulation) Act 1948 was passed, [48]ordering a red dye to be to put into some petrol, and that red petrol was only allowed to be used in commercial vehicles. A private car driver could lose their driving licence for a year if red petrol was found in their car. A petrol station could be shut down if it sold red petrol to a private car driver. See List of Acts of the Parliament of the United Kingdom, 1940–1959: 1948.
  • June: The basic petrol ration was restored, but only allowed about 90 miles per month. [39]
  • Bread came off ration.


  • May 1949: Clothes rationing ended. According to one author, [22] [page needed] this was because attempts to enforce it were defeated by continual massive illegality (black market, unofficial trade in loose clothing coupons (many forged), bulk thefts of unissued clothes ration books).
  • June, July and August 1949: The basic petrol ration was temporarily increased to allow about 180 miles per month. [39]
  • 23 February 1950: 1950 general election fought largely on the issue of rationing. The Conservative Party campaigned on a manifesto of ending rationing as quickly as possible. [2] The Labour Party argued for the continuation of rationing indefinitely. Labour was returned, but with its majority badly slashed to 5 seats.
  • March 1950: The Ministry of Fuel and Power announced that the petrol ration would again be doubled for the months of June, July and August. [39]
  • April 1950: The Ministry of Fuel and Power announced that the petrol ration would be doubled for 12 months from 1 June. [39]
  • 26 May 1950: Petrol rationing ended. [49]
  • 25 October 1951: 1951 United Kingdom general election. The Conservatives came back into power.
  • 4 February 1953: Confectionery (sweets and chocolate) rationing ended. [50][51][52]
  • September 1953: Sugar rationing ended.
  • 4 July 1954: Meat and all other food rationing ended in Britain. [53]

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). [54] This wiped out nearly all other cheese production in the country, and some indigenous varieties of cheese almost disappeared. [54] 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, [55] 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 rationing was briefly reintroduced in late 1956 during the Suez Crisis but ended again on 14 May 1957. [56] Advertising of petrol on the recently introduced ITV was banned for a period.

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.