Short supplies

28th February 2003 at 00:00
Gerald Haigh looks at a phenomenon from the 1940s and 50s and suggests ways of bringing it to life

Gas masks, evacuees, the Blitz, Anderson shelters and rationing are all on the menu when it comes to helping children understand what life was like on "the Home Front" - itself a phrase straight from the morale-building propaganda of the Second World War. Of all those changes to everyday life, rationing (a system by which certain goods that were in short supply were distributed to people in limited amounts) had some unique aspects. It covered so much of what we often take for granted - fuel, clothing, furniture and cosmetics, as well as basic food. And it lasted a long time, 14 years, from early 1940 until 1954 (nine years after the end of the War). For the whole of that period it affected every man, woman and child in Great Britain.

Always an irritant, it was never (unlike the Blitz or the possibility of gas attacks) a threat to life. In fact, it had some benign effects; it aimed to ensure everyone was treated fairly and prevented the wealthy from grabbing essential supplies. It also ensured that children in particular had a healthy diet at a time of great shortage - it's now almost a cliche to say that our children were better fed under rationing then than at any time (before or since) in our recent history.

All of this fascinates today's children and their teachers, for they can make direct comparisons with contemporary lives. ("What, Miss! No sweets? No bananas?") However, we do need to remember - and to emphasise to pupils - that the privations in Britain during those years were as nothing compared with what was being visited on civilian populations in some parts of the world. A family in London, living on rations, queueing for tins of salmon, with the family car standing on blocks for the duration, was still living in luxury compared with the equivalent family in Warsaw or Leningrad, or in the ruins of Berlin in 1945.

Why rationing?

In the 1930s it was realised that if war came every possible national resource would have to be directed to fighting it. Factories that made cars, furniture, household goods and clothing, would have to make tanks, guns, aeroplanes and uniforms. Furthermore, because our nation depended heavily on food and fuel brought in by sea, we risked being starved into submission by enemy attacks on cargo ships, and so we would have to make sure that precious shipping was used only for essential goods.

This was the challenge faced by the Government as war became inevitable during 1938 and 1939. In 1938, a full year before war broke out, a system of rationing of essential supplies was devised (but not yet put into action) so that when war came everyone would have a share of whatever essentials were available.

Rationing arrives

Petrol rationing started at the outbreak of war, on September 3, 1939. Food rationing began four months later, on January 8, 1940, when the ration books that had been issued to everyone the previous October came into use.

Rationing of food was a complicated business; you couldn't just divide everything equally, because people had different needs. Pregnant women, young children, workers who had a canteen meal and those who didn't, all had to be treated differently. The supply of food was not always the same either. As cargo ships came through, different quantities of this or that food became available. To cope with all of this, the powerful government Ministry of Food ran the rationing system.

Pupil activity

Think about the people in your house. If you were very short of food, and given a fixed amount of meat, butter, milk and tea, would it be fairest to divide what you had equally? Or are there people in the house with different needs? What about a baby for example?

How food rationing worked

Basic foods were divided more or less equally. Quantities varied according to availability, but for an adult in the middle of the war a weekly ration looked something like this (remember it could vary according to special needs):

3 pints of milk

1 lb (half a kilogram) meat

1 egg

3-4 oz (110 gm) cheese

4 oz (113 gm) bacon and ham

2 oz (57 gm) tea

8 oz (227 gm) sugar

2 oz (57 gm) butter

2 oz (57gm) cooking fat

Pupil activity

Collect together these items and discuss how you might use them as a week's supplies for one person. (Remember other things were available, such as bread, vegetables and offal.)

As well as taking your money, the grocer cut a coupon from your ration book so you couldn't use it a second time. In addition to rationing, many items - such as tinned foods - were "On points", which meant you could choose what to buy, but each time you bought one of these items, points coupons were clipped from your ration book. When they were all gone, you couldn't buy any more goods on points until the next rationing period. By controlling how many points an item was worth, the Ministry of Food could make consumer demand match a limited but varying supply.

To make this work, families had to be registered with particular shops, a grocer or a butcher for instance (there were no all-purpose supermarkets as we now know them). They were unable to shop elsewhere.

Other food

Some foods were simply unobtainable. It was not acceptable to use shipping space for bananas for example, so they disappeared altogether. Some foods were never rationed - offal (liver, heart and other organs) was available from the butcher, and dishes such as faggots (balls of left-over bits of liver and other meat) and rissoles (leftover bits of meat rolled in breadcrumbs and fried) became common at home and in work canteens.

Vegetables and home-grown fruits, such as apples, were never rationed; we are a gardening nation, and many people grew vegetables in the war. In the Dig for Victory campaign, open spaces, grass verges and playing fields were dug up and planted with vegetables.

Pupil activity

Some schools had vegetable gardens during the war. Where would you grow vegetables at your school if you had to? Where could you grow them at home?

Making the best of it

Rationing meant many favourite dishes and recipes became difficult or impossible to make. The government took the possible effect on morale seriously. The ever-present fear was of a dispirited population failing to turn up for essential war work. The Ministry of Food, therefore, poured out streams of pamphlets and advertisements, and soon had a reputation for its boundless and oft-lampooned enthusiasm for unlikely recipes and alternative foods. It tried to get people to eat whale meat - largely in vain - and snoek, a hardly edible fish. Nevertheless, the Ministry of Food produced some ingenious and palatable recipes, many of them celebrated in Marguerite Patten's We'll Eat Again (Hamlyn pound;7.99). Take Woolton pie, a "meat pie" with lots of vegetables but no meat. It was named after the Minister of Food, Lord Woolton, and was a realistic way to feed a big family.

Children who left food on their plates - a "sin" during rationing - were sometimes threatened with a visit from Lord Woolton as a bogeyman. "There was a Food Office near to our house," recalls one person who was a child during the war. "I had to go there sometimes to change our ration books, and I was secretly terrified, for I was sure that Lord Woolton lurked somewhere inside."

There were other changes, some of which became permanent. Tinned pilchards and tinned salmon stood in for scarce fresh fish, and processed meats such as spam and corned beef established themselves on the British diet.

Home-produced food, though, was the answer for many people. "My mother made cottage cheese from excess milk," recalls the man who had been scared of Lord Woolton. "My dad kept hens and grew vegetables, so we always had eggs and often chicken. Then someone in the village might kill a pig, and we would come in for some bacon or pork or, at a pinch, just a bowl of dripping. We certainly never went hungry. I often look back and think with horror at what some of my contemporaries in occupied Europe were suffering at that time."

Under rationing, big families did better than small ones, because there was more room for manoeuvre. As one woman recalls: "My mother and dad had six children, and my gran lived with us, too. So we had nine ration books in the house. That meant my mum could, for example, build up a supply of tea that she could swap for something else - cheese was the favourite - with one of the other housewives. The more ration books in the house, the more flexibility you had."

Pupil activities

Find a recipe for Woolton pie using the internet ( someone make it at home and report back? What do you think of it?

lContrast the British experience with of, say, a Jewish family in occupied Europe (good resources and links at the Imperial War Museum

What about the children

Children had plentiful milk rations - and there was milk at school, too.

Then there were supplements, also given out at school - orange juice (vitamin C) and cod-liver oil (vitamin D). Together with the extra vegetables and reduced meat intake, this made for a healthy child population, by contrast with the pre-war years when, for example, many children suffered from the bone disease rickets because of shortage of vitamin D.

Pupil activity We don't have orange juice and cod liver oil at school now. How do we get our vitamin C and D?

Clothes and furniture

In June 1941, everyone was issued with "clothing coupons" - enough material for one outfit each year. So if someone had a special occasion, such as a wedding, the whole family would hoard coupons so the bride and the bridesmaids could be properly dressed. Strict regulations limited the amount of materials used to make goods such as clothes and furniture.

"Utility" items were designed not to be ornate or showy to prevent wasting precious resources, but such was the ingenuity of designers that some of their products became quite popular, particularly furniture.

The Black Market

Wherever there's a shortage, there are people who will try to get round it.

During rationing there were unscrupulous traders, operating in pubs, on street pitches, or simply through networks of friends, who would sell scarce food or clothing at inflated prices outside the rationing system.

Their supplies would often come from factories, warehouses and docks, where dishonest workers would smuggle items out.

There were smaller-scale, almost innocent, scams, too. You weren't supposed to keep and kill a pig unless you declared it to the Ministry of Food, but lots of people did. And shopkeepers often found ways of favouring their friends and good customers with "something from under the counter". It was illegal, and the worst cases were heavily punished, often by lengthy jail sentences. That people would make money this way at the same time as others were risking their lives in battle or working hard in mines a factories is a sad comment on human nature.

The end of rationing

People tolerated rationing during wartime, but when the war ended and it continued, public irritation understandably increased. Economic recovery was slow and the emphasis was on rebuilding manufacturing industry and exports. For many people the ultimate insult came in 1946 with the rationing of bread, which had never been rationed during the war. For two years, until 1948, you needed special coupons ("BUs" or Bread Units). About a dozen other items, including sugar, sweets, bacon, meat and cooking fats, were still rationed. Rationing was gradually withdrawn until, on July 3, 1954, the last item, meat, was de-rationed. What had been part of everyone's life, seen as normal by many young people, finally disappeared.

There's no doubt that continued "austerity" (the word much used in the late 1940s to cover what was a shortage of just about everything) contributed to the end of Clement Attlee's Labour Government, which had been elected with a huge majority in 1945.


The key points in the story of rationing are:

The length of time involved - long enough to become established as a normal part of life.

Its effectiveness in enforcing fair distribution.

Its draconian intervention in everyday life.

Its complexity: it was paper-based, with no computers.

It was irritating but acceptable. Nobody starved, and many ate more healthily than before.

It forced people into developing their own food resources.

Personal accounts

As always with recent history, the accounts of people who were alive at the time become important, and it is good to invite some into the school.

Remember, though:

Memory plays tricks, so be prepared to check facts.

What's important are feelings, anecdotes, accounts of the behaviour of individuals rather than recollections that are totally accurate.

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