At the outbreak of World War Two Britain imported 70% of all its food, including 50% of its meat, 70% of its sugar and cheese, 80% of its fruit and 70% of its cereals and fats. It was clear based on experience from the Great War that Germany would try and starve the country by using a U-Boat blockade and a concerted government effort would be needed to ensure that there was a fair distribution of food to all. To co-ordinate this the government set up a Ministry of Food and on 8th January 1940 the first food rationing came into force. All British Subjects were issued with a personal ration book:This example was issued in July 1941 to a Louisa Pickering, who lived at 40 Railway Cottages, Hessle Road, Hull. The owner’s National Registration Number was filled in on the front to match their Identity Card. Opening the book, the reverse of the cover had a space to list the names and addresses of the owner’s preferred retailers:People were only allowed to shop for food at designated local shops, who were provided with enough food for those registered with them. The next two pages gave instructions on how to use the ration book:
The rest of the book had the coupons themselves:The pages were removed and left with the retailer who would then cancel each one in turn as he issued food to the customer. The resulting used coupons were then returned to the local food office as proof of the rations distributed and the retailer was then allowed to order some more supplies. The back cover of the ration book has some aide memoires for the civilian issued with the book:Note the Ministry of Food stamp for Hull at the bottom right of the page:In 1945 at the end of the war, an adult’s ration for a week was as follows:
Bacon and Ham- 4oz
Loose Tea- 2oz
Meat- 1s2d worth
Cheese- 2oz (+extra 3oz cheese for vegetarians)
Preserves- 2lb per month
Sweets- 12oz per month
Other goods such as milk, soap, fuel, clothing and furniture were all rationed as well. Despite the shortages, it was discovered that people nutrition and health actually improved over the period of the war as people ate less meat and more potatoes and vegetables that were not rationed. Joan Styan was a child during the war:
Once when I was shopping for my grandma, I bought some soap powder which she wanted and which was rationed. It was a box of Oxydol. The shop assistant forgot to tick off the back page of my grandma’s ration book confirming that she had had her soap powder quota for the month. I then went back to the shop and told the assistant of her omission and she immediately rectified it and ticked it off. My grandma thought I was quite mad and said, “You silly girl. If you hadn’t taken my ration book back, I could have had an extra box of soap powder.” I was upset about this as I was always taught to be honest and thought I was doing the right thing. However, rationing was hard and we were so often deprived that we were all glad of any perks that came our way…
We ate basic foods at the British Restaurants which we were told ‘nourished the masses’. These restaurants offered simple meals such as minced beef with parsnips, greens and potatoes. Minced meat was sold at the butchers when available, but my mother was always dubious about its content.
Spam from the U.S.A. was in common use to make up for the shortage of fresh meat. We normally ate at home enjoying our mother’s nutritious cooking. She was obsessed with making us eat all our vegetables especially our greens. During the war, any leftovers from meals were kept for the next day. We often had ‘bubble and squeak’, a British term for cooked greens and cooked potatoes mixed and fried up. My mother made this on a Monday if there were any leftovers from our Sunday dinner.
Fruit was almost non-existent except for apples, which were home grown. The saying: ‘An apple a day keeps the doctor away,’ may well have originated during the war. We never saw bananas or oranges. All children were allocated milk, cod-liver oil and orange juice. We often had to resort to dried milk (sold in blue tins), dried eggs (sold in red tins) and dried potatoes.
My mother tried so hard to keep us children nourished to the extent that she regularly denied herself. Tinned fruit was also rationed as were fish, cereals and biscuits etc. At least home-grown vegetables were encouraged by the ‘Dig For Victory’ campaign. Rationing began in 1940, including sweets, which was a real blow to us children.
Mum readily exchanged her tea coupons from her ration book for sugar coupons with a neighbour as she was in greater need of sugar than tea with three young children. Butter and bacon were severely rationed and we constantly used margarine, the taste of which revolted me and still does even today. I’m definitely one of the few that can tell Stork from butter!
We were allowed one egg each per fortnight. The rich were hit the same as the poor and, whatever we wanted, we had to queue for. Queue, queue, queue. What patience and stamina we must have had. However, we were so grateful for anything and everything we could get. The standard phrase from the customer to the shop assistant was: ‘Is there anything under the counter?’ We were only allowed 2 ounces of butter each week so we often had bread and dripping or condensed milk on our bread. The hardships seemed endless.