During the Second World War and immediate post war period, eggs were one of the items of food that were rationed. If you had the room and inclination however you could keep chickens which were likely to yield a higher weekly supply of eggs than the ration. These chickens would mostly be fed on kitchen scraps, but it was essential to also feed them proper chicken feed and this too was rationed. If you did keep chickens though, you could elect to drop your egg ration and have a ration of corn instead. This had its own special ration book and today we are looking at a post war example of the poultry feed ration card:
This particular example dates from 1953-54 and has a set of instructions printed on the front that continue on the back of the card:
Inside the card is space to record the chicken feed your supplier has sold you each month:
FG Imm kept chickens during the Second World War and has left this detailed account:
To help out with our war time egg rations I decided to keep chickens. Special poultry feed mash ration coupons were available provided that a proper registration had been made surrendering at least a part of the family’s egg ration. On its own the poultry mash ration was insufficient to feed the number of birds which one was able to register. The number of birds that the average household kept was six. Any number could be kept but finding the right kind and amount of feed required for them was the responsibility of the poultry keeper himself not the Ministry of Agriculture and Fisheries. Government sponsored leaflets and paperbacks containing advice on every aspect of poultry keeping were widely available. There was information about feeding, disease control, housing and general management. The government adopted a policy of encouraging the breeding of good quality pullet stock. Registered breeders were allocated special high quality feed rations to enable them to produce healthy and good laying stock. Domestic back garden poultry keepers were urged to buy their pullets from these breeders rather than breed their own from their laying stock which had been fed on make-do rations.
I built a portable hen house from old 15 gallon oil drums that I was able to scrounge from the commercial lorry repair garage which operated in the lane at that time. The drums were cut down and made into flat sheets for use as cladding over a wooden frame. Bits and pieces for the frame were sorted out from a load of edgings and waste timber that I had bought from Venables for firewood. Chicken wire for the portable run was only obtainable by showing the chicken feed ration book. However, if one was lucky enough, like a good many other things in short supply it was occasionally available from under the counter. The accommodation for our chickens was moved around on the back lawn to a fresh patch of grass every day. The birds had green grass to peck at and the lawn was fertilised and kept short.
With a bit of imagination the chickens could be well fed. One had to be careful not to feed them with too much fattening food such as oat grain which was occasionally available off the ration. The oats were fine for fattening birds for the pot, but not for egg layers. Kitchen waste, mainly boiled vegetable peelings had to be fed mixed with grain, the ration mash or some other medium to dry it off. This was necessary to avoid stomach disorders. ‘Necessity is the mother of invention’ goes the old saying so it was that I had to invent something to enable the mushy waste to be dried off. I came up with the idea of mixing it with sawdust. I had half expected the eggs to have wooden shells and the droppings to pass for firewood. However the birds somehow or other managed to produced what was normally expected of them. Other supplements and drying ingredients for the ration mash included crushed meat bones that had either been smashed up with a hammer or calcinated in the oven before being ground in the mincer. In the summer grass mowings from the lawns were dried in the sun and stored in sandbags for mixing with the mash in the winter months. In spite of bread rationing, one rather careless and wasteful neighbour often gave me dry bread crusts. After normal household cooking was taken out of the oven the surplus heat remaining was not wasted. The bread crusts and meat bones were put in to make them crisp enough to crush up for mixing with the official ration. Our meat mincer was worked so hard that it packed up under the strain of having to deal with calcinated bones. Fortunately I was able to get the broken screw grinder welded together again. Luckily our garden soil was sandy and gritty so there was no problem with the supply of gizzard grit. Occasionally I had to buy shell grit to ensure that the birds did have the calcium required for them to make the shells for their eggs. Calcium from the shell grit was supplemented by the calcium which was available from raw cabbage leaves and lettuce waste.
The chicken roost was set up in the hutch over a droppings board which could be scraped clean each day. The manure was mixed in the with the garden compost heap. There was not much vegetable waste from the kitchen to put on the compost heap, it was recycled through the feed mash and became part of the droppings. In the winter months there was not much garden waste for the compost. By the spring when it was ready for digging in, it had been well rotted by the high percentage of droppings that it contained.
To ensure that an efficient level of egg production was maintained it was necessary to buy pullets coming into lay at about April or May time. The laying season lasted for only about six months. For the best results it was prudent to keep the birds for one laying season only. On the advice of Mr. Blackburn I chose to keep birds that were a cross between Rhode Island Red and Black Leghorn. This was a popular choice for the back garden poultry keeper. It combined the high level of egg laying properties of the Black Leghorn with the reputed sturdiness of the Rhode Island Red. As was suggested in the government leaflets I purchased my pullets from a registered breeder.
At the end of their first laying season birds were in a condition fit for the oven. To start with we followed the guide lines about having new pullets each year. However, we had to ‘chicken out’ when it came to putting them in the oven and eating them. In spite of a chicken being a welcome addition to the food ration they had to go. After all we had given each one of them a pet name. How could we eat Brownie, Spotty, Hoppity or Blackie after they had given us so many eggs to supplement our rations? I did not have the courage to wring their necks when their time came so I asked the milkman to do this dirty work for me. Some of the dead birds were given away for charity raffles and others I sold to colleagues at my place of work who were only too pleased to get hold of an off the ration Sunday lunch.
Although I did not have the courage to kill my own chickens, I was quite happy to carry out post-mortem examinations on other poultry keepers’ dead birds to try and identify the cause of death. Fortunately none of our birds died from disease so I did not have to dissect any of them. However, other amateur poultry keepers could not bring themselves round to cutting open their dead birds for examination. I volunteered and with the aid of one of the Ministry of Agriculture and Fisheries paperbacks I was able to determine the cause of death.
Egg production was well without our expectations. The average output per bird over the first laying season was 180 eggs. That boosted the household ration of food by just over 20 eggs per week throughout the year. The official egg ration for non-poultry keepers varied according to the season, but on average amounted to only about 2 or 3 per week per household. To enable eggs from the peak production period to be spread out over the whole year we bought a 4 gallon galvanised bucket in which to preserve about half of each week’s lay. The eggs were immersed in a solution of Water Glass (silicate of soda). They kept very well and were a much appreciated supplement to our winter rations. After the war when poultry keeping was no longer necessary, the bucket was put to another good use. For a number of years it became the holder for the Christmas Tree and still is available if required.
Later on during the war I was tempted to keep more than six birds. In addition to the intake of six new pullets, the birds at the end of their first laying season were given a second chance. I wanted to see how well they would perform in their second laying season. This idea also allowed me to delay the decision of about how to dispose of birds no longer required for egg production. I set up larger accommodation at a fixed location with an outside run permanently available. For under cover scratching litter I bought bundles of wheat straw at a shilling (5p) each from Rickerscote Farm. War time thrashing was not as efficient as the modern combine harvester so there was just a little grain left in the straw for the birds to find. Fouled soil from the outside run had to be regularly changed to make sure that healthy droppings together with the fouled soil from the open run provided really good quality compost for the garden. Twelve birds did produce more eggs but the overall efficiency was much lower. The second year birds were later coming into lay and their laying season was shorter. However, their eggs at the beginning of the second season were larger than those laid by the new pullets.
On the balance the official advice about having new birds each year was right. The old birds upset the new pullets. A pecking order was established which put the new birds at a disadvantage and the old birds were distracted and got their priorities wrong. They were more interested in dominating the pullets than getting on with laying eggs. Another problem was overcrowding which meant more work in cleaning out and ailments began to creep in. The additional eggs which became available were not worth all the extra work and the problems which were created.
Because food rationing went on for some time after the war we continued to keep chickens for about another two years. However when they eventually had to go their hutch was not wasted. It was converted into a playhouse for the children. A brick floor covered with wood salvaged from old orange boxes was laid. 12 volt electric lighting, formerly used in the air raid shelter was fitted and the window which was already a part of the structure was provided with curtains. By the time the children had painted it inside and out, it became habitable and they occasionally slept out in in it.