Around 1939, when World War II began, the United Kingdom imported two-thirds of its food, all of which had to be shipped over oceans teeming with German U-boats. The Ministry of Food did not want to risk the lives of sailors for food that would be wasted, and reducing imports also saved money for armaments. Surprisingly, 60 per cent of Britons told government pollsters that they wanted rationing to be introduced, with many believing that it would guarantee everyone a fair share of food.
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”.
(Photo credit: Imperial War Museums).