Throughout history war has meant scarcity of food, whether because of the destruction of arable land, the sinking of supply ships, or the hoarding of available supplies by the rich. As men started to stream out of Britain in September 1939 following the declaration of war on Germany, the British Government realised it had a problem. At that time, 55 million tonnes of food were imported annually from other countries, including 80% of the nation’s cheese and sugar, 80% of its fruit, 90% of all cereals and fats, and 50 of the meat consumed. Soldiers weren’t paid much, and food prices were set to rocket as fears of possible shortages grew (in fact, by February 1940 they had risen by an average of 14%). If the British people were to be kept from going hungry, something had to be done. The answer was rationing.
A National Register of citizens had been compiled by the end of September 1939, ration books were distributed to each person in October, with the instruction that they must register with the shops they intended to patronise by the end of November, and according to “The 1940s House” by Juliet Gardner, very soon after the Daily Express began to run a vigorous anti-rationing campaign in anticipation of government measures. This proved rather a boon to the government; it accustomed the public to the idea of austerity measures, and surveys revealed in November that 50% of those questioned considered rationing to be a necessary and fair system. The ground was prepared, and on January 8th the rationing was introduced with the certainty that it would be welcomed.
First to be rationed were bacon or ham, butter and sugar, with each person being allocated 12oz a week of sugar and 4oz each of the other two foodstuffs. From May 1940 they were allowed just 1oz of cheese, and by July 2oz of tea. Cooking fat started to be shared out, and meat went on the ration books in March 1941, with those under 6 entitled to 11 pence worth (11d) and those over 6 allowed a shilling’s worth (the idea being that people could choose to have a small amount of an expensive cut, or a larger portion of cheap meat). Offal was never rationed, so housewives became quite creative at planning uses for usually unpopular bits like kidneys, liver, brain and even tasty nuggets such as whole sheep heads, which the government urged them to embrace cooking. Fish wasn’t rationed, but became very difficult to get as trawlers found it more and more risky to brave the North Sea. By November 1941 milk too was being rationed, with children under 5 allowed 7 pints a week and everyone else (excepting expectant mothers) just 2 (though they were given a tin of powdered milk every 8 weeks). Eggs were hardest of all to get hold of, being uncertain in supply, and were not actually rationed but ‘allocated’ as they became available. In 1940 just 29 eggs were allowed per person all year, though tins of the dreaded powdered egg were given out bimonthly.
Finally, the ‘point system’ was introduced. Each person was given 16 points a week, and could spend them on a choice of un-rationed goods; these included cereals, pulses, biscuits, tinned meats and jellies, among other goods. Sweets went on the points, too, from 1942. These points could be saved and splurged all at once on a special occasion, unlike some of the rationed goods. The war-Weary citizens thoroughly enjoyed the odd treat! Some people, though, struggled to understand the ever-changing availabilities, and found the system very confusing.
Shop-keepers were the experts when it came to coupons and points. They had to be! It was their responsibility to keep track of the varying allowances and shortages of particular goods, to make sure they removed the correct number and type of coupons from the ration books, and to keep a ledger of how much their customers were getting (to discourage black market trades and the monopoly of food staples by those who could afford to pay for them). Of course, neighbours bartered goods between themselves, families tended to operate a hierarchy of consumption with the children at the top and the housewives at the bottom, and shop keepers sometimes kept a few choice titbits hidden away for their best customers, but generally people took to the rationing well and stuck to it honourably. A good thing too, as the last rations weren’t lifted until 1954! Those who grew up in the war learned never to waste food, and to cheerfully make the most of whatever they were given.