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The story of Second World War rationing in Britain

BY Annie Dabb

15th Jun 2023 Recipes

The story of Second World War rationing in Britain

First introduced at the end of the First World War, the government reintroduced rationing in Britain during the Second World War to cope with food and labour shortages. From stereotypically British queues for limited supplies to women's role in the war effort, read on to learn more about the effect rationing had on those who fought from their homes

When in 1939, Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain announced that the UK were again entering a world war against Germany, many British civilians who had lived through the First World War would have recognised some similar patterns just over two decades later. 

Rationing reintroduced 

better pot luck with Churchill today than humble pie under Hitler tomorrow Credit: Wikimediacommons 

Conscription, first introduced in 1916 when the British government feared for the imminent collapse of the French army, was employed once again in 1939. The agricultural sector suffered immensely as many male agricultural workers were forced to leave their occupations to fight on the front lines. 

Fertiliser and food imports from other countries were also hit by war and naval blockades, and with rising anxieties around food scarcity, many people started hoarding food while distributors were forced to raise prices. 

"Many people started hoarding food while distributors were forced to raise prices"

With families going hungry, it wasn't uncommon to see queues of women waiting outside of shops in order to get their hands on whatever they could. However, as it was first come first served, many women would find themselves leaving empty handed. 

To solve this problem, in 1940, the British government reintroduced food rationing, just as they had two decades earlier, in order to ensure more equal distribution of the food stuffs that were available.

Rationing was seen as a vital part of Britain's national defence. The first thing to be rationed was petrol in 1939, followed by food a year later, and clothes a year after that.

To encourage Brits to make do with what they had and help with the war effort, the government issued pamphlets with catchy slogans such an "Make Do and Mend" and "Lend a Hand on the Land". 

Food coupons 

Child's ww2 ration book with stamps of various retailers Credit: Wellcome Library, London

Every civilian was given a ration book with coupons which corrolated with things deemed essential such as sugar, meat, and cheese, with housewives having to register with particular retailers. The Ministry of Food was responsible for overseeing the implementation of this system.

A typical weekly ration would include one egg, two ounces of tea and butter respectively, one ounce of cheese, eight ounces of sugar, four ounces of bacon and four ounces of margarine. 

Food substitutes 

Child's ration book from ww2Credit: Wellcome Library, London

Rationing lasted long after the end of the war, until the early 1950s, and meat was the last thing to be derationed in 1954. During the Second World War, women were advised to prepare a vegetarian or fish meal at least once a week, and to mince meat to make it go further. 

Likewise, the Ministry of Food recommended substituting three tbsp of cocoa and one tbsp of margarine for one ounce of chocolate and using lard, liquid and salt in place of butter. 

"Developing children or expectant mothers, received priority allowances"

Other food stuffs such as non-perishables, cereals and biscuits were rationed using a points system. Those deemed most in need of proper nourishment, such as developing children or expectant mothers, received priority allowances of milk and eggs. 

Because the availability of rationed products was mostly based on a points system (apart from meat which was based on price), many people quickly worked out that they could befriend their local supplier to have a better chance of getting more to feed their families. 

However, the introduction of rationing during the Second World War also led to the prevalence of a clandestine black market. People known as "spivs" would risk a maximum of five years prison time to offer additional food and luxury items to those who could afford it. 

The Women's Land Army 

Three land girls standing on a field near Scarborough in 1942Credit: Fred Lowe

Foods like fruit and vegetables were not put under ration but supply was scarce due to import blockades. To tackle this problem, the British Ministry of Agriculture launced the Dig for Victory campaign to encourage Brits to grow their own produce. 

The Women's Land Army (WLA), first formed in WW1 by Lady Trudie Denman, was integral to this campaign. With many male farmers called up to join the army, Denman recognised the need for women to fill the places they had left behind in order to prevent a shortage of food production. 

At first, The Ministry of Agriculture would interview volunteers for the Women's Land Army and require them to undergo a medical examination. However, as times got more desperate in 1941, the British government passed the National Service Act and women were conscripted into the armed forces or into labour that was vital for Britain's sustainment in the war. 

In the beginning, it was only unmarried women between 20 and 30 who were expected to join one of the auxiliary services, work in a factory or in the agricultural sector. By 1942, the government had expanded conscription to include women between the ages of 19 and 41. 

"Women were expected to work long hours and maintain their domestic responsibilities"

Although the role of women in the labour force during the Second World War essential to Britain's eventual victory, the expectation that women would work long hours and maintain their domestic responsibilities in the home reflected the Double Burden that remains a sexist issue even today. 

Join the queue 

People queueing for rations in wartime London Credit: Ministry of Information Photo Division Photographer

Spending all day at work also meant that often women weren't free to queue for rations during store opening hours and deliveries would be made when they weren't at home. Desperate, some mothers even began to withdraw their children from school so that they could queue for the food their mothers were working for. 

As the war came to an end in 1945, many food items gradually became available once more, however rationing lasted into the early 1950s and meat was the last thing to be derationed in 1954. 

Banner credit: Imperial War Museums 

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