Before the Second World War started Britain imported about 55 million tons of food a year from other countries. Understandably, the German government did what they could to disrupt this trade. One of the main methods used by the Germans was to get their battleships and submarines to hunt down and sink British merchant vessels. With imports of food declining, the British government decided to introduce a system of rationing. This involved every householder registering with their local shops. The shopkeeper was then provided with enough food for his or her registered customers.

In January, 1940, bacon, butter and sugar were rationed. This was followed by meat, fish, tea, jam, biscuits, breakfast cereals, cheese, eggs, milk and canned fruit. Rationing was popular with the people and a Gallup Poll showed over 60 per cent in favour of this system.

However, many small shopkeepers complained about the strategy used by food inspectors of employing people to encourage the breaking of the law. In December 1940, Isabella Tompsett was employed in Stepney to visit butchers' shops and attempt to buy meat without coupons. As a result three butchers in one road were heavily fined for this offence. These undercover officials acting as agents provacateurs, were severely criticised in the press.

Food inspectors in Hendon were also criticised for using a team of women who tried to trick shop assistants into selling goods without coupons. The scheme involved the customer handing over her ration book and asking for two ounces of tea. When the shop assistant had almost finished serving her, the customer changed her mind and asked for four ounces. If the shop assistant forgot to take out a second two ounce coupon, they would be charged with breaking rationing restrictions. In a short period 59 Hendon shopkeepers were successfully prosecuted for this offence.

It was announced that in March 1941, under the Food Control Order, the system of rationing, 2,141 prosecutions were brought and there were 1,994 convictions, a success rate of 93.1 per cent. The following month this had increased to 2,300 prosecutions and 2,199 convictions (95.6 per cent). The General Secretary of the National Association of Outfitters complained that small traders had become the "most persecuted class in the whole of the country".

In the summer of 1940 the government established a committee of nutritional experts to advise the War Cabinet on food policy. The committee issued a report claiming that each citizen could survive on twelve ounces of bread, a pound of potatoes, two ounces of oatmeal, an ounce of fat, six ounces of vegetables and six-tenths of a pint of milk per day, supplemented either by small amounts of cheese, pulses, meat, fish, sugar, eggs and dried fruit. Winston Churchill was concerned by the implications of this proposal and the advice was not published.

Some people considered food rationing to be very unfair. Eggs, butter and meat could be obtained fairly easily without coupons in rural areas. By the summer of 1941 greengrocers were taking their lorries into the country to buy vegetables direct from growers.

The open-air markets at Romford soon developed a reputation for being a good place to buy black market goods. Traders relied on tic-tac men to signal the approach of the police or known trading inspectors. Local newspapers published stories of market-traders doing a great trade in selling goods without coupons.

Another strategy at Romford was for traders to sell new clothes labelled as "second-hand" or "shop-soiled". For example, a secondhand suit could be sold without coupons providing the price was not more than £2 12s.

By using undercover inspectors the government gradually got Romford market under control. However, the situation deteriorated when over 100,000 ration books were stolen from the Ministry of Food offices in Romford. Valued at being worth over £500,000, these were quickly sold to people wishing to buy goods legally from the market.

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The Food Control Officer in Brighton discovered that 80,000 ration books had been stolen from the Royal Pavilion (Brighton Food Office). An undercover policeman eventually agreed to buy the missing ration books. When the gang was arrested it was discovered the ring-leader was the Woman Enforcement Officer at the Brighton office who had reported the theft. She was later sent to prison for three years.

In August 1940 the government passed legislation that made the waste of food a prisonable offence. One of the first to be prosecuted was J. Lyons Ltd who was fined for allowing mice to eat food in its kitchens.

It was also an offence for restaurants to serve fish and meat at a single sitting. When the Odean Theatre in Streatham was found guilty of this offence, the manageress and two of her waitresses were fined for "aiding and abetting the serving of both meat and fish to an assistant enforcement officer".

The government announced in September 1939, that petrol was rationed. Initially small allowance of petrol was allowed for private motorist but this was brought to an end in the summer of 1942 after the Japanese Army occupied Malaya and the success of the U-boat attacks on the Atlantic convoys.

Ivor Novello, the songwriter, was sent to prison for eight-weeks after he had fraudulently obtained petrol for his Rolls-Royce car. His friend, the actor and playwright, Noel Coward, was convicted for currency racketeering. Another high profile conviction concerned Major-General Sir Percy Laurie, the Provost Marshal of Great Britain. He was found guilty of illegally obtaining a second ration book.

Other goods such as cigarettes and alcohol were never officially rationed, but were often in short supply. Some shopkeepers kept their limited stocks for their favourite customers. This created a great deal of bad feeling and it was not uncommon for shopkeepers to be reported to the Ministry of Food.

Cartoon on rationing that appeared in a magazine in January, 1943
Cartoon on rationing that appeared in a magazine in January, 1943

Children were treated differently from adults and were entitled to extra foods considered essential for growth, such as milk and orange juice. The National Milk Scheme provided one pint of milk for every child under five. Expectant mothers and young children were entitled to free milk if the combined income of parents was less than 40 shillings a week.

The food rationing system gave people the opportunity to obtain a balanced diet and as a result the health of the nation improved during this period.

People were encouraged to provide their own food. The government's Dig for Victory campaign called for every man and woman to keep an allotment. Lawns and flower-beds were turned into vegetable gardens. Chickens, rabbits, goats and pigs were reared in town gardens.

Clothing was rationed from June, 1941. A points system allowed people to buy one completely new outfit a year. To save fabric, men's trousers were made without turnups, while women's skirts were short and straight. Frills on women's underwear were banned.

Women's magazines were packed with handy hints on how, for example, old curtains might be cut up to make a dress. Stockings were in short supply so girls coloured their legs with gravy browning. Sometimes a friend would draw a line down the back of their legs with an eyebrow pencil for a seam.

In May 1943, the annual clothing coupon allowance was cut from 48 to 36 per adult. Later this number of coupons was cut to 20. When one considers that a coat needed 18 coupons this reduction caused serious problems for people.

Primary Sources

(1) Winston Churchill, letter to Lord Woolton, Minister of Agriculture (14th June, 1941)

Have you done justice to rabbit production? Although-rabbits are not by themselves nourishing, they are a pretty good mitigation of vegetarianism. They eat mainly grass and greenstuffs, so what is the harm in encouraging their multiplication in captivity?

I welcome your increase of the meat ration, but it would be a pity to cut this down in the winter, just when fresh vegetables will also drop. Can you not get in additional supplies of American corned beef, pork, and bacon to bridge the winter gap? The more bread you force people to eat the greater the demands on tonnage will be. Reliance on bread is an evil which exaggerates itself. It would seem that you should make further efforts to open out your meat supplies.

I view with great concern any massacre of sheep and oxen. The reserve on the hoof is our main standby.

(2) Winston Churchill, letter to the Minister of Food (4th July, 1941)

It is always difficult to hold the balance between the need for increasing total food supplies and the need to maintain a fair distribution. We should not be too hard on the private individual who increases his supplies by his own productive efforts.

It is satisfactory that the meat prospects are improving, and I hope that pressure on the United States to increase her pork output will soon enable us to raise the ration without risk of having subsequently to reduce it.

We do not wish to create a grievance among farmers by compelling them to slaughter beasts which they can fatten without imported feeding stuffs; on the other hand of course the country cannot go hungry because farmers do not choose to bring their beasts to market.

It will no doubt be possible to arrange with the Minister of Agriculture, perhaps by a carefully worked out price policy, a scheme which will keep the meat supply as constant as possible having regard to seasonal factors.

As to wheat, the point I had in mind was not so much our stock as I the danger of getting into a vicious circle: people eat more bread owing to a shortage of meat, and thereby compel you to import more wheat, thus reducing the shipping space available for bringing in other foods. I do not believe there is great danger of the harvest being destroyed by the enemy this year. We have found it very hard to burn crops, and if you will ask the Air Ministry they will explain to you why the dew conditions in this country make it even harder here than on the Continent.

(3) George Macbeth, A Child of the War (1987)

It must have been about this time that the British Restaurants were opening, with their austerity jam roll and meat balls; and our own meals were beginning to rely rather more on rissoles and home-made apple sponge. But my mother was always a good manager, and I have no sense of any sudden period of shortage or of going hungry.

Sweets were the great loss. There was no longer an everlasting, teeth-spoiling fountain of sherbet and liquorice, or of Boy Blue cream whirls, or of Cadbury's Caramello. Sweets were hard to come by, and then limited to a fixed ration.

One of the worst casualties was chocolate. The traditional division into milk and plain disappeared, and an awful intervening variety known as Ration Chocolate was born, issued in semi-transparent grease-proof wrappers, and about as appetizing as cardboard. In spite of a lifelong sweet tooth, I could never eat it.

(4) David Howell went to a boarding-school in Chigwell during the Second World War. He wrote about her war experiences in Jonathan Croall's book, Don't You Know There's A War On (1989)

I vividly remember school food, which went from the mediocre to the unspeakable. We had mincemeat, potato or cabbage, some kind of milk pudding, a lot of stodge, with sauces that became more and more watery. Somebody had made a killing in salted cod in Iceland, which stank to high heaven. I suppose it had a lot of protein, but that was its only virtue. At one stage lunch consisted of rather watery soup, based on onions, followed by hunks of bread and cheese - that was our economy measure. Good red meat, which was rationed rather strictly, we had twice a week. After the American invasion we had such delights as spam - spiced ham - and prem - pressed meat. One wag said that in that case dried eggs, which were in plentiful supply, should be called dregs. Then there was a baker in the local shop who produced fresh hot rolls, which were our mainstay during break. Sweets were rationed, the making of ice-cream was banned after 1942, on the grounds that, though it was popular with children and invalids, it had no food value, and was a diversion of scarce resources. All meat became very scarce. Some extra account was taken of the needs of growing children, so there was an institutional ration as well as a family ration. So our diet became increasingly monotonous. There were pies which were based on potato and carrot and - we thought it was sawdust - soya beans.

(5) Winston Churchill, letter to Minister of Food (9th December, 1941)

You say that you would have preferred to bring sweets and chocolates within the points scheme, and hope to do so subsequently. Would it not be better to postpone rationing of them until you are able to do so? If you introduce a sweets ration now all the forces of conservatism and arguments of administrative economy will be arrayed against any subsequent proposal to alter matters.

I gather that it was admitted in the Lord President's Committee that a sweets ration would lend itself to irregularities more easily than our other rations. Anything which diminishes respect for the rationing regulations is objectionable. If we create artificial illegalities that are neither enforceable nor condemned by public opinion the habit of evasion may spread to cases where it would be injurious.

We have done without a sweets and chocolate ration for so long that a small further delay may be tolerated. We should avoid allowing exceptions to the principle that any rationing of the secondary foods which you feel compelled to introduce should be incorporated in the points system.

(6) East Grinstead Observer (28th August, 1943)

A well-known East Grinstead resident, Bernard Richardson, of Half-Way House, North End, and proprietor of the Elite Cafe, London Road, has been fined £5 with £10 guineas costs, for supplying false figures to the Ministry of Food and gaining more food points than he was entitled to. William Harry Leppard of 47 Cantelupe Road, East Grinstead, said he was employed from February 1st to 6th by Mr. Greatorex, the East Grinstead Food Control Officer, to keep watch on the Elite Cafe and enter in a book the number of customers. On February 1st there were 153, 2nd there were 161, 3rd there were 157, 4th there were 155, 5th there were 141 and on the 6th there were 126. Miss Molly Fry of the East Grinstead Food Office estimated that the defendant was only entitled to 828 points, whereas on the number of meals he is purported to have served the Food Office issued him with 2,150 points. The magistrate, Louisa Martindale, fined Bernard Richardson £5 with £10 guineas costs.

(7) East Grinstead Observer (16th September, 1944)

Dr. Frederick Ridley of Mudbrooks Farm, Forest Row, was found guilty of adding water to milk for sale. Dr. Ridley was fined £15 and £3 3s. costs. There was a further milk prosecution when Matthew Madge of Brockhurst Home Farm, East Grinstead, was summoned for selling milk to which water had been added.

(8) Barbara Castle, Fighting All The Way (1993)

It was not until January 1940 that food rationing was introduced and even then only for butter (4 ounces per head per week), sugar (12 ounces), uncooked bacon or ham (8 ounces), cooked bacon or ham (3.5 ounces). Margarine was not included and butcher's meat not rationed till March.

An Emergency Powers (Defence) Act was rushed into law (May 1940) under which all citizens were required to place "themselves, their services and their property" at the disposal of the government. Those not serving in the forces were mobilized in a nationwide Home Guard. Food rationing was tightened up. The butter ration was cut to 2 ounces, sugar to 8 ounces and uncooked bacon to 4 ounces. Margarine and other fats were included at last and - the cruellest blow of all - tea rationing was introduced at the devastating rate of 2 ounces per week. We were all exhorted to dig for victory. Exotic fruits like oranges, lemons and bananas almost disappeared from our diets.

(9) Helen Forrester, Lime Street at Two (1985)

Over several lunches, the girls in the office discussed the situation, and agreed that stockings were out. We shaved our legs and went barelegged. Our skin looked horribly white, and all wrong with heavy shoes. So we experimented with painting the part that showed. Liquid makeup was the most effective. But cosmetics were expensive and increasingly difficult to obtain; it took nearly a bottle of liquid makeup to paint two legs. One girl swore by gravy browning, and even went as far as drawing a careful line up the backs of her legs with her eyebrow pencil, to give a resemblance to a stocking seam. But most mothers objected to losing their carefully hoarded gravy browning! This problem was solved by enterprising firms who made up large bottles of what felt like tinted whitewash. It was difficult to get it on smoothly, but the general effect satisfied us, and we all went to work triumphantly, with painted legs.

(10) Eileen Gallant lived in Forest Row, a small village in Sussex. In 1990 she was interviewed about her experiences of rationing during the Second World War.

I used to take our ration books to Coatmans the grocer and Curtis the baker in East Grinstead. Sainsburys had moved into a small church after being bombed. There was no wrapping paper for anything, you took your own. The youngest children had baby ration books and I would queue up for the odd banana or orange. I thought the dried egg was lovely. You should have tasted carrot marmalade!

(11) Virginia Woolf, had a friend who owned a farm. She wrote a letter to Vita Sackville-West about this in November, 1940.

That's a whole pound of butter I said. Saying which, I broke off a lump and ate it pure. Then in the glory of my heart I gave all our week's ration - which is about the size of my thumb nail - to Louie (her maid) then sat down and ate bread and butter. Think of our lunch tomorrow! In the middle of the table I shall put the whole pat. And I shall say: Eat as much as you like.