The Home Front and Rationing
Updated: Dec 5, 2022
In the first year of the 20th century Queen Victoria’s 64 year reign came to an end with her death on January 22nd, 1901. She was succeeded by her eldest son Edward VII who became King of the United Kingdom and the British Dominions and Emperor of India, but his short reign ended in 1910. Edward’s son ascended the throne as George V, but a mere fours later Victoria’s extended royal family of Kings, Tsar and Kaisers throughout Europe would plunge the world into chaos.
On the eve of the ‘war to end all wars’, there was serious domestic unrest in the UK amongst the labour and suffrage movements, and especially the pro-independence struggle in Ireland. Yet at the outbreak of war, patriotic feelings spread throughout the whole country, with much of the population rapidly rallying behind the government. As the war ground on, significant sacrifices were made in the name of defeating the enemy, and it was during the years of conflict that many of the class barriers in Britain were weakened.
Home Front roots
For many people the Home Guard (Dad’s Army), the Women’s Land Army, air raids (the Blitz), German U-boats attacking convoys carry food and essential war materiel, and rationing are all synonymous with the Second World War. Yet each had its roots in the Great War of 1914-18, and the sense of a Home Front grew more acute as the war ground on. Characteristic of this sense was the aerial bombing of civilians, a great social leveller as all classes were equally at risk. In reaction to the Zeppelin raids of 1915-17 and Gotha bomber raids of 1917-8, some 200 posts of the Metropolitan Observation Service were established and staffed by volunteers in 1916. This eventually formed the nucleus of the post-war Observer Corps which was established in 1925 and would play a pivotal role in WW2. With quasi-military jobs for civilians and anti-aircraft guns stationed in open spaces throughout the London Air Defence Area, all Londoners at least had every reason to believe they were on the front line as well.
This sense of defending the Home Front was further heightened when in 1917 the government raised the Royal Defence Corps allowing older men or young boys to enlist and undertake home defence duties such as guarding ports, railway yards or main roads. Significantly, the Corps’ formation released further men for the front line and anticipated the Home Guard of 1940.
Women at War
Variously throughout the war, serious shortages of able-bodied men (‘manpower’) led to Britain’s women taking on many of the traditional male roles. Indeed, the Great War is credited by some with drawing women into mainstream employment for the first time. Prime Minister David Lloyd George was clear about how important women were:
‘It would have been utterly impossible for us to have waged a successful war had it not been for the skill and ardour, enthusiasm and industry which the women of this country have thrown into the war.’
The experience of individual women during the war varied greatly, however, with much depending on locality, age, marital status and occupation. Many women found work that directly helped the war effort in the munitions factories (as ‘munitionettes’). Many more found employment opportunities in the Civil Service and in administrative work, which likewise released men for the front. Eventually, women could join the armed forces in non-combatant roles, such as nursing and cooking. By the end of the War some 80,000 women had joined the armed forces in auxiliary roles.
Women’s Land Army born
In February 1917, German U-boats sank 230 ships bringing food to Britain, and over half a million tons of shipping was lost in the following month. At the same time the need to release even more men from agriculture to serve at the front led to the British government’s drive to get more women involved in the production of food and do their part to support the war effort. One goal was to attract middle-class women to act as models for patriotic engagement in non-traditional duties. Many farmers were resistant, however, so the Board of Agriculture set about encouraging farmers to accept women’s help on Britain’s farms. The task was to maximise the output from the land to feed the nation and counteract the effect of the U-boats. Thus, in March 1917, the Women's Land Army was born; not in World War Two as popularly assumed. Overall, the strategy was successful such that by the end of 1917 there were over 260,000 women working as farm labourers, with 23,000 in the Land Army itself, performing chores such as milking cows and picking fruit.
Even this development was not without controversy. The uniform of the Women's Land Army of male overalls and trousers sparked debate on the propriety of cross-dressing. However odd this may seem today, the British government, desperate not to upset the social mores of the time, employed rhetoric to explicitly feminise the new roles with some success. Pre-war, for example, it was generally accepted that secretaries were men. Post-war, and in more recent times, secretarial roles are thought, rightly or wrongly, the preserve of women.
The first rationing
In line with its wartime ‘business as usual’ policy, the British government was initially reluctant to try to control the food markets. It resisted efforts to introduce minimum prices in cereal production, though relenting on the control of essential imports such as sugar, meat and grains. When changes were introduced, however, they had limited effect. In 1916, it became illegal to consume more than two courses while lunching in a public eating place or more than three for dinner; fines were introduced for members of the public found feeding the pigeons or stray animals.
In January 1917, in yet another foretaste of World War Two, Germany’s unrestricted submarine warfare programme began to sink ships bringing food to Britain. Aimed at starving the country into surrender, Britain responded by introducing voluntary rationing the following month. Bread was subsidised from September 1917, but by early 1918 food shortages began to worsen and the disparity in buying power between rich and poor only exacerbated the situation. Consequently, compulsory rationing introduced in stages between December 1917 and February 1918, as Britain's stores of wheat dropped to just six weeks’ supply. Ration books were introduced on July 15th, 1918 for butter, margarine, lard, meat, and sugar. Unsurprisingly rationing saw the weekly consumption of sugar and meat decrease, but ensured every Briton was now entitled to an equal share of the following foodstuffs, some of which were rationed, some not:
· Bread: 7 lb per head per week for male manual workers; 4 lb per head per week for women.
· Oatmeal & Rice: to be used with care.
· Butter & Margarine: 4 oz weekly for an adult or child (total fats = ½ lb per week.
· Cheese: to be used with care.
· Eggs: no restrictions.
· Meat: 2 lb, including bacon, ham, sausage, game, rabbits, poultry & tinned meat.
· Fish: no restrictions.
· Potatoes: use freely.
· Vegetables: use freely, however, the price was not controlled by the government, so prices soared leaving the less well-off with far fewer fruits and vegetables in their diet.
· Fruit: use freely (but see above).
· Sugar: ½ lb weekly for an adult or child.
· Tea: to be used with care.
· Coffee & Cocoa: use freely (and in preference to tea)
World War Two
At the start of the Second World War in September 1939, the civilian population of the country was about 50 million. To feed its citizens, the United Kingdom imported 20,000,000 tons of food per year, including:
· About 70% of its cheese and sugar.
· Nearly 80% of fruits.
· About 70% of cereals and fats.
· 50% of its meat.
· Britain also relied on imported feed to support its domestic meat production.
As in First World War, it was one of the principal strategies of the Germans in the Battle of the Atlantic to attack merchant shipping bound for Britain, restricting British industry and potentially starving the nation into submission. Items such as imported meats, sugar, tea, coffee, tobacco, chocolate and fruit were soon to become scarce and what was available was to be divided equally between all adults and children. Imported non-food items such as textiles, soap and petrol were also rationed.
As a result of the experience of 1917-18, ration books were issued when the Ministry of Food instituted rationing in January 1940. Butter, bacon and sugar were the first goods to be rationed that month, followed in March by meat and preserves. In July, tea, margarine and cooking fat were added, and in 1941 so was cheese. As the war went on foods such as breakfast cereals, biscuits, canned fruit, condensed milk, sweets, chocolate and rice were added to the ration list.
Britons were entitled to buy basic foodstuffs to a weekly limit, while price controls, covering everything from wages and rents to food, tobacco and clothing, also came into force. This ensured poorer people could buy the food they needed. To buy most rationed items, each person had to register at a shop where these items could be purchased and could not shop elsewhere. The shopkeeper was provided with enough food for registered customers, each of whom was provided with a ration book containing coupons. Purchasers had to take their ration books with them when shopping, so the relevant coupon or coupons could be removed or crossed off. For anyone staying in a hotel or boarding house their ration books had to be handed to the proprietor.
This is the typical ration for one person for a whole week:
1. 1s 2d bought about 540g (1 lb 3 oz) of meat. Offal and sausages were only rationed from 1942 to 1944. When sausages were not rationed, the meat needed to make them was so scarce that they often contained a high proportion of bread.
2. Eggs were rationed and ‘allocated to ordinary consumers as available’; in 1944 thirty allocations of one egg each were made. Children and some invalids were allowed three a week; expectant mothers two on each allocation.
3. For vegetarians their ration of meat was substituted by other goods. For example, vegetarians were allowed an extra 3 oz (85 g) cheese.
4. The milk ration was sometimes reduced to 1200ml (2 pints), but the priority was always for expectant mothers and children under 5. Each person got one tin of milk powder equal to 4½l (8 pints) every eight weeks.
5. 4 oz of loose tea equates to the content of about 40 modern teabags.
In addition, each person was allocated 24 ‘points’ for four weeks with which they could buy one tin of fish or meat, or 900g (2 lb) of dried fruit, or 3.6kg (8 lb) of split peas.
After the War
With the Second World War formally ended there was a global shortage of cereals that led to flour, cakes and bread also being rationed. The latter’s rationing lasted from July 1946 until July 1948. While some foods, were removed from the rationed goods list soon after the war, food rationing continued until 1954 when cheese, fats and meat came off the ration and ration books became redundant.
Despite the physical and emotional stress many had to endure, the health of the nation was surprisingly good during the austere war years. As strange as may seem infant mortality declined and the average age of death from natural causes increased. One reason was the change in eating habits forced on the British public by the war. For the poorer sections of society rationing introduced more protein and vitamins, while for others it reduced their consumption of meat, fats, eggs and sugar. Many doctors and nutritionists today would champion any regimen that reduces cholesterol and increases the amount of fibre in our diet. With the link between food and health now generally recognised, perhaps it is a good time to look once more at the wartime recommendations.