In association with The National Archive October, 1940 - British housewives queue to buy eggs, both domestically sourced and supplied from 'the Dominions' - in this case, Canada. October, 1940 - British housewives queue to buy eggs, both domestically sourced and supplied from 'the Dominions' - in this case, Canada.

'A fair share for all'; rationing in wartime Britain

Britain’s reliance on imported foodstuffs meant that rationing was imperative to ensure the nation suffered no food shortages caused by the threat of German warships

Before World War II, keeping food on Britain’s tables was heavily dependent on foreign imports. In 1939 only around 30% of everything Brits ate was produced domestically - the rest was shipped in from producers and suppliers around the world.

In 1939 only around 30% of everything Brits ate was produced domestically

As war loomed, this situation clearly had to change. The risk posed by German attacks on merchant ships meant that food shortages in Britain were a distinct possibility. To help mitigate this risk, the government declared that rationing would be imposed.

It began with petrol in 1939, and was extended to foodstuffs in January 1940. The government announcements in the newspapers described rationing as ‘part of national defence’, and when the restrictions were extended to meat in March 1940 the public was instructed to ‘bear in mind that our fighting forces, whose needs must come first, consume a large proportion of our supplies.’

Rationing, therefore, was key to Britain’s war effort. Keeping a the population healthy enough to maintain production would be an essential part of the battle on the Home Front. 

A British housewife has limited choice for her vegetable purchasing, as potato stocks dry up due to tight rationing control over supply - December, 1941

A British housewife has limited choice for her vegetable purchasing, as potato stocks dry up due to tight rationing control over supply - December, 1941. Image: Mary Evans/Grenville Collins Postcard Collection

The 1939 Register was used to devise a carefully detailed rationing plan. In January 1940, every individual was issued with a ration book and registered at their local shops. Shopkeepers were then supplied with sufficient food for everyone registered. Ration books worked on a coupon system, so people could only purchase their entitlement and no more. 

A typical person’s weekly ration allowed them 1 egg, 2 ounces each of tea and butter, an ounce of cheese, eight ounces of sugar, four ounces of bacon and four ounces of margarine. Meat wasn’t rationed immediately, but when it was its availability was decided by price rather than points, meaning cheaper cuts quickly became the most popular for many housewives. Catchy phrases like ‘go easy with bread, try potatoes instead’ were devised and circulated by the Ministry of Food to urge housewives to be frugal.

A typical person’s weekly ration allowed them 1 egg, 2 ounces each of tea and butter, an ounce of cheese, eight ounces of sugar, four ounces of bacon and four ounces of margarine.

This system meant that staying in the good books of your local greengrocer or butcher was essential for everyone harbouring a secret hope of receiving the occasional added offcut along with their rations - and this wasn’t the only rule breaking that went on. Rationing helped a black market to prosper; ‘Spivs’ and other criminals offered those who could afford it additional food, fuel and luxuries that were difficult to come by, at least in the quantities some people wanted. This was a lucrative industry, and the maximum five year jail sentence being a ‘Spiv’ carried was insufficient to put many off.  

If the iniquity of the black market was one complaint of those who had little to exchange, the contrast between cities and the countryside also rankled. While those in the city had one egg per week, and meagre milk and margarine rations, those in more rural areas had far more access to eggs, milk, butter, cheese and anything that could be hunted, trapped or poached from the local area. 

... the contrast between cities and the countryside also rankled. While those in the city had one egg per week, and meagre milk and margarine rations, those in more rural areas had far more access to eggs, milk, butter, cheese and anything that could be hunted, trapped or poached from the local area. 
Back View Of Grocer Pointing Out Prices Of Canned Goods To Woman Holding Ration Book

Back View Of Grocer Pointing Out Prices Of Canned Goods To Woman Holding Ration Book Image: Mary Evans/Classic Stock/C.P. Cushing

Rationing also brought some class issues to the fore. When food was rationed in 1940, restaurants were immune, so those who could afford it could supplement their rations by dining out whenever they liked. In 1942, restrictions were put on restaurants that limited the cost of the meal, the number of courses and the amount of meat and fish it could contain. Elsewhere, thousands of ‘British Restaurants’ were established, providing affordable – if notoriously unappetising – meals to workers and those who had no means to cook their own food.

The government devised a number of ways to keep Britain fed and – after clothes rationing came in June 1941 – dressed, some of which remain iconic today. Minister for Food Lord Woolton’s ‘Dig for Victory’ initiative encouraged every Briton to turn all of the green space they could into allotments so that they could grow enough to feed their own family, as well as raise their own pigs and chickens to provide meat and eggs. The equally memorable ‘Make do and Mend’ campaign taught Britons to repair rather than replace their clothing and other goods, creating a generation of domestic innovators, excellent at repairing even the most damaged garment.

The period of rationing was a surprisingly healthy one for the British public. For many poor people, regular access to fresh meat was an improvement to their standard diet. Pregnant women and children were granted additional eggs, milk and other items to keep them strong, and unhealthy luxuries were difficult to acquire.

The period of rationing was a surprisingly healthy one for the British public. For many poor people, regular access to fresh meat was an improvement to their standard diet

The equality of rationing also appealed to many – despite those whose underhand dealings brought black market rewards, and those whose wealth permitted them frequent restaurant dinners, there was a common feeling that Britons were all in it together, doing their bit to fight the war from home. 

Main image: October, 1940 - British housewives queue to buy eggs, both domestically sourced and supplied from 'the Dominions' - in this case, Canada. Image: Mary Evans/Grenville Collins Postcard Collection