At the beginning of World War II, the UK imported 55 million tons of foodstuffs per year (70%), including more than 50% of its meat, 70% of its cheese and sugar, nearly 80% of fruits and about 90% of cereals and fats. It was one of the principal strategies of the Axis to attack shipping bound for the UK, restricting British industry and potentially starving the nation into submission.
To deal with extreme shortages, the Ministry of Food instituted a system of rationing. Each person registered with their local shops, and was provided with a ration book that contained coupons. The shopkeeper was provided with enough food for registered customers. When purchasing goods, the purchaser had to give the shopkeeper a coupon as well as money.
At around 1916 in the First World War, Germany started using its U-boats (submarines) in order to sink the ships - many of which were American - that were bringing food to the country and starve Britain into surrender. In about two years, Britain had just six weeks' food left and, therefore, had to ration its food supplies.
During the Second World War, rationing was introduced very early. On 8 January 1940, bacon, butter and sugar were rationed. This was followed by meat, tea, jam, biscuits, breakfast cereals, cheese, eggs, milk and canned fruit. Strict rationing caused many people to buy food on the black market; however people were often tricked with cheaper substitutes such as horsemeat instead of beef.
One of the few foods not rationed were fish and chips. The price of fish increased considerably as the war progressed, but the government was content to allow this since they realized fishermen would need to be able to collect a premium for their catch if they were to be persuaded to put to sea in the face of enemy submarines.
As the war progressed, most foods came to be rationed, as were non-food commodities such as clothing and petrol. Clothing was rationed on a points system. Initially the allowance was for approximately one new outfit per year; as the war progressed the points were reduced to the point where the purchase of a coat constituted almost an entire year's clothing.
Rationing continued after the end of the war. In fact, it became stricter after the war ended than during the hostilities. Bread, which was not rationed during the war, was rationed from 1946 to 1948; potato rationing began in 1947. At the time this was presented as being due to the necessity of feeding the population of European areas under British control, whose economies had been devastated by the fighting. This was partly the case, however with a large number of British men still mobilized in the armed forces, an austere economic climate, and a centrally-planned economy still being operated by the post-war Labour government, resources were not available to expand food production and importation. Frequent industrial action by certain groups of workers (most critically the dockworkers) also exacerbated the situation.
At the 1950 General Election the Conservatives campaigned on a manifesto of ending rationing as quickly as possible. During the following Labour-controlled parliament, petrol rationing ended on 26 July 1950. The Conservatives came to power in 1951. Sweet rationing ended in February 1953, and sugar rationing ended in September 1953, however the end of all food rationing did not come until 4 July 1954, with meat the last to go.
Restaurants were exempt from rationing, which led to resentment, as the rich could supplement their food allowance by eating out frequently and extravagantly. To restrict this, rules were put into force: no meal could cost more than five shillings; no meal could consist of more than three courses; meat and fish could not be served at the same sitting. Establishments known as British Restaurants supplied another almost universal experience of eating away from home. British Restaurants were run by local authorities, who set them up in various premises such as schools and church halls. They evolved from the London County Council’s Londoners’ Meals Service which originated in September 1940 as a temporary emergency system for feeding those who had been bombed out. By mid-1941 the London County Council was operating 200 of these restaurants; during 1942 to 1944 there were thousands of them. Here a three-course meal cost only 9d. Standards varied, but the best were greatly appreciated and had a large regular clientele. Similar schemes were run in other towns and cities.
The average standard rations during the Second World War are as follows. Quantities are per week unless otherwise stated; all from the same source, which is elided for brevity.
|Item||Maximum level||Minimum level||Rations (April '45)|
|Bacon and Ham||8 oz (227 g)||4 oz (113 g)||4 oz (113 g)|
|Sugar||16 oz (454 g)||8 oz (227 g)||8 oz (227 g)|
|loose Tea||4 oz (113 g)||2 oz (57 g)||2 oz (57 g)|
|Meat||1 s. 2d.||1s||1s. 2d.|
|Cheese||8 oz (227 g)||1 oz (28 g)||2 oz (57 g)|
|Preserves||1 lb (0.45 kg) per month
2 lb (0.91 kg) marmalade
|8 oz (227 g) per month||2 lb (0.91 kg) marmalade
or 1 lb (0.45 kg) preserve
or 1 lb (0.45 kg) sugar
|Butter||8 oz (227 g)||2 oz (57 g)||2 oz (57 g)|
|Margarine||12 oz (340 g)||4 oz (113 g)||4 oz (113 g)|
|Lard||3 oz (85 g)||2 oz (57 g)||2 oz (57 g)|
|Sweets||16 oz (454 g) per month||8 oz (227 g) per month||12 oz (340 g) per month|
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.
Milk was supplied at 3 imp pt (1.7 l) each week week for priority to expectant mothers and children under 5; 3.5 imp pt (2.0 l) for those under 18; children unable to attend school 5 imp pt (2.8 l), certain invalids up to 14 imp pt (8.0 l). Each consumer got one tin of milk powder (equal to 8 imperial pints (4.5 l; 9.6 US pt)) every 8 weeks.
All types of soap were rationed. Coupons were allotted by weight or (if liquid) by quantity. In 1945, the ration gave four coupons each month; babies and some workers and invalids were allowed more. A coupon would yield:
The Fuel and Lighting (Coal) Order 1941 came into force in January 1942. Central heating was prohibited "in the summer months", i.e. July 29 to August 29.
Domestic coal was rationed to 15 hundredweight (cwt) — 3⁄4 long tons (0.76 t) for those in London and the south of England; 20 hundredweight — 1 long ton (1.0 t) for the rest (the south part of England having generally a milder climate). Some kinds of coal such as anthracite were not rationed, and in the coal-mining areas were eagerly gathered as they were in the Great Depression (see Road to Wigan Pier).