Rationally Speaking

Following on from what might have been, for many, a slightly over indulgent Christmas, spare a thought for 75 years ago when rationing was being introduced across the country.

Fuel rationing had already begun in September 1939, with the issuing of ration books following in October that year. To counteract any threats to supply lines coming into Britain, and to ensure the nation was fed, food rationing was introduced on January 8th, 1940.

Ration Book dated 1948-1949. © IWM (EPH 1751)

Ration Book dated 1948-1949. © IWM (EPH 1751)

One of the most obvious targets during the War was the supply of foodstuffs. With convoys coming across the Atlantic constantly under threat from German U-Boats, it would only be a matter of time before the nation began to starve, unless the distribution of available supplies was managed properly.

Butter, sugar and bacon were the first items to be rationed. Followed by eggs, tea and cheese. Rations were allocated based on weight, value or a points based system, with points often being used to obtain dried and tinned goods. This was strongly supported by the famous ‘Dig for Victory’ campaign, which encouraged the nation to make the best use of any available land to grow vegetables.  Of course the well documented effect of this was that the nation’s diet and health actually improved, particularly for the poorer of the country.

Pages from a ration book issued in Birmingham. [MS 1893/3]

Pages from a ration book issued in Birmingham.       [MS 1893/3]

Pages from a ration book issued in Birmingham. [MS 1893/3]

Pages from a ration book issued in Birmingham. [MS 1893/3]

Rationing was introduced very early on in the Second World War, seemingly influenced by the successful trial during the First World War. As would be the case some 20 years later, protecting Britain’s supplies would prove crucial. In 1917, queues outside shops were becoming a regular part of daily life. Recycling was encouraged, along with growing your own food, prompting the Parks Department in Birmingham to make more allotment plots available, leading to 1,800 acres of land being used as allotments by the end of 1918.

Birmingham established its Food Committee in March 1917, and in August the same year the Government Food Controller requested all local authorities establish food control committees.  The first produce affected was sugar – all places selling sugar were subject to a registration scheme and ration cards were issued in September 1917.  From 12 December 1917, Birmingham was the location of a pilot scheme for the rationing of tea, sugar, butter and margarine. Rationing was then introduced nationally from July 1918.

First World War Postcard relating to the potato shortage, 1917. [MS 4067]

First World War Postcard relating to the potato shortage, 1917. [MS 4067]

As with both wars, demand continued to exceed supply once the conflict was over. The Birmingham Food Control Committee was not disbanded until 1920 and following the cessation of hostilities in 1945, Britain continued to ration certain goods for nearly 10 years. Again, one notable item affected was sugar. Something to bear in mind following a little too much chocolate at Christmas!


One response to “Rationally Speaking

  1. Pingback: On This Day, 24 February 1917 | Voices of War and Peace

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