Spoilt for Choice?
British Food Supply in World War Two
The food on our plates has vastly evolved over the past two centuries. When it comes to food supply and choice, we’ve seen a big change from ‘subsistence and need’ to ‘existence and preference’. In this week’s look back at history, we’ll see how British food production, purchase and preparation underwent their most significant upheavals ever during and for a few years after World War Two.
Prior to 1939, it was standard practice for a housewife (yes, women did the bulk of the grocery shopping in this era) to queue up at the butcher, baker, greengrocer and chemist (pharmacy). Shopping for the evening meal was done on a near daily basis as refrigerators were not yet standard household appliances. Many kept things such as milk and meat cool by placing them on a flat slab of slate on a counter near the kitchen. Most meals were made from scratch and store-bought packaged items were either usually very expensive or a let down in the taste department. Convenience or ‘fast’ food just wasn’t in the game plan.
When war was declared in 1939, the British population was taught that ‘everyone had to do their bit’. It reached the highest echelons of society when wrought iron fencing at Buckingham Palace was dismantled to be melted down for wartime factory use and Princess Elizabeth’s wedding gown was made using her allocated ration coupons. A large part of this national effort took the form of ration books, imposed on the population after a national identification registry of 1939 (sidenote: genealogists, the 1939 registry is a good source of information about ancestors). Ration books provided coupons to be used on clothes, food and treats purchases such as tobacco and sweets. As the war progressed and the German U-boats sank multiple supply ship convoys, more and more items were put on ration. Choice became largely a thing of the past. It must have been difficult for those with delicate stomachs or food allergies to feel healthy. One tended to join a queue outside a store, not knowing what was in stock that day. One could wait for half an hour to reach the front of the line, only to be told that the shop had just run out of inventory. Parents often gave up some of their own rations to ensure their children had a little bit more on their plate. It was also common for a mother to trade her tobacco coupons for sweets coupons so her children could enjoy a small treat.
The British government created a new Ministry of Food to ensure the population had enough to eat and to enforce a strict rationing program. Emergency meal stations were set up for victims of bombing or those out of ration coupons; these eateries were elegantly renamed by Sir Winston Churchill as ‘British Restaurants’; a place where one could buy an inexpensive hot meal. Hundreds of thousands of people made good use of these facilities. Creative recipes were used everywhere and the government printed numerous booklets to help people cook with less and also using more substitute ingredients.
Some of the oddities included vegetable pies with little to no meat plus a mock turkey recipe using ground meat and parsnips for drumsticks. Offal and sheep’s head were used as meat dishes and egg-free cakes were touted. Powdered eggs and milk were imported to help bolster the population’s diet. The Women’s Institute also preserved tons of wild, unused and windfallen fruit, making umpteen bottles of jam and jelly.
Farmers now had to report to government representatives who carefully checked that each farm was producing high yield crops and milk. Farms were mandated to cull livestock as animals were more expensive to maintain than crops. Any spare bit of land was expected to be put into production; with petrol being on ration, some creative, mechanically-inclined farmers even rigged up coal-fired vehicles. In cities, people were encouraged to ‘Dig for Victory’ by converting their front lawns to vegetable gardens. Pig Clubs were formed where neighborhoods saved kitchen peelings and yard trimmings to grow precious meat shared by the community and the government ration system.
During the days of rationing, a child’s birthday party would be attended by a group of children, each bringing a small pat of butter or wrapped packet of sugar to compensate the household for what was used for the children’s party cake. Of course, parties were held to celebrate the Allied Forces’ victory, and the nation breathed a sigh of relief as this meant that the end of strict rationing was now within sight. Rationing in England actually continued for eight years after World War Two ended. Foods were gradually taken off ration as supplies increased, with the last items to come off ration including sugar. Remember, though, even if something was no longer ‘on ration’, it could still be in short supply.
We are spoilt for choice with today’s supermarkets and warehouse stores. With such a wide array of consumer goods available today, it seems quite a stretch to believe that one had to concoct a pseudo-turkey Christmas dinner using a cheap ground meat, breadcrumbs and parsnips. During the wartime years in Great Britain, it was hard for people in cities to even imagine eating a fresh orange or banana. A lot can be learned from the sacrifices made by the wartime generation, not least of which are the abilities to adapt, survive, respect others and work together for the common good.
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HMSO Publications Centre, ‘Bygone Britain, At Home: 1900-1970’, London: HMSO, 1995.
Patten, M., ‘The Victory Cookbook: Celebratory Food on Rations!’, Imperial War Museum, Hamlyn, Division of Octopus Publishing Group Ltd., London, 2004.