• Jane Dexter

World War Two Rationing Began - 8th January 1940

On this day, 8th January 1940, world war two rationing began in Britain.

Throughout history war has meant scarcity of food, whether because of the destruction of arable land, the sinking of supply ships, or the hoarding of available supplies by the rich.

As men started to stream out of Britain in September 1939 following the declaration of war on Germany, the British Government realised it had a problem.

At that time, 55 million tonnes of food were being imported every year from other countries, including 80% of the nation’s cheese and sugar, 80% of its fruit, 90% of all cereals and fats, and 50 of the meat consumed.

Soldiers weren’t paid much, and food prices were set to rocket as fears of possible shortages grew (in fact, by February 1940 they had risen by an average of 14%). If the British people were to go without hunger, something had to be done. The answer was rationing.

A compilation of the National Register of citizens was in place by the end of September 1939, ration books distributed to each person in October, with the instruction that they must register with the shops they intended to patronise by the end of November.

This proved rather a boon to the government; it accustomed the public to the idea of austerity measures, and surveys revealed in November that 50% of those questioned considered rationing to be a necessary and fair system.

With the ground prepared, and on January 8th saw the introduction of rationing with a welcome certainty.

Shop-keepers were the experts when it came to coupons and points. They had to be! It was their responsibility to keep track of the varying allowances and shortages of particular goods, to make sure they removed the correct number and type of coupons from the ration books, and to keep a ledger of how much their customers were getting (to discourage black market trades and the monopoly of food staples by those who could afford to pay for them).

Of course, neighbours bartered goods between themselves, families tended to operate a hierarchy of consumption with the children at the top and the housewives at the bottom, and shop keepers sometimes kept a few choice titbits hidden away for their best customers, but generally people took to the rationing well and stuck to it. A good thing too, as the last rations weren’t lifted until 1954! Those who grew up in the war learned never to waste food, and made the most of whatever they received.

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