As We Once Were: Wartime Rationing

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Michael Denham
Date Published:
14 November 2015
Last updated: 
14 November 2015

Before the Second World War, Britain was not self-sufficient in many materials. Less than one third of the food available in the UK at the start of the war was home produced and the country had to import some 20 million tons each year, including meat, cheese, sugar, fruit, cereals and fats as well as large qualities of fuel. The government read the warning signs and began planning for rationing in 1936, hoping to be better prepared than during the First World War, and by 1938 had already printed ration books.

Hitler was determined to starve this country into submission and directed the Kriegsmarine, using U-boats, mines and surface raiders, assisted by the Luftwaffe and Italian submarines, to strangle the transatlantic lifeline. The resulting Battle of the Atlantic became the longest continuous campaign fought by any of the armed services, lasting from 3rd September 1939 until 8th May 1945.


What was and was not rationed

The Government categorised foods into three groups: the first consisted of guaranteed rationed food, the second included foods like milk, eggs, fish, fruits, and vegetables whose availability fluctuated, and the third included staple foods such as bread and potatoes, which remained uncontrolled: a policy designed to stave off widespread hunger. Rationing was achieved by issuing every man, woman and child, with a ration book containing coupons. To buy most rationed items, each person had to register at chosen shops. The shopkeeper had enough food for registered customers and when an item was purchased, the relevant coupon was cancelled. Double booking to obtain double rations with different shopkeepers was prohibited.

Petrol was the first item rationed in 1939 but was eventually restricted to ‘official’ users only e.g. bus companies and farmers. On January 8th 1940 butter, bacon and sugar followed. Later meat, tea, jam, biscuits, breakfast cereals, cheese, eggs, lard, milk, canned and dried fruit joined the list. Babies, pregnant women and the sick were allocated additional food items such as milk, orange juice and cod liver oil. Domestic coal was rationed to 15 hundredweight in London and 20 hundredweight for those in the north. Anthracite was not rationed. All types of soap were rationed by weight or liquid quantity. Some families supplemented their rations with food parcels from friends living abroad.

A typical weekly ration per person, when at its lowest level, was butter 4oz; bacon and ham 4oz; loose tea 4oz; sugar 8oz; meat one shilling-worth; cheese 1oz; preserves 8oz a month.

By 1942, most foods were rationed except vegetables, bread, and fish. Lemons and bananas disappeared but oranges were occasionally available (remember that episode in Dad’s Army). Cigarettes and tobacco were not rationed. Strict controls produced a thriving ‘black market’: alcohol was in short supply, as Private Walker in Dad’s Army knew quite well. From September 1939, newspapers were limited at first to 60% of their pre-war consumption of newsprint. Wrapping paper for most goods was prohibited. Whether rationed or not, many consumer goods, such as razor blades became difficult to obtain.

The government strongly encouraged ‘Growing your own fruit and vegetables’ with well-publicised ‘Dig for Victory’ campaigns and imaginative ideas about using potatoes. Women from the Women’s Land Army helped on farms. Recruitment was originally voluntarily but later conscription was introduced producing an army of over 80,000 women.

Allotments thrived with numbers reaching 1.4 million. Pigs, chickens and rabbits were reared domestically for meat. I have firm memories of my father growing a range of vegetables on his allotment in Manchester and my school using food waste from its kitchens to feed its pigs. Incidentally, in 1940, wasting food became a criminal offence.

Clothing was rationed using a point’s system. This allowed for approximately one new outfit per year but was reduced steadily, until buying a coat used up almost a year’s supply of clothing points. Clothing became utilitarian: pleats and turn-ups disappeared from trousers and garments were plain. Women painted gravy browning on bare legs as a replacement for silk stockings and painted black lines at the back to simulate the seams!

Bread was not rationed but the ‘National Loaf’ was introduced to replace the usual white loaf. This was not to everyone’s taste due to its dark colour.[1] From 1940 until the end of food rationing, legislation enforced the milling of flour up to 80% extraction or higher in order to make full use of the nutritional value of the wheat grain. Calcium was added to bread in the 1940s to increase its levels in the diet at a time when dairy products were scarce and the phytate content of high extraction flour, used in the wartime loaf, inhibited absorption of calcium. Further restrictions on bread sales followed: loaves could not be sold until the day after baking so that slicing was easier and the ‘just baked smell’ had disappeared.

Fish was not rationed. Prices increased considerably until they were controlled in 1941. Supplies outstripped demands and long queues built up at fishmongers. Game meat and pigeons were not rationed but supplies were limited. Spam appeared in 1937, gained popularity during the war and is still available today. Foreign meats, such as whale meat and snoek fish from South Africa, were introduced but were not popular.

Home catering

People were encouraged to eat protein, carbohydrates, pulses, fruit and vegetables, with encouragement from the Ministry of Food with its educational posters and leaflets.

Marguerite Patten's cooking tips on the Home Service drew six million listeners daily. In similar vein, Grandma Buggins (otherwise Mabel Constanduros) on the BBC, achieved fame playing the Cockney character in the radio programme ‘The Buggins Family’, which ran from 1928 to 1948. Housewives were encouraged to be creative: 'mock' recipes included 'cream' (margarine, milk and corn flour) and 'goose' (lentils and breadcrumbs). Carrots replaced sugar in apricot tart and were eaten on sticks as lollies. Powdered egg from America became a mainstay item.

The famous Woolton pie, so called after Lord Woolton who was Minister of Food in 1940, was an adaptable inexpensive meal of vegetables, when rationing and shortages made other dishes hard to prepare.

It was created at the Savoy Hotel, London by its then Maître Chef de Cuisine, Francis Latry. The recipe involved dicing and cooking potatoes (or parsnips), cauliflower, swede, carrots and, possibly, turnip. Rolled oats and chopped spring onions, were added to the thickened vegetable water, which was poured over the vegetables. It was topped with potato pastry and grated cheese and served with vegetable gravy. The recipe was adapted to reflect the availability of ingredients. Perhaps it is fair to say that it had a mixed reception!

Public catering

Private restaurants remained open, were not subject to rationing and continued to be popular with those who could afford it. However, food was controlled by price with a maximum of five shillings per meal and by quantity with no meal consisting of more than three courses.

British Restaurants

These were originally called 'Community Feeding Centres', but Winston Churchill had the name changed to 'British Restaurants'.[2] They were run by the local authority or voluntary agencies on a ‘not for profit’ basis and were often set up in schools and church halls. They were used to feed those bombed out of their homes and to provide cheap meals for workers. Mobile canteens delivered meals to air raid shelter. No-one was given with more than one serving of meat, game, poultry, fish, eggs, or cheese. In 1943, some 2,160 British Restaurants served 600,000 very inexpensive meals a day. They ceased in 1947.

Did rationing work?

In December 1939, Widdowson and McCance tested whether the United Kingdom could survive with only domestic food production if all imports ceased. Using 1938 food-production data, they fed themselves and other volunteers with one egg, one pound of meat, and four ounces of fish a week; one quarter pint of milk a day; four ounces of margarine; and unlimited amounts of potatoes, vegetables, and wholemeal bread. Two weeks of intensive outdoor exercise simulated the strenuous wartime physical work Britons would likely have to perform. They found that the subjects' health and performance remained very good after three months. However, meal times were longer to allow time to eat the necessary calories from bread and potatoes. A marked increase in flatulence from the high amount of starch in the diet was reported!

Was rationing a success?

Rationing ensured the population got its allotted amounts, and therefore a nutritionally reasonable diet. Despite its complexity, queuing and paperwork, many appreciated the fairness and equality of rationing, providing everyone with enough to eat. The prevalence of obesity was negligible while birth weight and infant mortality improved. On the other hand, the lack of food variety became boring and it was prudent to 'keep in' with the local grocer, who reserved extras for favoured customers.

The cost

The cost in casualties and shipping was considerable. Sources give varying statistics but on the Allied side, by the end of the war, 6,000 merchant ships totaling 21 million tons had been sunk as well as 175 Allied warships. Approximately 72,200 Allied naval and merchant seamen lost their lives. On the German side, the Kriegsmarine lost 783 U-boats from the 1,155 sent to sea with approximately 30,000 sailors killed: a casualty rate, killed or captured, of over 85%: the highest casualty rate of any armed forces of any conflict in the history of modern warfare.


Food rationing worsened after the War due the country’s very badly damaged economy. Bread rationing began for the first time in late 1946; the bacon ration halved in October and potatoes were rationed in November. The Standing Committee on Medical and Nutritional Problems was concerned about those who had to live on their rations and lacked access to canteen or restaurant meals. The Ministry of Health decided to help with assistance with shopping, cooking and providing meals on wheels. Rationing actually ceased in May 1954, although cheese production remained depressed for decades because Cheddar cheese production had suppressed the manufacture of other types.


[1] The decision to add calcium to bread was opposed but the Government based its decision on research by McCance and Widdowson, who recommended 120mg calcium carbonate be added to each 100g of 85% extraction National Wheatmeal flour.

[2] Do you remember how Churchill changed the name of the Local Defence Volunteers to the Home Guard?

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