Operation Sealion – Part 6

Blown Periphery, Going Postal

Food Glorious Food – Rationing and Digging for Victory

During the First World War, Britain had seen dangerously long queues for food, as the German U-boat offensive began to bite. Rationing was started in 1917, commencing with sugar, then meat and butter in February 1918. While the government congratulated itself on their handling of food supplies after the war, it hadn’t been the success it had been trumpeted. Food prices rose by 130% and the ration coupons were often useless, as the supply of items never met the demand. But perhaps worse, the system wasn’t seen to be fair, as the rich could and often did circumvent the system.
The British government looked at the lessons from 1914-1918 and resolved to do better. Throughout the Second World War, the government was able to honour all ration coupons, food prices rose by only 20%. Ironically, the British people were educated in preparing nutritional, albeit frugal meals for the table. By the end of the war, the population was healthier than it had ever been before and in many ways, home economics won the war. It was also an age when being a housewife was considered to be a vital component of the war effort, not an undertaking to be derided and pitied by those of leftard persuasions.

In 1935 the population of Britain was around 49 million and the country imported 70% of its food. This required 20 million tons of shipping per year to import 50% of all meat, 70% of cheese and sugar, 80% of fruits, 70% of cereals and fats and 91% of butter. The vast majority of these imported goods came from New Zealand, which was an extremely long and vulnerable supply line. The Axis powers had already identified this and planned to move their commerce raiders into the Indian Ocean as soon as the war seemed likely. The British government began planning the introduction of rationing in 1936 and a Food (Defence Plans) Department was set up as part of the board of trade to project plan and manage the acquisition, storage and distribution of food. By 1938, ration booklets were printed for the entire population and ready to be issued. This was a remarkable achievement for Stanley Baldwin’s and Neville Chamberlain’s Conservative Governments. One only has to look at the intellectual toddlers who pretend to govern us today to realise just how fortunate our parents and grandparents truly were. But then again, some say you get the government you deserve.

Britain declared war on Germany on 3rd September 1939 and the Ministry of Food was reconstituted with William Morrison as Minister. Chamberlain replaced Morrison with Frederick Marquis, Baron Woolton. He had been a social worker in an era before it was cancerous with common purpose and a former managing director of the Lewis stores chain in Northern England. He was a good communicator and had been awarded his peerage for his contributions to British Industry. Because he had no prior dealings with politics or government, he was an inspired choice and remained as Minister of Food until 1943. Churchill transferred him to the Ministry of Reconstruction to start planning the rebuilding of Britain after the war.

Woolton didn’t simply think in terms of rationing foodstuffs, he wanted the British people to be treated as consumers and understand nutrition in basic terms, to get the best out of a limited and sometimes dreary supply. His department understood the link between well-being, health and morale and how diet was so vital towards a healthy population. Woolton’s chief scientific advisor was Jack Drummond, who worked closely with Wilson Jameson, British Chief Medical Officer from 1940 to 1950.

While it may seem trite and patronising to us in these “enlightened” times, by the end of the war, housewives had become very educated in nutritional vocabulary. The Ministry issued many cooking leaflets, often dedicated to specific topics such as the magic of carrots. The language used was practical, and realistic for the time — in listing ingredients for suggested recipes, the government leaflets would often say beside an ingredient such as butter: “if possible.” Cooking demonstrations were held in department stores and in WI meetings. Educational short public information films on cooking were made for showing at cinemas; BBC Radio ran a morning radio programme called “Kitchen Front”, broadcast from studios in Oxford Street, London.

The Ministry of Food eventually employed 15,000 people. There were 18 Food Officers in Great Britain, with one in Northern Ireland; 1,500 Food Control Committees (with consumer and retailer representatives on them), and 1,300 Local Food Offices, who distributed ration books and licenced shopkeepers to handle them. The Ministry of Food also created secret food depot warehouses throughout the country in which it stockpiled food in the event of invasion. This was unknown to the wider population.

Blown Periphery, Going Postal

The ration booklets were issued to the public on 8th September 1939, but were not actually used until four months later. Rationing was delayed, partially due to a campaign by the Daily Express newspaper and called rationing a folly and unnecessary inroad into civil liberties. The government overruled the dissenters and introduced rationing on 8th January 1940. Obviously rationing only entitled you to a certain amount of a particular item, but if you couldn’t pay for it you went without. Ration books were issued to each person and child, collected from the local and designated Ministry of Food offices and fresh ones were issued each year. To replace a lost ration booklet you would have to sign a declaration and pay one shilling for a replacement.

An individual would have to register at a certain store and was only able to use the coupons there. Initially, they all had to be used on a week-by-week basis, but it became allowed to store up coupons for two weeks for some items like meat and four weeks for other items for birthdays and special occasions. Special rations were issued for vegetarians who could use the meat allowance for cheese and those with special dietary restrictions such as Jews and Muslims. Persons engaged in hard, physical labour received a higher calorific content. Even the Royal family were issued with ration books. When Eleanor Roosevelt stayed at Buckingham Palace, she reported on the rationing of food at dinner there (and noted that hot bath water was rationed as well).

An important functional principle was that, unlike during the First World War, the government applied rationing only to items that it could be sure of people being able to get always. The goal was to ensure that the consumer’s ration entitlement would always be honoured. A ration coupon was your guarantee that you would get your share of something, however small the shares were. Rationing wasn’t applied to seasonal items, for example summer fruit such as berries, as the government couldn’t guarantee their year-round supply. Those fortunate enough to live in the country could supplement their ration with rabbits and pigeons.

When points rationing was first introduced, everyone had 16 points per every four weeks. Later that was raised to 24 points, then on 27 May 1945 reduced downward again, to 20 points. The Ministry of Food could adjust upwards or downwards the number of points that a food item would cost, depending on the supply of it at the time in the nation’s food chain. Housewives would watch the newspapers to monitor news on the “Changes in Points Value” columns, to see if anything they wanted had become cheaper (or more expensive) in points.

The Ministry of Food launched its ‘Dig for Victory’ campaign in October 1939, one month after war broke out. The campaign was led by an agricultural economist, Professor John Raeburn, who was recruited to the Ministry of Food in 1939, and who would run the campaign until the end of the war. The campaign encouraged people to transform their front and back gardens into vegetable plots. The goal was to replace imported food, thus freeing up shipping space for more valuable war materials, and to make up for food that was sunk in transit. By the end of 1940, 728,000 tons of food making its way to Britain had been lost, sunk by German submarine activity.
In 1940 a shortage of feed meant that millions of commercially-farmed hens had to be killed and sold off as food. This led to an egg shortage, and egg rationing of one egg per person a week. Expectant mothers and vegetarians were allowed two eggs a week. Consequently, people who hadn’t before, and could, started keeping chickens in their back gardens, because that meant you had unrationed eggs. The catch was, you had to give up your egg ration, but you got entitlement for grain rations instead for your chickens. The Savoy Hotel in London had its own chicken farm, set up by Hugh Wontner, managing director of the Savoy hotel from 1941 to 1979. This supplied the Savoy with its own un-rationed source of chicken and eggs. They were still required to ration them on their restaurant menus to customers, however.

During the war, daylight savings was put ahead by two hours every year in March, to allow more daylight hours for farming, and gardening after work. Overall, the campaign was a massive success: by 1943, it was estimated that home gardens were producing over one million tons of produce, and by 1945, around 75% of food consumed in Britain was produced in Britain. The campaign was still kept up after the war, in order to free up food to feed the starving populations of Europe. Today, you may well be asking yourself why the hell we bothered.

Meat was the last item to come off rationing in 1954. Horse meat wasn’t rationed, so housewives avoided buying beef because they couldn’t be sure it wasn’t horse. Offal and sausages weren’t rationed until 1942 and the Ministry of Food passed a regulation that sausages had to contain at least 10% meat. Meat pies weren’t rationed, although the meat was likely to be Spam. Fish was not rationed, partly because the Ministry of Food couldn’t find an effective way to ration it, given the underlying principle they followed that rationed items would only be those of which they could guarantee constant supply. Supply was governed by the natural scarcity of how many fishermen were willing to put out to sea with submarines lurking under them at any given time. Consequently, there were always very long queues outside fishmongers.

The government was not simply concerned that people had basic quantities of basic foods: they also considered the overall population health as understood at the time to be vital to the war effort. Doctors regularly visited schools to check the nutrition and health status of children. Schools dosed students up weekly with Virol, a bone-marrow laxative tonic sweetened with malt, to keep them regular. School meals became free for poorer children. Children under five got cod liver oil, those under three got daily milk (fluid or full-cream from dried), and orange juice as well. Mothers picked up the bottles of cod liver oil and concentrated orange juice (both provided by America) at clinics called “Welfare Centres” that were set up.

Rationing allowances fluctuated during the war.

Sample 1943 rations of basics for a week for one person:

  • 3 pints of milk
  • 1lb meat
  • 1 egg a week or 1 packet of dried eggs (equal to 12) every 2 months
  • 3 to 4 oz cheese
  • 4 oz combined of bacon or ham
  • 2 oz tea, loose leaf
  • 8 oz sugar
  • 2 oz butter
  • 2 oz cooking fat

And now for your delectation, the recipe for Woolton Pie. It was created at the Savoy Hotel in London by its then Maitre Chef de Cuisine, Francis Latry for the Ministry of Food.

  • 1lb cauliflower
  • 1lb parsnips
  • 1lb carrots
  • 1lb potatoes
  • Bunch of spring onions chopped
  • 2 teaspoons of Marmite (yeast extract – or you can use a stock cube)
  • Tablespoon of rolled oats
  • Salt and pepper to taste once cooked.
  • Parsley (fresh or dried)

For the pastry

  • 8oz wholemeal/wholewheat flour
  • 4oz mashed potato
  • 3oz margarine or lard
  • 2 tsp of baking powder
  • couple large pinches of salt
  • Dash of water if needed.


Chop up the vegetables into chunks with those that take longest to cook into smaller pieces.
Place in pot and bring to simmer with just enough water to reach 3/4 of the way up the veg in the pot.

Add in Marmite and rolled oats, salt and pepper and cook until tender and most of the water has been absorbed.

Place mixture in deep pie dish and sprinkle with fresh parsley (or add dry parsley to mixture and mix in)

Make the pastry by mixing the flour with the baking powder and salt and then rubbing in the margarine.

Mix the mashed potato in to form a dough and knead (add a little water to the mixture if too dry)
Roll out to form pie crust and place on top and decorate then brush with milk.

Place in oven at 200C for 30 minutes or so until top is form and browned.

Serves 8

© Blown Periphery 2018

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