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How the Ministry of Food managed food rationing in World War Two 11

a black and white photo of women and children queuing on a street

Women and children queue to buy vegetables from a greengrocers in London during 1945. © IWM (D 24990)

Alongside objects and photography from IWM Collections, Terry Charman, former IWM Senior Historian explores the history of rationing during World War Two

Rationing of food began in Britain on 8th January 1940. It was to continue for over fourteen long years, only finally ending on 30th June 1954 when meat “came off the ration”. During the First World War, despite the entreaties of Prime Minister Lloyd George who argued: “You must ration…I would certainly urge that there should be a very complete system of rationing…and everybody must be put on the same footing”, nationwide rationing was only introduced as late as April 1918.

Tentative moves to set up a rationing system in the event of a new war began to be made in November 1936 when the Food (Defence Plans) Department of the Board of Trade was established. As soon as war was declared a fully-fledged Ministry of Food came into being headed by William “Shakes” Morrison, described by a colleague as “the hope of enlightened Tory England” and tipped as a future prime minister.

It thus fell to Morrison to announce on November 1 1939 that rationing was going to be introduced in the near future. His announcement brought forth a storm of protest in the press. Picture Post magazine described it as “the most unpopular Government decision since the war began”, while the Daily Mail thundered:

“Your butter is going to be rationed next month. It would be scarcely possible-even if Dr Goebbels were asked to help-to devise a more harmful piece of propaganda for Great Britain. Our enemy’s butter ration has just been increased from 3ozs to just under 4ozs. Perhaps because of Goering’s phrase ‘guns or butter’ has given butter a symbolical significance. But mighty Britain, Mistress of the Seas, heart of a great Empire, proud of her wealth and resources? Her citizens are shortly to get just 4ozs of butter a week. There is no good reason to excuse Mr Morrison, the Minister of Food, for this stupid decision.”

a black and white photo of a tray with food stuffs on it

A view of a tray containing the ration book for a Mr Norman Franklin and his weekly rations of sugar, tea, margarine, ‘national butter’, lard, eggs, bacon and cheese. © IWM (D 7958)

a photo of a woman with a shopping basket full of bananas

A housewife with a shopping basket full of bananas after a visit to the Co-Op store on Westhorne Avenue, Eltham in London in 1941. Bananas had “virtually disappeared” by 1943. © IWM (HU 92467)

A photo of a ration book and clothing book on a table

A ration book and clothing coupon book as issued to British civilians during the Second World War. © IWM (D 11310)

In more sober and restrained language, “The Economist” agreed:

“The methods adopted by the Ministry of Food, first to oppose rationing, and secondly to find reasons for postponement, have run the whole gamut of plausibility and ingenuity and are now verging on the fantastic.”

But if the press waxed indignant, the British people were not so hostile to the idea of rationing. A Liverpool housewife told Mass Observation: “I wish to goodness they would introduce rationing. At least I would be able to go into a shop and get what I was allowed.”

Many believed that rationing would bring fair shares for all and stop profiteering, a common complaint during the earlier war. A Dorking cleaner spoke of how the “price of food at the local grocer is scandalously high. And I am sure he’s profiteering. He complains he’ll be ruined by the war. I hope he will.”

Such shopkeepers came in for a lot of abuse during the war’s first months as one Mass Observer recorded in his report on “Grocery in War” while also noting: “On one point grocer and customer are at accord. A hundred times a day the sentiment is expressed on both sides of counter, ‘I’ll be glad when they start rationing. It’ll put an end to all this’”.

A view borne out by polls taken by Mass Observation and the British Institute of Public Opinion after Morrison made his announcement. The BIPO poll showed that 60% of those questioned thought that rationing was necessary, 28% were against it being introduced, while 12% said don’t know.

Ration books began to be distributed a week or so after Morrison’s announcement, and two months later rationing started. Bacon and ham were rationed to 4ozs a week, sugar to 12ozs and butter to 4ozs. Meat was rationed from 11th March 1940 and unlike all rationed foodstuffs it was done by shillings and pence instead of pounds and ounces.

The ration was one shilling and ten pence (1/10d) at first, but after some fluctuations it went down to 1/2d on 7th July 1941 where it remained for the rest of the war. Cooking fats were rationed in July 1940 as was tea (2ozs), while preserves and cheese were added to the list of rationed goods in March and May 1941.

By then Morrison had long since left the Ministry after an unhappy stewardship. Tory MP Henry “Chips” Channon noted in his diary on 3rd April 1940: “Poor ‘Shakes’ has had a setback, and an obscure business peer, Lord Woolton, has been made Minister of Food.”

a black and white photo of a man in a homburg hat and overcoat accepting a cup of tea from a mobile canteen

The Minister for Food between April 1940 and 11 November 1943, Lord Woolton, receiving a cup of tea from a mobile canteen. © IWM (HU 48187)

a photo of a shop counter with food and the hands of a shopkeeper stamping a ration book

A shopkeeper stamps Mrs Day’s ration book during her shopping trip on the Kings Road in Chelsea. In the foreground can be seen the tea, sugar, ‘national butter’, margarine, cooking fats and bacon she is allowed for one week. Part of a Ministry of Information series, A Wartime Housewife, Everyday life in London England, 1941. © IWM (D 2373)

a photo of a gelatinous pie surrounded by vegetables

A dish called ‘Sausage and Apple Mould’, one of a series of meals developed by the Ministry of Food to encourage people to make the best use of available home-grown produce, 18 October 1943. © IWM (V 137)

Morrison’s failure at the Ministry and the constant sniping at it by the press prompted Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain to ask Lord Woolton, Director-General of the Ministry of Supply to take over. It was an inspired choice. Within a remarkably short space of time, from being one of the most despised of wartime bureaucratic creations, the Ministry of Food under Woolton became probably the most admired and popular.

To be fair, Woolton inherited a well-organized Ministry, but one that was suffering from a bad public image and low morale. This, the 58-year-old Woolton rectified in a masterly fashion. He got King George VI to make a morale-boosting visit to the Ministry which, Woolton thought, “did more good for the internal morale of the Ministry of Food than anybody else could have done in a year.”

“Uncle Fred” took the public into his confidence, warning them of impending shortages

But he himself was a brilliant communicator. Coached by the BBC commentator Howard Marshall, who became the Ministry’s first Director of Public Relations, Woolton became a popular broadcaster, as well appearing on film, at public meetings and weekly press conferences.

To ensure a good press, Woolton had regular private meals with newspaper proprietors, but he also found time to deal personally with a vast volume of daily correspondence, (200 letters a day by the time he left the Ministry in November 1943). To the public he soon became “Uncle Fred”. He took the public into his confidence, warning them of impending shortages, and frankly admitting and correcting the occasional errors of judgement and maladministration by his Ministry.

In ensuring the adequate supply and fair distribution of the nation’s food, “Uncle Fred’s” Ministry worked in close collaboration with the Ministry of Agriculture headed by Tory minister Robert Hudson, the Treasury and the Ministry of War Transport which was also headed by a businessman Lord Leathers.

a photo of bottle of milk and meats and cheese and butter

This photograph shows the amounts of milk, sugar, bacon, cheese, butter and chocolate received by two people per week in Britain. © IWM (D 14667)

a painting of people queuing outside a fish shop

Evelyn Dunbar, The Queue at the Fish Shop. 1945 © IWM (Art.IWM ART LD 3987)

a black and white photo of women queuing outside a fishmongers

Men, women and children queue outside a fishmonger, somewhere in London, to buy some fish. The shop appears to operating like a kiosk: it is all shuttered up, apart from a window from which the fish is sold. © IWM (D 24983)

The Ministry’s authority was delegated to 19 Divisional Food Officers who supervised and co-ordinated the work between Local Committees and Food Offices, and they acted too as a link between the regional Food Offices and the Ministry in Whitehall. Then there were 1,500 local Food Control Committees appointed by the local authorities. Each committee, which were appointed annually, consisted of representatives both of the consumer and the retailer.

Under those committees were about 1,300 Local Food Offices, and these did all the detailed work of licensing food dealers, enforcing orders and distributing the ration books.

For most of the war years and after, the rationing of food took five principal forms. Firstly there was the simple, ordinary rationing of basic foodstuffs: sugar, meat, fats, bacon, tea and cheese. Then from 1st December 1941, there was “points” rationing for tinned goods, dried fruit, cereals, pulses, syrup, treacle and biscuits.

The “Points” system differed from the general food rationing scheme in that the public did not have to register at any particular shop to buy “points” foodstuffs.

“Actor Derrick de Mornay auctioned off a single banana, which fetched £5”

There was also Group Rationing, where the total amount could be taken in one of several commodities such as jam and other preserves. While not rationed as such, there were also a number of important foodstuffs like milk, eggs and oranges which were controlled to ensure that priority allowances were available for those who were deemed to need them most, such as babies, expectant mothers and invalids.

Some “exotic” fruits like bananas disappeared almost totally from wartime Britain: in July 1943, actor Derrick de Marney auctioned off a single banana which fetched £5, while a single onion was raffled round the office of “The Times” and reached over £4. Britain’s sweet tooth was also rationed from 26th July 1942. For most of the war and after the allowance was 12ozs for a four week period.

Unlike the rationing system in Germany, it was the Ministry of Food’s policy to provide the maximum possible ration for consumers rather than larger rations for any specific class at the expense of others.

The sole exception was the case of cheese where a special ration was granted to meet the needs of workers who, like miners, forestry workers and Land Girls, because of the nature of their job, could not take their midday meal in a works canteen, British Restaurant or at home.

a poster with a smiling carrot character with a doctor's bag

Doctor Carrot – the Children’s Best Friend © IWM (Art.IWM PST 8105)

a film still of man in a trilby and suit with a woman in a top hat and sparkly short tunic

Wartime Entertainers: Comedian Tommy Trinder pictured with actress Jean Colin during a scene from ‘Communal Kitchen’, a Ministry of Information film release encouraging the public to make use of the communal ‘British Restaurant’ feeding centres © IWM (D 2412)

cartoon character Potato Pete holding aloft a steaming bowl of potato soup/ text: I make a good Soup! Says 'POTATO PETE'

I Make a Good Soup – Says Potato Pete. © IWM (Art.IWM PST 6080)

To help the public eke out these rations, Woolton’s Ministry mounted a massive publicity campaign. 40 million “Food Facts” advertisements were printed each week in the press, and between March 1942 and November 1946, over 200 Ministry “Food Flash” short films were shown in British cinemas, each one to an estimated audience of 20 million.

The BBC broadcast “The Kitchen Front” for six mornings a week after the 8am news, each programme having a listening public of 5.5 million. The cartoon figures of “Dr Carrot” and “Potato Pete” were created to encourage children to eat up their vegetables and entertainers like “Gert and Daisy” and Tommy Trinder were pressed into service to get the British to eat well and wisely.

Barely three weeks after VE Day, cuts were made to the basic ration.

And there was even a “Woolton Pie”, described as “a steak and kidney pie without the steak and kidney”. Lord Boyd Orr, Britain’s foremost nutritional expert and post-war head of the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization, was to write in his memoirs:

“Lord Woolton produced for the first time in modern history a food plan based on the nutrional needs of the people, with priority in rationing for mothers and children….the rich got less to eat, which did them no harm and the poor, so far as the supply would allow, got a diet adequate for health, with free orange juice, cod liver oil, extra milk and other things for mothers and children. This was a great achievement for which Britain is indebted to Lord Woolton.”

While Dr Magnus Pyke, wartime nutritional adviser to Ministry of Food, and 70s TV science guru argued:

“It was generally accepted, as Britain stood alone against the foe, beleaguered and bombarded, that the figures for infant mortality and, indeed, virtually all the other indications of nutritional well-being of the community, showed an improvement on the previous standards.”

But victory in 1945 did not bring an end to rationing. Far from it. On 27th May 1945, barely three weeks after VE Day, cuts were made to the basic ration. Bacon went down from 4ozs to 3ozs, cooking fat from 2ozs to just one, and the part of the meagre meat ration of 1/2d had to be taken in corned beef. Bread, never rationed during the war, was put on the ration in July 1946 where it remained for two years.

a photo of two women talking in a street next to a shuttered market stall

Two housewives discuss the problem of food shortages during a shopping trip, somewhere in London in 1945. © IWM (D 24987)

In the years of post-war austerity the British public were treated to the dubious pleasures of whale and horse meat together with snoek, a strange and unloved tinned fish from South Africa.

Labour’s Minister of Food John Strachey, although competent, failed to inherit Woolton’s mantle of popularity. “Shiver with Shinwell, (the Minister of Fuel and Power), and Starve with Strachey” became a popular catchphrase during the disastrous winter of 1946-1947 while Tommy Handley in his radio programme “ITMA” satirized him as “Mr Streakey”.

A scheme to develop groundnuts for vegetable oil in Tanganyika was an unmitigated disaster, and when a consignment of inedible frozen pineapples arrived in Dundee, Strachey was promptly nicknamed “Pineapple John”.

It was left to Churchill’s “Indian Summer” administration and his Minister of Food Gwilym Lloyd George to finally end Britain’s food rationing, but it is Woolton’s name which will be forever associated with wartime food and rationing. When he died in December 1964, his former colleague Lord Attlee gave him a generous eulogy:

“…he did wonderful work as Minister of Food. Not only had he great administrative gifts; but he had human sympathy. The ordinary people felt that here was a man who understood their wants. This was expressed to me by an old Devonshire dame, who said: ‘That Lord Woolton, he do sometimes right and sometimes wrong; but we poor folk are beholden to him because he thinks of us.’ I thought that was a very great tribute.”

Outbreak 1939 and the Day We Went To War by Terry Charman are available from the Penguin Books website. 

Explore Imperial War Museum’s collections at www.iwm.org.uk/collections/search


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11 comments on “How the Ministry of Food managed food rationing in World War Two

  1. Charlotte on

    Can anyone tell me how people actually received their rationing books, so who distributed them? Did they have to go somewhere to collect them or were they posted?

    • john stolarczyk on

      The already-printed ration booklets were issued to the public on 8 September 1939, 5 days after war was declared.

      They were not actually used until four months later, however. Bringing rationing into effect was postponed several times owing to a campaign in the press led by the Daily Express newspaper, which called rationing an unnecessary folly and government interference with civil liberties. The government finally overcame political resistance and rationing came into effect on 8 January 1940.

      It’s important to note that the food coupons in Ration Booklets didn’t entitle you to, say, butter, for free. Instead, they entitled you to purchase a certain amount of butter — you still had to come up with the money.

      A ration book was issued to each person and each child. The public went to their local designated Ministry of Food offices to collect their ration books. A responsible person in the household could pick up and sign for the ration booklets for everyone in the household. New ration books were issued about once a year. To replace a lost booklet, you had to sign a declaration, and pay a 1 shilling fee.

      You had to register at a store that you wished to use the coupons at, and could only use them there. There was no shopping around for those items.

      Source: http://www.cooksinfo.com/british-wartime-food

  2. sandra on

    Post war, at hospitals if you rode your bike to work and completed paper work which was filed you were assigned food stamps. Is this correct and if so at which hospital did this apply. How long did this last and when did it stop.

  3. ron newbury on

    I have a copy of carroty george no 2 poster with the recipes on the back.Although i can find it at the moment i also have a potato pete poster as well.

  4. Dr Richard Cottrell on

    1. I struggle with John Stolarczk’s answer on the date when ration booklets were issued. National Reigsrtaion Day was Friday 29th September 1939. The schedule each household had to fill in to get their Identity Card was also used to allocate ration cards. Clearly, it was paramount that the number of people allocated food rations should not exceed the number of people in the country, otherwise a vast black market would ensue.
    2. The comments in Terry Chapman’s piece from Magnus Pyke and John Boyd Orr reflect the myth created by Orr and perpetuated by the Lasker Award to the Ministry of Food, namely that rationing made the population healthier. The main metrics on which this claim were based were a reduction in infant and child mortality, especially from tuberculosis. These reductions were most likley attributable to the large scale population movements consequent on the evacuation policy, focussed as it was on pregnant women, infants and children. Clearing so many of these groups out of the crowded city slums into the countryside would have had far more influence on perinatal and infant mortality than any speculative benefit of a small change in diet.
    Magnus Pyke took over as head of the Ministry of Food’s Nutrition Unit from Sir Jack Drummond in 1946. He could hardly question the Lasker Award, even if he had suspicions it was misguided.
    Orr’s assertion that rationing was based on scientific principles was a self-serving fantacy. The rationing scheme evolved as consumer demand for desirable foods outstripped supply, just as it had in the first world war. Orr’s contention was based on his 1936 paper ‘Food Health and Income’ which coined the breathtaking myth that the foods chosen by rich people must be healthier, since rich people are generally healthier. Drummond reinforced this quasi-scientific fallacy by constantly emphasising that rationing was ‘fair’. By ignoring McCance and Widdowson’s 1939 research (commissioned by the Ministry of Food) that showed Orr’s emphasis on animal-derived foods was misplaced, the country was condemned to struggle to import more than half its food supply, at huge cost in lost ships and men in the Battle of the Atlantic. A more vegetable-based diet would have been equally healthy and much more could have been home-produced on land given over to arable farming rather than livestock.

  5. Margaret Devitt on

    I remember as a small child in a village near Portsmouth going with my mother to collect our rations a few days after a terrible raid on the docks which set fire to many ware houses causing the precious fats stored inside to melt & seep into the streets. They solidified but were dirty but we were so short of food in 1941 that it was dug up, filtered repeatedly & even though it was brown in colour & tasted rancid it was packaged with ‘Fit for human consumption’ printed on the grease proof paper. My mother used it to make a cake.

  6. Margaret Devitt on

    Addendum: Later in my life my husband & I as antiquarian booksellers bought boxes of books & papers at an auction in Nottingham. Amongst them was King George VI’s ration book. We learnt that the boxes had been the property of one of his aides. It had been partly used & it was always understood that the royal family kept strictly to the same allowance we all shared.

  7. Catherine MacGillivray (nee Keast) on

    Born spring 1946, my earliest memory is mother sitting me on the post office counter as she painstakingly spelt out our surname “K-E-A-S-T” over and over to the hapless clerk hunting through the new delivery of replacement ration books. My father worked for the Ministry of Food at the time, following demobilisation.


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