The Wartime Memories Project - Rationing during World War Two

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Owing to shortages during the war many items were rationed so that everyone could get their fair share. Before the war many of the everyday goods in British shops were imported. The outbreak of war and the dangers to ships from enemy u-boats meant that many goods were in short supply; even goods which were made in Britain were no longer available, as the factories stopped making them. This was because many of the raw materials had to be imported, and the men who worked in the factories were called up to serve in the military. In addition, many factories were converted to make items to help the war effort, such as ammunition, guns, aeroplanes, tanks and uniforms.

Ration books and ration coupons were issued. These had to be handed in at shops when goods were purchased.

Most countries introduced rationing. Rations varied from country to country and year by year.

Motor vehicle fuel (petrol) was the first item to be rationed starting in late 1939, although fuel production continued in Britain throughout the war, much of it reserved for war use. After all, the army couldn't drive its trucks and tanks if it were short of fuel and the RAF planes used huge amounts, especially the heavy bombers flying long missions over enemy territory.
Petrol Coupon

This image is of an original WW2 Petrol Coupon issued in respect of a private motor car by Derbyshire County Council on the 12th August 1941.

To save petrol, many vehicles, especially buses, were converted to run on gas. A large gas bag was fitted to the roof of the bus, which looked very comical. Wherever possible delivery people were encouraged to use horse-drawn vehicles.

Food rationing was begun in January 1940. Before the outbreak of war the government had imported and stored a large amount of food, but this would only last so long and the end of the war was not in sight.

Everyone was issued with a food ration card and had to register to buy their food from specific shops. The shop was then issued with the relevant amount of food for the number of registered customers. However, as food was in short supply the shops often did not receive enough for all their customers. News that a delivery had arrived at the shop spread fast and long queues soon formed as everyone was keen to get their share before it was all sold.

The amounts of food items which were allocated to each person varied from time to time through out the war depending on availability.

The Typical rations per person per week were:

  • Meat: approx. 6 ounces (150g)
  • Eggs: 1
  • Fats (butter, margarine and lard): 4 ounces (100g)
  • Cheese: 4 ounces (100g)
  • Bacon: 4 ounces (100g) initially only 2 ounces (50g)
  • Sugar: 8 ounces (200g) initially 12 ounces (300g)
  • Tea: 2 ounces (50g)
  • Sweets: 2 ounces (50g)

Young children and expectant mothers were allowed extra rations, including orange juice and cod liver oil to ensure that they received the correct vitamins.

The foods which were not rationed were in very short supply. So in December 1941 a points scheme was introduced to control the sale of other types of food. This was to ensure that everyone had the chance to buy the food when it was in stock, and to stop people buying a lot at once and filling up their cupboards when others had none. SPAM was almost always available and became the main meat for many families; ingenious recipes were invented to use what was available.

Each person was allowed 16 points per month, controlled by coupons in the ration books. Unlike the coupons, the points could be used in any shop. The types of food which were on the points system included: tinned meat, fish and fruit, condensed milk, rice and breakfast cereal.

Vegetables were not rationed although popular types were sometimes hard to find, especially onions. People were encouraged to dig up their lawns and flower beds to create "victory gardens", and grow their own vegetables. The earth covering of the Anderson shelter was a good place to grow vegetables which grew on the surface such as cabbages and cauliflowers. In towns and cities parks and playing fields were dug up to grow vegetables. The reliance on vegetables as a main food type meant that everyone became much healthier.

Fruit was in very short supply, but was not rationed; only fruit which could be grown in Britain, such as apples, pears, raspberries, black berries and strawberries was sometimes available. Imported fruit such as bananas, oranges and peaches were not available in the shops. Men returning from overseas duty would sometimes bring a few home for their families and sometimes they were for sale from sailors in the dockyards. The price was always high!

Bread was not rationed during the war, although white flour was in short supply, so wartime bread was mainly wholewheat.

Milk was not rationed although the amount available varied.

Clothing rationing began in June 1941. There was a shortage of fabric and a range of utility clothing was introduced. This used a minimum amount of cloth, was devoid of embroidery and was controlled, and utility clothing had a special label to denote that it was an approved design. Men's and boy's jackets only had three buttons and two pockets and trousers had no turn-ups. Women's and girl's dresses had no pleats, elastic waist bands or fancy belts. Utility shoes had a heel which was less than 2 inches.

The Clothing Ration was controlled on a points system and the books contained coupons of various point values. Items of clothing were assigned point values. Each person was allowed sixty-six points a year, which was equal to one complete outfit of clothing for the average adult. Growing children needed extra clothes so children’s clothes had a lower point value. Clothing was in short supply and choice of styles was limited.

To overcome the clothing ration people made their own clothes by re-using material from old clothes, curtains, blankets and furnishing fabrics which were sometimes available. Knitting was very popular; people were encouraged to knit gloves, socks and scarves to send to the men in the armed forces. Old jumpers were unravelled and re-knitted to create new garments.

Stockings were one item which were greatly affected. Silk and nylon production was diverted to military use, for making parachutes and barrage balloons. The arrival of the GIs from America brought a few treasured pairs as the soldiers would have their families send them stockings from America where they were available to give as presents to English girls. With stockings unavailable to most, girls used to apply watered down gravy, weak tea or commercially available liquid to their legs to dye their skin to look as though they were wearing stockings; the seams were added using eyebrow pencils.

The policy of "Make do and Mend" was encouraged, clothes were patched and shoes repaired and clothes which children had grown out of were "handed down" to brothers and sisters or neighbours' children. Ill-fitting, mismatched and repaired clothes were normal - fashion had become a thing of the past for many. Of course, teenagers and young adults were fashion-conscious and most made their own items to keep up with trends.

As well as food and clothing many other items were in short supply. A utility range of household furniture was introduced. The items were plain, functional and hard-wearing, but were the only option for people who had lost their homes in the bombing and newly married couples setting up their first home.

If you would like to add and recollections about rationing: Add Your Story

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