“Those who have the will to win, Cook potatoes in their skin, Knowing that the sight of peelings Deeply hurts Lord Woolton’s feelings.”
Seventy years ago, on the 8th January 1940, the wartime government introduced food rationing - a control that was to remain in force for the next fourteen years. All over the country people started tightening their belts at the sobering news that their personal weekly food ration would be:-
Butter or Lard: 4 ounces Sugar: 12 ounces Raw bacon or Ham: 4 ounces Eggs x two Cooked Bacon or Ham: 3 1/2 ounces
A few weeks later, on 11th March 1940 the government rationed meat to ¼d (7p) worth per person per week. By 1941 this has dropped to 1/- (5p) per person per week. On 5th May 1941 cheese was also rationed soon followed by fish, rice, canned fruit, condensed milk, breakfast cereals, biscuits and eventually tea and chocolate.
Dig for Victory
To help increase the supply of food people were urged to “Dig for Victory’ and turn gardens, parks and bombsites into allotments. By 1945 there were 1.5 million allotment holders producing 10% of the food grown in Britain. (Incidentally the booted foot on the iconic “Dig for Victory” poster belonged to a Mr. W. H. McKie of Acton!)
“This is a food war. Every extra row of vegetables in allotments saves shipping… the battle on the kitchen front cannot be won without help from the kitchen garden”
Lord Woolton, Minister of Food, 1941
Other more enterprising souls formed “Pig Clubs”, giving money, time and food scraps to buy, feed and raise pigs. After slaughter half of the meat was sold to the Government to help with the rationing. The remainder was divided between Club members as either pork or bacon. At war’s end there were about 6,900 Pig Clubs
Eat More Greens!
Generally speaking most people understood the need for strict rationing although some found the shortages a little trying.
“Frying was quite difficult as lard was rationed and olive oil only obtainable at a chemist on a doctor’s prescription, so sometimes we were reduced to liquid paraffin. At least we didn’t suffer from constipation!”
Miss Mary Bridget O’Sullivan was fined a total of ten pounds, with costs, for permitting bread to be wasted. It was stated that her servant was twice seen throwing bread to birds in the garden, and when Miss O’Sullivan was interviewed she admitted that bread was put out every day. “I cannot see the birds starve”, she said.
Bristol Evening Post (20 January 1943)
Although food was in short supply and some of it was of dubious provenance…anyone who lived through the war will never forget the notorious “snoek” canned fish from South Africa, ¼½d a tin, and described by many as ‘slimy’…the general health of the nation actually improved as the population lost weight and took more exercise. Great efforts were made by the Ministry of Food to ensure fairness of supply, nutritional value and variety. As well as producing reams of information on growing food, effective food management and new recipes, the government also created cute cartoon characters like Potato Pete and Dr Carrot who encouraged healthy eating with slogans like “I make a good soup,” and “Carrots help you see in the blackout.”
There were also radio programmes like “The Kitchen Front” which was broadcast at 8.15 every morning. With popular, well-informed presenters like Marguerite Patten, Ambrose Heath and Freddy “Ricepud” Grisewood these programmes would discuss current food issues, answer questions from listeners and introduce new ration-beating recipes.
One of the most famous of these was ‘Lord Woolton Pie’, created at the Savoy Hotel by Maitre de Cuisine, Francis Latry and named after the Minister of Food, Frederick Marquis, 1st Lord Woolton. Although it came in various forms Woolton Pie was essentially boiled seasonal vegetables in a simple white herb sauce covered either in pastry or mashed potatoes with a little grated cheese… if you had any. The peelings from the vegetables would be crisped up in an oven as a tasty side dish.
Another wartime recipe was the Oslo Meal originally given as an experiment to school children. It consisted of 2 slices of wholemeal bread spread with a little margarine or butter, a small heap of grated cheese served if wished with a salad of lettuce, carrot, cucumber or tomato followed by a glass of cold milk. This forerunner to the Ploughman’s Lunch vastly improved the health of the nation’s children and many busy housewives began using it as a main meal because of its simplicity.
A Clear Plate Means a Clear Conscience
Rationing did not end with the end of the war. In 1948 bacon, cheese, meat, chocolate, sweets, milk and preserves were still rationed along with bread, soap, bananas, and potatoes. In 1951 people could still buy only 10d.(4p) worth of meat each week. It all finally ended in 1954, when meat was finally taken off the ration.
Rationing and “Dig for Victory” were enormously successful. As well as halving the amount of food imported into the country between 1939 and 1945 and increasing the acreage of land used for food production by 80% it helped unite the entire nation in a common purpose - to win the war. To mark this important event the Imperial War Museum London has just opened The Ministry of Food, a major new exhibition showing how the British public adapted to a world of food shortages. It will run until 3rd January 2011.
‘We hope the stories of resourcefulness and commitment shown in (the exhibition) ‘Ministry of Food’ will not only allow people to understand more about how the country changed its eating habits, grew more food and imported less, during the Second World War but should also provide some food for thought about the way we live and eat now.’
Diane Lees, Director-General, Imperial War Museum
Many thousands of people were involved in the supply of food during the war - the 30,000 merchant seaman who died shipping it, the 6000 Preservation Centres run by the Woman’s Institute making jams and pickles, the mobile canteens staffed by the Women’s Voluntary Services providing emergency meals to people made homeless by air raids and of course the countless housewives who queued patiently to buy it… and are probably queuing still.
– from Martyn Day