The Ministry of Food: Terry Charman explores Food Rationing in World War Two

By Terry Charman, Senior Historian, Imperial War Museum | 15 February 2010
a black and white photo of women and children queuing at a series of shopfronts

(Above) Women and children queue for fruit and vegetables from a London greengrocer, 1945. © Imperial War Museum

Terry Charman, Senior Historian at the Imperial War Museum, writes about the history of rationing during World War Two and how Lord Woolton successfully managed the supply of food at the Ministry of Food.

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.”

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.”

a black and white photo showing a ration book with cuts of meat, margarine and other food stuffs

Ration book and an adult’s weekly rations of basic foodstuffs, 1942. Clothes, sweets and soap were also rationed, and almost all other consumer goods were in short supply. © Imperial War Museum

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.

a poster showing a woman and girl crossing the road at night as a car bears down on them

Carrots formed one of the main ingredients of Woolton Pie, named after the Minister of Food, and described as ‘steak and kidney pie without the steak and kidney!’ Carrots Keep You Healthy and Help You See in the Blackout, IWM PST 6015 © Imperial War Museum

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.”

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 the 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.”

a black and white photo of woman with a child in a kitchen

A housewife checks the size of a slice of bread against a chart supplied by the Wartime Social Survey, a government fact-finding organisation set up in April 1940. There was no bread rationing during the war, but it had to be introduced on 21st July 1946. It remained in force for exactly two years. © Imperial War Museum

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.

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.

a painting showing people queueing outside a fish shop

(Above) The Queue at the Fish-shop, Evelyn Mary Dunbar, 1944. Imperial War Museum. Fish was not rationed during the war, but was often scarce and, by 1941, prices were 17 per cent higher than in 1939. © Imperial War Museum

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.

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.

a photograph of a man in a crowd holding a banana and pointing

Actor Derrick de Marnay points to someone in the crowd as he auctions a very small, very green, banana in Russell Square. The piece of fruit fetched £5. © Imperial War Museum

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.

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.

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.”

a photo of hands at a counter stamping a book

At a shop in the King’s Road, Chelsea, an assistant stamps a ration book, February 1941. That month the weekly ration was: 8 ozs of sugar, 4 ozs of bacon, 2 ozs of butter, 4 ozs of fats and 2 ozs of tea. © Imperial War Museum

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.

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.

a poster showing a house door with milk left outside

Milk – the Essential Food for Growing Children, James Fitton. © Imperial War Museum Over 4 million schoolchildren were receiving milk each day at school by 1943.

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.”

Ministry of Food ran at the Imperial War Museum, London until January 2011.

Terry Charman's book, Outbreak 1939 The World Goes to War, is available now from the Imperial War Museum shop.

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