Ministry of Food - Imperial War Museum shows how Britain fed itself in WWII

By Richard Moss | 11 February 2010
a poster with a Carrot character on it

(Above) Doctor Carrot – the Children’s Best Friend. © Imperial War Museum

Exhibition: Ministry of Food, Imperial War Museum, London until January 2011

As cash-strapped Britons look to the past for cheaper options in these financially troubled times, the Imperial War Museum in London is rolling back the years to remind us how we did it during World War Two.

Yet inspite of its contemporary resonances, Ministry of Food explores what now seems like another world. In 1940 the government ministry, under the auspices of Lord Woolton, set about the mammoth task of introducing and administering rationing, controlling the flow of food and feeding the nation.

It's a story of fortitude and sacrifice, but also one of bureaucracy, organisation and propaganda.

a black and white photo of a boy with a fork

11-year-old Jimmy West about to start work at an allotment created on a bomb site in Bethnal Green, 1942. The same year saw 31,000 schoolchildren, organised in 650 nationwide camps, helping to bring in the harvest. © Imperial War Museum

Colourful posters, photographs and paintings cluster around thematic displays covering everything from the role of the Women's Land Army and public health to the Dig for Victory and War on Waste campaigns.

There are full-scale recreations of a kitchen, a grocer's shop, and a copious greenhouse. Period newsreel and information films flicker and a wealth of artefacts - from powdered egg tins to ration books - reveal the way the nation somehow managed to get through the war years and beyond. Rationing went on for 14-and-a-half years.

By 1954 it may have begun to wear a little thin, but when it was introduced rationing wasn't altogether unpopular.

"For people in the 1920s and 1930s who had already been through a lot of hardship, a lot of the advice the government was giving out in the Second World War was almost second nature to them and they didn’t need to be told," says Terry Charman, Senior Historian at the Imperial War Museum.

a poster with a design featuring people on a spade

Lend a Hand on the Land – at a Farming Holiday Camp, Eileen Evans, 1943-45. © Imperial War Museum

That said, at its peak the Ministry of Food was still a force to be reckoned with. In 1943 50,000 staff were exmployed by it to get the message across and manage the flow of food.

"I don't think people realise what a mighty organisation the Ministry of Food was," explains nutritionist and food writer Marguerite Patten.

"It had to deal with the buying of food, the supply of food, the growing of food and the science and nutrition of it all."

Now 94, home economist, food writer and broadcaster Patten was called upon to work for the Ministry of Food as a nutritionist – a role that today would probably be termed "food evangelist".

a film still showing can of jam

A Food Flash from the Ministry of Food. © Richard Moss

"They set up this Food Advice Division," she recalls. "It was to do exactly that – to give food advice to the public. I always say we were the front line troops. We didn't wait for them, we used to go and find people wherever they may be."

Patten remembers going out into the markets, the hospitals and the workers' canteens. "The people were responsive and they wanted help," she says.

"Don't forget we were already a nation of home cooking, therefore people could accept what you said. It wasn't as if you were entering new territory – they just had to adapt what they already knew to this period of austerity."

a poster with a design showing a ship descending over a

Wasted Food is Another Ship Lost, Abram Games. © Imperial War Museum

The gentle art of persuasion and propaganda remained paramount. In 1944 the Ministry of Food Public Relations Division spent an astonishing £600,000 on posters and publicity. Dr Carrot and Potato Pete became two favourite characters. Pete even had a song about him - sung by Betty Driver of Coronation Street fame.

The films weren't bad either. A stream of lighthearted "Food Flashes" shown in cinemas dispensed useful advice about powdered eggs and milk or the availability of jam in cans. Each minute-long movie reached an audience of 20 million.

But it wasn't all about cheerful wartime Britons making do - or even the mobilization of labour. In the early years of the war the country would have starved if it hadn't been for the sacrifices of the Merchant Navy, which lost 30,000 men supplying Britain and her armies.

Little wonder, then, that the Ministry of Food focussed as much on waste as it did on war production. As one of the many posters on display puts it, "Wasted Food is Another Ship Lost".

a photo of shelves with period packets of food

A well stocked grocer's shop at the Ministry of Food exhibition. © Richard Moss

"It was a war on waste," confirms Patten. "To waste during wartime was not only illegal, it was immoral as well. And you would be prosecuted if you were discovered to have been wasting food.

"Farmers had toiled night and day with the Land Army to produce it, the Merchant Navy had risked their lives to bring many things across the Atlantic, so therefore we had to respect it. This is something we have forgotten. Food is a very important commodity and we need to cherish it."

That's why Ministry of Food offers some useful food for thought about the way we live and eat now.

Read Terry Charman's article exploring how both government and people endured 14-and-a-half years of rationing.

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