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Extract from: Sources for the History of London 1939-45
Subject: Rationing bookjacket: Sources for the History of London 1939-45
Source: Chapter 5 pages 85-86

Fair Shares: Rationing and Shortages (p. 85)

Diverting the country’s manpower and production into the war effort meant that consumer goods of all kinds became scarce and shortages were inevitable. To ensure an equitable distribution of basic essentials, rationing was imposed through a ‘points’ system and prices were controlled. Ration books and clothing coupons were issued to all, with adjustments to meet special needs, like pregnant women, young children and vegetarians. By and large the public supported rationing as ensuring fair shares for all, and though a black market developed it never seriously threatened the system. It is generally accepted that food rationing improved the nation’s health through the imposition of a balanced diet with essential vitamins. The UK Civil Series volumes on Food and on Civil Industry and Trade have detailed information about the policy behind rationing and its implementation. Meat, butter and sugar were rationed from early 1940, other foodstuffs, including tea, were added later, and entitlement varied at different times during the war. Bread, potatoes, coffee, vegetables, fruit and fish were never rationed, though choice and availability of the last three were often limited. ‘The main grouse of people at the moment is that they are not able to buy all they want at the shops, especially in the food line. It isn’t the rationing they complain of, but their inability to buy unrationed goods’, wrote a Harrow cinema manager to the Ministry of Information in March 1941 (IWM Department of Documents, SMB collection box 5). Clothing was rationed from 1”1, and fuel was subject to restrictions from early in the war.

Cabinet-level policy decisions on rationing are documented in PRO CAB 75, in BT 64, Board of Trade Industries and Manufacturers Department papers, and in POWE 3, Solid Fuel and Rationing where the representation papers have information on clothing and fuel rationing. Some matters of wartime diet and nutrition are covered in MH 56, Foods.

Ration book holderThe Ministry of Food had begun as a department of the Board of Trade just before the war, and was later absorbed into the Ministry of Agriculture. Its records therefore have the prefix MAF. They reveal the great spread of its responsibilities, working through Food Control Committees for local authority areas. The Supply Departments, covered generally in MAF 67, were subdivided by type, the Cereals Group in MAF 84, the Dairy Produce and Fats Group in MAF 85, the Meat and Livestock Group in MAF 88, and others. MAF 99, the records of the Distribution Group, concern emergency services, rationing and communal feeding arrangements. The Food Standards Group, in MAF 101, was concerned with standards and labelling and the distribution of welfare foods such as cod liver oil and orange juice. The Wartime Meals Division encouraged the setting up of industrial canteens, and lent local authorities money to start British Restaurants for the public. But the wartime Londoner’s main contact with the Ministry would have been through the Local Food Offices, documented in MAF 100, which issued and replaced ration books. The IWM has an interesting painting by Grace Golden, ‘The Emergency Food Office’, showing a patient queue waiting for new ration books in the incongruously stately surroundings of St Pancras Town Hall. Their Department of Documents has some official correspondence and papers of F.A. Bates, Area Bread Officer for the metropolitan area, in 94/24/1, and the diary of Miss J.M. Oakman, in 91/20/1, describes working in the Chelsea Food Office in the war. Fred Barnes was a Food Officer, enforcing rationing regulations and investigating the black market under cover in Whitechapel, his recorded memories are in the IWM Sound Archive, on tape 11852/2.

Food rationing loomed large in most Londoners’ lives and receives frequent attention in letters and diaries. Ration books effectively tied people to one butcher and one grocer, with whom it paid to stay on good terms. Queues were inevitable, imposing an extra time-burden, particularly on working women with household responsibilities. ‘Home to lunch at 1.15. Stewed rabbit - and lucky to get that by all accounts’, wrote Anthony Heap, whose long-suffering mother had probably queued half the morning at the butchers (LMA ACC 2243/15/1, 5 January 1941). The demoralisation resulting from queues and shortages of food was recognised by the editor of the Times, R.M. Barrington-Ward, in a letter to the Minister of Information at the height of the flying bomb attacks on 27 June 1944 (HO 262/15 HI 1033/1, Morale of civilian population at home). He pleaded for greater public acknowledgement of Londoners’ sufferings. Could more food be diverted to South London, he asked: ‘I am told that the food queues, especially it seems, for fish and vegetables, are adding a great strain to the life of women in these vulnerable places, and they have already stood a great deal’.

The system permitted a little extra for special family celebrations where possible: ‘With Ma to Food Centre to get extra for our Golden Wedding. Ma left her book behind so I went for it whilst she went to Meads. Jumbo [the dog] and I went to meet her...’, wrote Byron Penn, of Hendon, in his diary for 27 March 1945 (Barnet Archives MS 6111/1-12). Although everyone had enough to eat, the lack of variety became boring. Any novelty, such as fruit sent from friends in the country, was especially welcome - Mrs Macmullan’s letters, in Kensington Local Studies Library MSS 36148-247, contain annual references to gifts of plums sent by her family in Cambridge.

The Ministry of Agriculture’s ‘Dig for Victory’ slogan encouraged people to grow fruit and vegetables on any available land - gardens, parks, allotments. Records of local allotment associations survive in some local collections; Kensington, for example, has correspondence concerning the use of two tennis clubs as allotments in the war, in 940.5317 AR/A, and Guildhall Library has material from the Metropolitan Public Gardens’ Association’s wartime allotments scheme in MS 22,293. The London Passenger Transport Board supplied its staff canteens with vegetables grown alongside railway tracks. Some people kept pigs, rabbits and chickens in suburban gardens to supplement their diet, feeding them on household scraps.

Maximum Price Orders and Current Price Orders, imposed by the Ministry of Food, proved a very successful method of price control. Human nature inevitably led some people to make illicit attempts to get round the rationing and price restrictions, and examples are common in the court records. The Marlborough Street Petty Sessions register, for instance, records frequent cases of ‘unlawfully acquiring rationed goods’, or of overpricing. John Gilbert ‘did expose for sale strawberries at 10/- and 15/- per 2 lb basket which exceeded the maximum price’ and was fined £2, with fourteen days to pay, on 10 July 1944, documented in PS/MS/A2/113. The fine cannot have made a serious dent in his profits.

Eating out (p. 86)

Meals eaten away from home, whether in expensive West End restaurants or industrial canteens, were ‘off ration’ and a popular alternative with Londoners who could afford them. The conspicuous ability of the rich to enjoy almost pre-war levels of gastronomy at top hotels led to such resentment from Londoners at large that the government prevented restaurants charging more than 5/- a meal from 1942. This curbed the most ostentatious examples, though it did not completely solve the problem. Other restaurants fell more within the average Londoner’s experience, especially the country-wide chain of Lyons’ tea shops and Corner Houses. Reliable and reasonably priced, they provided a respectable meeting place for all and were popular right across the social spectrum.

Among the records of J. Lyons & Co in LMA is a detailed account book of meals served daily at the Oxford Street Corner House from 1928-52, ACC 3527/58, just one of many branches in Greater London. It remained open throughout the Blitz except for three days in September 1940 when they had no water supply, but even then the ‘Front Shop’ managed to continue trading. Examples of the meals on offer can be found in the folder ‘Wartime menus’, ACC 3527/371. A table d’hôte menu from 1941-2 lists a choice of two starters, seven main courses and four puddings and a small coffee, all for 1/6d. A tea shop menu lists tea at 3d per cup or 4d per pot (per person) with scones at a penny halfpenny. ‘FOOD is a munition of War Don’t Waste it’ warn all the menus sternly. In the early 1990s the firm appealed for ex-‘Nippies’, as Lyons waitresses were called, to write in with their memories; a file of correspondence is in ACC 3527/235. Mrs Edith Walsh, from Streatham, remembered the importance attached to staying open however difficult conditions. She worked in the largest of the Brixton teashops in 1941, arriving one post-raid morning, after a bad journey, to find that the nearby railway bridge had been hit. They opened up the shop: ‘Word soon got round that Lyons were open and serving food and drink (we had our own generators). It seemed that the world and his wife came into our shop that day. Mrs Hedley (our manageress) told us not to try to keep to our own “stations” just give the people the drinks and food as the counterhands placed it out for us. The teashop was so crowded we couldn’t recognise who we’d “put what down for” so we just gave a bill for what we thought was OK. That night we couldn’t believe how many bill books we’d used and how much adding up we had to do from the slips at the top. As you can imagine our commission was the best we ever had’.

British Restaurants supplied another almost universal experience of eating away from me. Here a three course meal cost only 9d. Standards varied, but the best were greatly appreciated and had a large regular clientele. British Restaurants were run by local authorities, who set them up in a variety of different premises such as schools and church halls. They evolved from the LCC’s Londoners’ Meals Service which originated in September 1940 as a temporary, emergency system for feeding those who had been bombed out. By mid-1941 the LCC was operating two hundred of these restaurants. Records of this service are in the LMA, among those of the Restaurant and Catering Department in LCC/RC/GEN. LCC/RC/GEN/2/1, for example, relates to negotiations to take over the Bun House Restaurant, 111 High Holborn WC 1 - ‘practically facing Holborn Tube Station’- from March 1943. The LCC already ran a British Restaurant in Princeton Street nearby and required different premises. They rejected Slaters at 55-6 High Holborn as too badly damaged and the Express Dairy, 294 Holborn, as too small. Records for British Restaurants beyond the LCC area are scarce. Hertfordshire RO has some menu books for the restaurant in Rickmansworth - strictly speaking outside the Greater London borders, but only just - in ACC 2908.

British Restaurants were open to all, but mainly served office and industrial workers. The one in Standard Road, Acton, catered for nearby factories without their own canteens. In January 1943 the Acton Gazette reported that the local Food Executive Officer had criticised it as inadequate - ‘Workpeople do not like the place’, they wrote, there had been ‘quite a number of complaints’. Taking up the cudgels on behalf of his borough’s catering sub-committee, the Town Clerk wrote to the Food Executive Officer to protest that eight hundred people regularly patronised the Restaurant quite contentedly. The FEO denied any slur on the borough’s arrangements, saying he had been misreported. The Acton Borough Minutes, November 1942-3, contain further details.

Londoners proved fonder of British Restaurants and their equivalents than did inhabitants of the rest of the country. The Wartime Social Survey monitored public attitudes to food and rationing in some depth between February 1942 and October 1943, presenting the results in the report ‘Food during the war’ by Gertrude Wagner (PRO RG 23/9a) quoted earlier in the section on morale. They found that in the main people had accepted rationing, would not object if it continued after the war, and welcomed price control in this context.

The food trade made special arrangements for wartime, and the records of some trade associations may prove useful as most were based in London. For instance, the Soft Drinks Industry (War Time) Association’s records are in the Bodleian Library MSS Eng Misc b 389-92’, c 819-40, d 1237, and Guildhall Library MS 19,816 has the minute book of the London Wholesale Fish Trade Ltd, set up to deal with arrangements for fish distribution if Billingsgate market were badly damaged or destroyed. Fortunately it was never needed and the organisation was wound up in 1945, but the records contain information about the wartime fish trade. The Modem Records Centre at the University of Warwick has records of several other food-trade associations, including the British Dextrine Manufacturers’ Association, MSS. 200, and the Edible Nuts in Shell Association, MSS.313. The experience of an individual potato merchant, including his acrimonious relations with the Ministry of Food, is covered by E.F. Franklin’s diary in IWM 91/5/1.


List of Extracts from: Sources for the History of London 1939-45

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