Many of us will start the new year pledging to eat (and drink?) a bit less after the indulgences of Christmas. We should spare a thought for Britons in January 1940 when, after the first Christmas of the Second World War, food rationing was introduced on January 8th.
Originally restricted to favourites such as bacon, butter and sugar, other products were added to the list as the war dragged on. Issued nationally in October 1939, ration books became an indispensable – if increasingly loathed – feature of Home Front life.
But for many of those queuing up that January for their weekly 4 ounces of bacon (or 12 ounces of sugar!) the experience was not totally new. The Christmas and New Year period of 1917-1918 had also seen the introduction of targeted food rationing. In both wars, attacks on merchant shipping by German U-Boats played a key part in creating food shortages. But while in the earlier conflict Britain avoided compulsory rationing until the final year, in the Second World War it came in very early.
Citizens had already been encouraged to improve food productivity through the Dig for Victory! campaign. They would also be tempted with new foodstuffs – such as whale meat. But there were limits to this self-sufficiency. As such, food formed a significant part of the Lend-Lease arrangements made with the U.S and Canada from 1941.
Despite the privations of rationing, it’s generally accepted that the nation’s health improved under it – particularly amongst the poorest sections of society.
Still, few mourned its passing - when eventually it came. Rationing was actually stricter in post-war Britain. For a time even bread and potatoes were controlled, neither of which had been rationed in wartime. Food ration books could only finally be torn up with the end of meat rationing in July 1954.