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By Stewart Emmens on

An Unwelcome Post-Christmas Diet

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

Ration book
Wartime ration book with supplements (Science Museum)

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.

Food tins
Tins of powdered milk and egg sent from the U.S during the Lend-Lease arrangement (Science Museum)

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. 

The end of sweet rationing
Children celebrate the end of sweet rationing, East London, 1953 (Science & Society / Science Museum)

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.

2 comments on “An Unwelcome Post-Christmas Diet

  1. I was born in March 1937 and remember it all very well. Of course for me it was always so. We were all very lean, ate cereal with milk every morning, a main meal at lunch, something with bread (occasionally home made cake) for tea. We never ate ‘snacks’ rarely a ‘sweet’ and fruit in season if we were lucky. If the butcher had any ‘offal’ in the shop, word went around and the housewives queued hoping to get liver, kidney, heart and the worst one of all ‘Tripe’. We got free Orange Juice and Cod Liver Oil from the child clinic, our mother had her hands full with four of us, me the eldest, sister born Dec. 1938 then twin boys born May 1941 – she coped amazingly well too. We used to roam Chiswick creating our own adventures! and ‘scrumping’ in season from the allotments – to this day we all feel that we loved every minute. In many ways we were lucky, none of our family were bombed, my favourite Uncle served in the REME and was decorated for bravery, and came home safely.

  2. Many thanks Vivienne. It’s lovely to hear some first hand memories from that period. It does sound as if your mother did an incredible job coping with the dietary needs of four very young children – not easy at the best of times – but here in the midst of war and rationing. It was also interesting to hear that you associate those years with fun and adventure, rather than worry and fear. This seems to have been the common experience for many who were young children at the time (including my own parents).

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