When the Second World War began in September 1939 petrol was the first commodity to be controlled. On 8 January 1940 bacon, butter and sugar were rationed. Meat, tea, jam, biscuits, breakfast cereals, cheese, eggs, lard, milk, canned and dried fruit were rationed subsequently but not all at once. In June 1942 the Combined Food Board was set up by the United Kingdom and the United States to coordinate the world supply of food to the Allies, with special attention to flows from the U.S. and Canada to Britain. Almost all foods apart from vegetables and bread were rationed by August 1942. Strict rationing inevitably created a black market. Almost all controlled items were rationed by weight but meat was rationed by price.
Fresh vegetables and fruit were not rationed but supplies were limited. Some types of imported fruit all but disappeared. Lemons and bananas became unobtainable for most of the war; oranges continued to be sold but greengrocers customarily reserved them for children and pregnant women who could prove their condition by producing their distinctive ration books. Other domestically grown fruit such as apples still appeared from time to time. However, sellers imposed their own restrictions so that customers were often not allowed to buy more than one apple each. Many grew their own vegetables, greatly encouraged by the highly successful “Dig for Victory” motivational campaign. In 1942 many children between ages five and seven years had become used to the wartime restrictions. When questioned about bananas, many did not believe such items existed. Game meat such as rabbit and pigeon was not rationed but was not always available. Landed estate owners were able to enjoy game obtained on their property and share with their friends. A popular music-hall song, written 20 years previously but sung ironically, was “Yes! We Have No Bananas”. During food rationing British biologists ate laboratory rats.
Poster for the “Dig for Victory” campaign, encouraging Britons to supplement their rations by cultivating gardens and allotments.
Most controversial was bread which was not rationed until after the war ended. The “national loaf” of wholemeal bread replaced the ordinary white variety to the distaste of most housewives who found it mushy, grey and easy to blame for digestion problems. In May 1942, an order was passed that meals served in hotels and restaurants must not cost over 5 shillings per customer, must not be of more than three courses, and not more than one course could contain meat, fish or poultry. This was partly in response to increasing public concerns that “luxury” off-ration foodstuffs were being unfairly obtained by those who could afford to dine regularly in restaurants.
Fish was not rationed, but prices increased considerably as the war progressed. The government initially did not ration fish since fishermen at risk from enemy attack had to be paid a premium for their catch to fish at all, but prices were controlled from 1941.Like other non-rationed items, fish was seldom available in abundance. Supplies dropped to 30% of pre-war levels, and long queues built up at fishmongers and fish and chip shops. Wartime fish and chips was often felt to be below standard because of the low-quality fat available for frying.
As the war progressed rationing was extended to other commodities such as clothing which was rationed on a points system. When it was introduced, on 1 June 1941, no clothing coupons had been issued. At first unused margarine coupons in ration books were valid for clothing. In the beginning the allowance was enough for about one new outfit per year; as the war progressed the points were reduced until buying a coat used almost a year’s clothing coupons. On 1 July 1942 the basic civilian petrol ration, announced on 13 March 1942, was abolished (Ivor Novello) a British public figure in the entertainment industry was sent to prison for four weeks for misusing petrol coupons. Henceforth vehicle fuel was only available to official users, such as the emergency services, bus companies and farmers. The priority users of fuel were always, of course, the armed forces. Fuel supplied to approved users was dyed, and use of this fuel for non-essential purposes was an offence.
Certain foodstuffs that the 1940s British consumer would find unusual, for example whale meat and canned snoek fish from South Africa, were not rationed. Despite this they did not prove popular.
In addition to rationing, the government equalized the food supply through subsidies on items consumed by the poor and the working class. In 1942–43, £145 million was spent on food subsidies, including £35 million on bread, flour and oatmeal, £23 million on meat and the same on potatoes, £11 million on milk, and £13 million on eggs.