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Prior to the Second World War Britain imported about 55 million tons of food a year from other countries. At the outbreak of war the German government did what they could to disrupt this trade. Germans battleships and submarines were sent to hunt down and sink British merchant vessels and with imports of food declining, the British government decided to introduce a system of rationing. This involved every householder registering with their local shops. The shopkeeper was then provided with enough food for his or her registered customers.

Food rationing began in 1940 with sugar, meat, bacon, ham and butter; other items were added as the siege economy heightened. The basic rations per person, per week were:-

1s. 2d. worth of meat
3oz. Bacon and ham
8oz. Sugar
2 ½ tea
2oz. Butter
2oz. Cheese
4oz. Margarine
1oz. Cooking fat
1 egg per fortnight
2 ½ pints liquid milk
12oz. Sweets per month

In order to receive the basic fixed rations the customer had to register with a particular shop keeper for a twelve month period.
Other goods such as cigarettes and alcohol weren’t officially rationed, but were often in short supply and some shopkeepers kept their limited stocks for their favourite customers.

In June 1941, the rationing of clothes was introduced on a principle of ‘points-rationing.’ The basic entitlement for each adult was 66 points, or coupons, per year. The coupon holder could purchase clothes to their points value throughout the 12 month period.
A lady’s winter coat required 15 coupons.
A pair of men’s trousers required 8 coupons.
Consequently a standardised look in men’s and women’s clothing developed as manufactures concentrated on a limited range of designs and materials. This ‘Utility’ principle was later extended to furniture.

The trade in goods in violation of the official regulations became known as the black market. A secret staff at the Ministry of Food investigated attempts by people to deal with black marketeers. Parliament passed legislation which enabled the courts to impose fines of up to £500, with or without two years' imprisonment, plus three times the total capital involved in the transaction. Eventually around 900 inspectors were employed to make sure that statutory orders of the Ministry Food were obeyed by customers, retailers and wholesalers. Investigators discovered that farmers and smallholders were the main source of producing food for the black market.

A policeman checks the identity papers of a young man outside a butcher's displaying a no beef or mutton sign

Ethel Robinson lived in Liverpool during the Second World War. She wrote about her war experiences in Jonathan Croall's book, Don't You Know There's A War On (1989)

There was quite a lot of black market going on - in eggs, butter, meat, bacon, and that sort of thing - for those that could afford it. I don't blame them, if they had the money. Of course the rationing was a bit of a bug really, but on reflection it was good for us. They do say it was a very healthy time. I used to cook a lot of my own stuff. You only got meat once a week and I used to use a lot of dried egg and spam, a lot of stuff that came over from America, and was horrible. We used to have a lot of chips, but then potatoes were rationed, so you couldn't have a lot of that. But we didn't starve, and we used to improvise a lot, making pies and things, much more than you do now.

In the spring of 1941, the chairman of the North Midland Region Food Price Investigation Committee, Sir Douglas McCraith, announced that cans of soup, sold by manufacturers at six shillings and sixpence a dozen, were reaching the public at fourteen shillings and sixpence a dozen, having passed through the hands of six middlemen, one of whom had bought the goods twice. "Speculation is rampant; goods are changing ownership many times like stocks and shares without even leaving the warehouse."

The Labour Party MP Joseph Clynes described the black market as "treason of the very worst kind" and others in the House of Commons called for the government to introduce new punishments for this offence. As well as "long terms of penal servitude" one called for the use of the cat-o'-nine-tails on the offenders.
Restrictions were gradually lifted three years after war had ended, starting with flour on 25 July 1948, followed by clothes on 15 March 1949.

On 19 May 1950 rationing ended for canned and dried fruit, chocolate biscuits, treacle, syrup, jellies and mincemeat. Petrol rationing, imposed in 1939, ended in May 1950 followed by soap in September 1950. Three years later sales of sugar were off ration.

The process of de-rationing began in 1948, but made slow progress until 1953. Then Food Minister Gwilym Lloyd-George made it a priority for his department.

Liverpool Central Library
Spartacus Educational

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