Few items are more symbolic of life on the home-front during the Second World War than the ration book. Despite its small size, ration books and rationing made an enormous difference to the routines of daily life, allotting the amounts of food by which each person could be sustained from 1940 until well after the end of the war.
In this blog, find answers to your most commonly asked questions about ration books, as well as related collections kept here at The Museum of English Rural Life. Why did we have ration books? How were they used? And how was farming and agriculture changed by the devastation of the war?
Why did we have ration books?
After World War Two began in September 1939, fear swept across the UK that there would no longer be enough food to support the nation’s people. At that time, we imported 55 million tonnes of our food from around the globe each year. However, as German submarines took to the seas and bombed British supply ships, the UK could no longer depend upon these imports arriving safely. To prevent rises in food prices and stop people from hoarding, the UK Government introduced a system of rationing.
There was a real concern whether the British people could survive on British-grown produce alone. So, to test this, an experiment was conducted by researchers at the University of Cambridge. The scientists were Elsie Widdowson, Robert McCance, and Frank Engledow (Drapers Professor of Agriculture). In the experiment, six volunteers were tasked with completing physically demanding activities, including hiking, cycling, and mountain climbing, sustained only by the rationed diet. After all, food rations would need to meet the high energy requirements of war work.
The experiment was a success. The volunteers were full of energy and able to complete the strenuous activities, with no detrimental affect on their health. The only side effect was a reported increase in flatulence!
The results were circulated to the Government but were kept secret until long after the war had finished. Though the Government’s rationing was more relaxed than the amounts used in the experiment, it was a relief that the population would still be ‘fighting fit’ either way.
When was rationing introduced? How did it work?
In January 1940, every person in Britain, including children, was issued with a ration book. These ration books contained coupons which could be exchanged for a certain amount of produce from different shops. Each person had a registered butcher and greengrocer which allowed shopkeepers to anticipate the amount of food they would need to supply each week.
As part of rationing, shoppers were given 16 coupons per month to spend on food items they wished. These could be traded as follows:
Rice: 8 coupons
Sardines: 2 coupons
Sultanas: 8 coupons
Skimmed milk: 5 coupons
Currants: 16 coupons
Baked beans: 2 coupons
Biscuits (dry): 2 coupons
Biscuits (sweet): 4 coupons
Herrings: 2 coupons
Sultanas: 8 coupons
Stewed steak: 20 coupons
Rolled oats: 2 coupons
Sausage-meat: 12 coupons
Best Red Salmon: 32 coupons per small tin
Meat was the first thing to be rationed in March 1940, and more items were added as the war progressed. People were strongly encouraged to grow their own food, such as fruit and vegetables, and keep animals like chickens. Foods like potatoes, fruit, and fish were not rationed, and dried eggs were permitted as an addition to fresh.
What does a ration book look like?
Resources and materials across daily British life were all subjected to rationing. And with different kinds of rationing came different types of ration books.
Brown ration books were the most common and were used by most adults. Pregnant women, nursing mothers and children under 5 received green ration books, whilst blue ration books were issued to children between 5 to 16 years old.
Smaller green books were used for petrol rations. To qualify for these, applicants would need to produce their car or motorcycle registration. The coupons were only valid for the period in which they were issued, so they could not be saved or hoarded. One coupon equated to one gallon of petrol.
Bright red ration books were for clothing rations, which came into effect from the 1st July 1941. Clothing was rationed so that raw materials were safeguarded for military use. It meant that factory space and workers could be put towards the war effort instead of making clothing. Only 24 coupons were issued every six months, with up to 100% purchase tax, meaning that you might end up paying double the price for a coat or dress.
Children were permitted an extra ten coupons to accommodate for growing, but mothers were encouraged to plan ahead and buy clothes that kids could ‘grow into’!
War and the farm
Agriculture saw a radical change during the Second World War. For many farmers, production became the focus. Even animal food was rationed to ensure that animals produced the best quality meat, milk, or eggs without being overfed. Farmers were required to seek permission to slaughter animals to feed their families, as everything was on the ration. One rule, however, was that should an animal be injured, it could be slaughtered to reduce its suffering. According to one testimony, ‘many sheep and pigs during the war “fell down holes” and injured themselves. Especially round people’s birthdays!’1
As men enlisted in the Armed Forces en masse, the Women’s Land Army saw women heading into the countryside to sustain the country’s food production. For many women, it was their first venture into rural England and offered both adventure and the chance to learn new skills. You can learn more about the Women’s Land Army across The MERL website, including Land Girls: the History of the Women’s Land Army and Breaking the Colour Bar: Amelia King and the Women’s Land Army.
Meanwhile, people across England were encouraged to ‘Dig for Victory’, using every available plot of land to grow vegetables and fruit that could be added to daily food allowances. Parks, front gardens, and even the land outside the Tower of London was converted into veggie patches.
Rationing highlighted a divide between countryside and urban people. Those with more land available to them could keep chickens and other small animals that would provide them with extra food on top of their allotted rations. Elsewhere, in towns and cities, those living in built-up environments had much less opportunity afforded to them.
On a personal note, my grandmother was born in Bethnal Green in 1932 and was only seven when the war broke out. She recalled that her family had little money and often could not afford their allotted rations, debunking the myth that rations ensured food for all. She was later evacuated to Stoke-on-Trent, with her siblings and mother, and she was often put to work on a farm. It was the first time she had ever seen a cow and she loved green open spaces, of a kind she had never experienced before. The farmer allowed her family extra eggs and milk where possible, which dramatically improved their diets, although still not to the level they would have wished for.
When did rationing end?
Rationing remained in effect until the early 1950s. Meat was the last item to be derationed and rationing ended completely in 1954, nine years after the war ended. The UK was the last country involved in the war to stop rationing food.
One suggested reason for the continuation of rationing was a withdrawal of financial support from America, which meant Britain still could not afford to import the same amounts of food that it had done pre-war.
Another reason is that many felt spare food would be better directed to people across Europe who were in dire need of help. Holland, Belgium, Germany, and Denmark had all been reduced to starvation during the war and millions of people had been displaced or lost their homes entirely. Whilst imports of meat, butter and cheese from New Zealand and Australia, and fresh dairy produce from Ireland, eased some of the burden on UK diets, it was felt that the people of Europe needed it more.
To mark De-Rationing Day, members of the London Housewives’ Association held a special ceremony in London’s Trafalgar Square. Minister of Fuel and Power, Geoffrey Lloyd, burned a large replica of a ration book at an open meeting in his constituency.
Interested in learning more about the evacuee and related archives held at The MERL? Find out more about our Evacuee Archive or our Women’s Land Army Collection. Alternatively, learn about how we create educational experiences around our collections for school and college groups to enjoy.