Rationing in the Second World War

Grow Your Own Food, 1942; Posters such as this encouraged people to grow vegetables, which were not rationed, in their own gardens and allotments. Many public parks were also used for this purpose. The scheme became better known as 'Dig For Victory'.

Grow Your Own Food, 1942

posters

Posters such as this encouraged people to grow vegetables, which were not rationed, in their own gardens and allotments. Many public parks were also used for this purpose. The scheme became better known as 'Dig For Victory'.

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In January 1940, the British government introduced food rationing. The scheme was designed to ensure fair shares for all at a time of national shortage.

The Ministry of Food was responsible for overseeing rationing. Every man, woman and child...

In January 1940, the British government introduced food rationing. The scheme was designed to ensure fair shares for all at a time of national shortage.

The Ministry of Food was responsible for overseeing rationing. Every man, woman and child was given a ration book with coupons. These were required before rationed goods could be purchased. Basic foodstuffs such as sugar, meat, fats, bacon and cheese were directly rationed by an allowance of coupons. Housewives had to register with particular retailers. As shortages increased, long queues became commonplace.

A number of other items, such as tinned goods, dried fruit, cereals and biscuits, were rationed using a points system. The number of points allocated changed according to availability and consumer demand. Priority allowances of milk and eggs were given to those most in need - children, expectant mothers or invalids.

Certain key commodities were also rationed; petrol in 1939, clothes in June 1941 and soap in February 1942. The end of the war saw additional cuts, and bread began to be rationed in 1946. It was not until the early 1950s that most commodities came 'off the ration'. Meat was the last item to be de-rationed in July 1954.

One way to get rationed items without coupons, usually at greatly inflated prices, was on the black market. Shopkeepers sometimes kept special supplies 'behind the counter', and 'spivs' - petty criminals - traded in goods often obtained by dubious means. By March 1941, 2,300 people had been prosecuted and severely penalised for fraud and dishonesty.

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Related Exhibitions

  • British ration book dating from 1948-1949

    souvenirs and ephemera

    British ration book dating from 1948-1949; Food rationing continued after the end of the war. Bread, which was never rationed during wartime, was put on the ration in July 1946. It was only in 1954 that food rationing ended completely.
  • Doctor Carrot: the Children's Best Friend, 1942

    posters

    Doctor Carrot: the Children's Best Friend, 1942; 'Dr Carrot' and his companion 'Potato Pete' were two of the Ministry of Food’s most popular creations. Dr Carrot was invented in 1942. The country had a surplus of carrots and the Ministry of Food wanted to encourage people to eat more of them. As part of this campaign, they also circulated stories about how eating carrots improved the night vision of pilots, though in reality this was due to the increased use of radar.
  • Queuing for food

    photographs

    Queuing for food; Women queuing outside greengrocers in Wood Green, North London, 1945. Unlike today, when most of our shopping is done in supermarkets, shopping during the war involved visiting individual shops - such as the butcher, greengrocer or baker - separately. As shortages increased, so did the length of the queues. It was common for a housewife to reach the front of a long queue, only to find out that the item she had been waiting for had just run out.
  • A shopkeeper stamping a customer's ration book, 1941

    photographs

    A shopkeeper stamping a customer's ration book, 1941; Everyone had to register with a particular shop where they would buy their weekly rations. The ration book had to be handed over to the shopkeeper who would remove the relevant coupons. In the foreground of this photograph are tea, sugar, butter, margarine, cooking fats and bacon rations for one week.
  • 'Off the Ration' Exhibition

    posters

    'Off the Ration' Exhibition; 'Off the Ration' Exhibition - Regents Park Zoo, 1939. This poster is advertising a wartime exhibition promoting foodstuffs that were not rationed, such as home-grown vegetables, and suggesting ways that people could supplement their meat rations by keeping rabbits and chickens or joining a pig club.
  • Shoppers queuing for fish in South London, 1945

    photographs

    Shoppers queuing for fish in South London, 1945; Not all foods were rationed. Fruit and vegetables were never rationed but were often in short supply, especially tomatoes, onions and fruit from overseas. Supplies were sometimes so limited that some shops operated more like a kiosk, with their entrances shuttered up and just a window open from which the goods were sold. Fish queues were notoriously long.
  • Wasted Food is Another Ship Lost, c.1942

    posters

    Wasted Food is Another Ship Lost, c.1942; This poster was one of a series of five designed by Abram Games for the government's campaign against waste. In March 1943, 169,800 tons of food and feeding stuffs were lost at sea due to enemy action.
  • Pig food collection unit

    photographs

    Pig food collection unit; Members of the Women's Voluntary Service (WVS) with pigs fed from salvaged kitchen waste, 1943. This photograph shows Mrs Gerald De Rivaz, Kathleen Kent and Winifred Jordan, members of the WVS who ran a pig food collection unit in East Barnet, Hertfordshire. Organised collections of 'swill', or kitchen waste, to feed pigs totalled 500,000 tons in 1943.