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.
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, including children and expectant mothers.
As shortages increased, long queues became commonplace. It was common for someone to reach the front of a long queue, only to find out that the item they had been waiting for had just run out.
Not all foods were rationed. Fruit and vegetables were never rationed but were often in short supply, especially tomatoes, onions and fruit shipped from overseas. The government encouraged people to grow vegetables in their own gardens and allotments. Many public parks were also used for this purpose. The scheme became better known as ‘Dig For Victory’.
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. Bread, which was never rationed during wartime, was put on the ration in July 1946.
It was not until the early 1950s that most commodities came ‘off the ration’. Meat was the last item to be de-rationed and food rationing ended completely in 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.
This article was edited by Jessica Talarico. Other IWM staff members contributed to writing an older version of this piece.