The first real effect of the Second World War for most British civilians was the blackout, which was introduced on 1 September 1939, two days before war was actually declared.
In the early days, even lighting a match in the blackout could result in a fine, but later a more realistic approach was adopted, with limited use of illuminated signs and ‘glimmer’ or ‘star’ lighting. All lights however had to be extinguished during air raids.
The blackout caused widespread inconvenience, particularly for pedestrians at night. By January 1942, one in five people had some form of injury as a direct result of the blackout.
Moreover, road accidents increased dramatically, with 1,130 deaths in September 1939 as opposed to 544 in the same month the previous year. It remained in force for five years until September 1944, when regulations were relaxed to allow a ‘dim-out’.
The first official evacuation scheme also began that same day on 1 September 1939. Almost 1.5 million people were moved to safety by 3 September in order to reduce the number of deaths and injuries from the threatened aerial attack.
Amongst the social groups to be evacuated from the cities to the countryside were children of school age, pregnant women, mothers with toddlers and the disabled, who were accompanied by a whole army of teachers and helpers.
The experience was sometimes a traumatic one, both for the evacuee, who was sent into unknown and possibly unfriendly destinations, and also for the foster parents.
The scheme certainly drew attention to the economic and social deprivation which existed at the time, particularly in the inner cities.
When bombs failed to fall in the autumn of 1939 and spring of 1940, many returned home, thus exposing them to the very dangers that the government had hoped to protect them from.
Massive demands were placed upon transport during the war, the movement of freight and troops taking priority over the casual traveller.
Fewer passenger trains meant cramped journeys and restaurant cars almost disappeared. The country became geographically mysterious, as station sign posts were removed in 1940 for security reasons. During the Blitz train services out of London were blocked, sometimes for months.
Private road transport also became problematic. Travelling was not only more difficult because of the blackout and exposure to the possible danger of air raids, but was officially discouraged. Petrol was rationed from September 1939, and in 1942 the petrol allowance for private motorists was stopped completely.
To travel unnecessarily was regarded as anti-social, but rather than ration the number of journeys the public could make, the government relied upon persuasion with its slogans such as ‘Is Your Journey Really Necessary?’
As soon as war was declared the Ministry of Food was established with William Morrison as the first minister. He announced on 1 November 1939 that rationing was going to be introduced in the near future.
Indeed the British nation was not so hostile to the idea of rationing, as prices were continually increasing. It was introduced in January 1940 as a means of ensuring fair shares for all in a country deprived of many of its traditional imports; at the beginning of the war, 70% of Britain’s requirements for food and feeding livestock were imported.
It was an unprecedented regulation and reduction in consumption in Britain, transforming the country from an essentially free market economy to one based on centralised control and planning. Civilians were issued with ration books which allowed them to initially purchase limited quantities of basic foodstuffs such as meat, cheese, sugar and fats.
The fledgling television service was closed down on 1 September 1939, but with only 20,000 television owners who all lived in London, it had little impact.
News was promulgated through the newspapers, the cinema and the radio. Two days before the official declaration of war, the BBC combined the national and regional services into the Home Service. There were 9 million licensed wireless sets across the UK and the Home Service kept the public informed about such things as evacuation plans and rationing.
News was of paramount importance and announcers became household names. Half the nation would tune in to the nine o’clock news each evening. It was read and broadcast in London even though Broadcasting House was bombed three times, one of which, on 15 October 1940, was heard live during a news bulletin.
The BBC’s staffing numbers alone, almost tripling to 11,417, suggest how important ‘Auntie BBC’ became during the war. By 1945, it had also tripled its output from 50 hours a day to 150 hours’ worth of material.
Culture and Sport
Across the country, a large number of theatres, sports grounds, dance halls and cinemas closed at the beginning of the war in London. But within weeks, many re-opened.
There were 24 plays and musicals on in the West End on 7 September 1940 at the start of the Blitz; one week later only two theatres were open. Cinema was the chief form of entertainment; about 30 million cinema seats were sold every week in Britain.
In 1939 the most popular Hollywood film was Gone with the Wind closely followed by British favourites Goodbye Mr Chips and The Four Feathers. Spectator sport was severely affected by the war, as grounds only had 50% spectator capacity in order to let people get to a shelter.
In football for instance, clubs such as Arsenal had encouraged their players to volunteer en masse; that meant of the 42 professional players, only two remained with the club. Their ground at Highbury became a shelter and the club was forced to share the football ground of their rivals Tottenham Hotspur.
Cultural institutions were also closed at the beginning of the war. Even works of art were evacuated. The art collection from the National Gallery was dispersed to different destinations around the country, including a number of houses and castles in North Wales, and then later stored in Manod Quarry near Blaenau Ffestiniog.
With the closure of the National Gallery, the building was earmarked for government use. This was until the pianist, Myra Hess, contacted the Director Kenneth Clark, suggesting that she play a concert to raise morale. Clark answered that the concerts should be daily, with the first one scheduled for 10 October.
They proved very popular. Entry cost a shilling, with the profits going to the Musicians Benevolent Fund. Myra Hess managed to persuade composers, conductors and singers, such as Benjamin Britten, Michael Tippett, Sir Henry Wood and Kathleen Ferrier, to perform.
Audiences often numbered over a thousand, far exceeding the two hundred allowed by the Home Office. These concerts continued throughout the Blitz, although they were moved to lower rooms in the National Gallery so that they could escape the worst of the bombing.