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.

People queuing at a greengrocers in High Road, Wood Green, North London, a familiar wartime sight.
© IWM D 25035
Queuing outside a greengrocers in Wood Green, North London in 1945. Unlike today, when most shopping is done in supermarkets, shopping during the war involved visiting individual shops - the butcher, greengrocer or baker - separately.

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’.

A poster encouraging people to grow their own food. It depicts a small patch of cultivated land from which new crops sprout. A garden fork and spade stand upright in the soil, holding up one end of a table. The handles of the fork and spade penetrate the table and form into cutlery.
© IWM Art.PST 2893
Posters such as this one, produced in 1942, encouraged people to grow vegetables, which were not rationed but often in short supply.

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.

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