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Can you really make a tasty cake from vegetables?

Join IWM expert Ngaire aboard her little houseboat on the River Thames as she tells real life stories of how people satisfied their sweet tooth despite rationing in the Second World War. How would you have gotten creative in the kitchen to keep your family well fed?

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Cakes Made From Carrots

Part of the Adventures in History series created during the UK lockdown in Spring 2020.

Ahoy! Welcome on board - great timing because I've just set the tea to brew, and tea is a really good place to start for this week's Adventure in History which is all about food shortages and a scheme called rationing which ran in the Second World War. My name is Ngaire, and I work at the Imperial War Museum where usually I'd be welcoming you through the doors to talk about how real people's lives have been affected by war and conflict but currently the museums doors are closed. You're at home, I'm at home. My home is a boat but imagine that we were inside the museum. There's a wooden boat there about the same age as my one and if we were stood there and we look just around the corner deeper into the Second World War gallery we would see a model of a ship. 

Of course, we couldn't fit the whole ship inside the museum - it's a really good, detailed model of a cargo ship. Underneath that ships model is a torpedo – a real torpedo which would have been deadly to ships in the Second World War. 

My tea that I'm brewing has come from India and that would travel on ships during the Second World War and these ships were very vulnerable to attack by enemy submarines who would fire torpedoes at them. With more ships sinking and less food getting into Britain it meant that we had to still ensure that people got a fair share and that's where rationing came in. So, by the time tea was rationed this two ounces would have to last a person for the whole week.  

Now, accompanying every good cup of tea is a biscuit. I wonder what your favourite biscuit is? Unbelievably, in Britain before the Second World War 350 different varieties of biscuits were available. By 1939 and 1940 however, when you went to the shops it was harder to find your favourite because the varieties of biscuits have been reduced to just 20. Why? Well, making biscuits was not seen as a war winner and so many of those biscuit factories were converted to producing other things that were going to win the war, so there was just less choice.  

So, with food shortages and fewer varieties of foods available the government still had to make sure that everyone was well fed and also that there was a fair share of what was available - and that's where rationing comes in.  

On Monday the 8th of January 1940 everyone was issued and went shopping with their ration book – even children had one and inside were your coupons that told you how much of each item you were allowed to buy. Some of the first things to be rationed were sugar, bacon and other types of meat and milk. Dairy products, butter was to go on to ration as well.  

So, when you've gone and bought your food with your ration book, how did you know how much you could use each week? Well on the boat I have this incredible piece of advice, it's 80 years old and it was produced by the food Commissioner for the West of Scotland as some helpful advice on how to make rations go further. So, for butter it suggests that whoever is cooking the family meals for one day would need 6 balls of butter roughly the size of a child's marble. 

Talking of children, I'm very lucky that many of my friends were once children during the Second World War and they have told me lots of their memories over the years which I would really like to share with you. One of them is Graham.  

Graham is 90 years young and comes to the museum every single week and Graham remembers that food shortages were a big problem in the Second World War, but mostly for his mum who was trying to make sure that Graham was fed and his dad. He says she did wonders. The reason that dad was still living at home was because he was a key worker - he drove the trams in the city of Birmingham where they lived. Whenever there was a shortage of meat or fish or eggs, Graham remembers that mum would top up their dinner plate with plenty of vegetables and apparently, she knew at least a dozen different ways of preparing potatoes! 

Why vegetables? Well, they were never rationed and lots of vegetables grow in this country and going back to our advice from the food Commissioner of the West of Scotland, he says that vegetables can be used extensively. I wonder if you grow any vegetables at home in your garden or on your windowsill because not everyone has a garden and that was true in the Second World War as well.  

John Allpress lived in southeast London with his family and their house only had quite a small yard at the back. It was big enough for them to have built an Anderson shelter, a bomb shelter, and to make it extra safe you could pack soil on top over the curved roof of the shelter and in that soil, you could grow vegetables. Carrots, cabbages perhaps some potatoes, some beetroot... and this encouragement to grow your own was all part of a campaign called Dig for Victory which was run by the Ministry of Agriculture, and this is another 80-year-old chart and inside this one, is a very colourful list of all the different varieties of vegetables that can be grown in the UK, all through the year, so that you always had a plentiful supply through across the year.   

Now, the Ministry of Food was another government Department that was helping people to cope with food shortages and rationing and they knew that it's a good idea to have some characters to get your message across. So rather than just showing people carrots or potatoes and encouraging them to eat them, they made them into characters - so there was Potato Pete and Doctor Carrot. And Doctor Carrot not only claimed he was good for your health but that he was a great substitute for sugar - remember, sugar was one of the first things to go on to ration.  

And another of my friends who shares her memories of the Second World War is Jill. Now Jill was an evacuee out of London, into the countryside for safety and she still comes to the museum with a little bag of dolly mixtures to show people how few sweets you got in your weekly ration. How few sweets? Well, this is my supply of mints on board my boat. If I was to follow the rationing of the Second World War, I'm afraid I could only allow myself or would only be allowed to buy six mints. That's the equivalent of two ounces or 50 grams and that wasn't a day, that was a week's ration of sweets and so for Jill, that was really tough she really, really enjoyed sweets and to be restricted to just a few was a real challenge for a child in the Second World War. 

Another person who found her sweet tooth a bit of a challenge to cope with but who relied on carrots to do so was John Allpress' sister, Betty. Remember, they grew vegetables on the roof of their Anderson shelter and Betty would eat carrots and save her coupons for sweets and chocolate and still spend them but then she would parcel up the chocolate and send it to her boyfriend who was away fighting in the British Army. So, for her, carrots were a way of coping with a lack of sweets in the Second World War.  

So, what did people really miss? John, Betty's younger brother who was 10 when the war started, really missed having a proper egg. After the war he would say that that that was the big thing that he missed the most. Eggs were quite scarce particularly in cities and so there was an ingenious solution, but it wasn't quite the same. From about 1942, eggs came powdered - so dried, dehydrated in a grey tin and what you would do is take a teaspoon of the powdered egg, mix it with some water -the right amount of water- and make a liquid egg and for making pastry and baking that was absolutely fine but John's mum would attempt to make scrambled egg with it and John describes it as tasting like cardboard and being quite rubbery and chewy.  

So, he really, really missed his eggs. Graham particularly remembers when plums were in season one August. He got on his bike, and he cycled out to Evesham, a village outside of Birmingham and he bought a big paper bag of plums. He put them carefully into the saddlebag of his bicycle and began to cycle back home to share them with his family. But remember Graham has not had a plum for 11 months and so he couldn't resist stopping and having one plum and of course it was delicious, and so he had a second plum and then a third plum until none remained in the bag. Of course, Graham remembers that that made him very sick. Next day he had a really upset tummy because he just wasn't used to eating that much stone fruit in one go.  

Graham also remembers that he would actually help harvest in those seasonal fruits, so with school or with youth groups he would go to harvest camp. One year, he remembers he was digging up potatoes Another year he was picking apples and on his third year, when he was a little bit bigger, he was actually helping a farmer to collect in the wheat into sheaves that would then be taken to factories to be turned into bread and bread was never rationed during the Second World War. So, if you could buy it, you could eat as much of that as you wanted.  

Now if you were someone living in the country, conditions were a little bit different to the city. Rose was an evacuee from Finsbury in North London. She was only nine when she had to say goodbye to mum and dad and leave London for the safety of the countryside. And the billet, the place of safety the home that she ended up living in was on a farm and so that meant that Rose had plentiful supplies of milk from the cows on the farm. The family actually made their own butter, their own cheese and clotted cream from the milk that they produced and in fact even when Rose was still in her 80s and would come to the museum, she would still admit that she had a real weakness and love for clotted cream because they just had clotted cream with everything when she was an evacuee.  

She also still remembered some of her wartime cooking lessons and two Christmases ago, she made her very own version of mince pies with less butter in the pastry - because remember butter was rationed - and also using apples instead of currants and raisins and they were absolutely delicious. So, people were really inventive and creative, they used things that were in plentiful supply in Britain, or they substituted things that were available for things that weren't so readily available. Really, really remarkable use of resources.  

There were some things that were not rationed at all and one of them was ice cream. Not that it was always very good quality, a grocer's shop might make their own ice cream, but it was often very powdery, very poor quality with great lumps of ice in them. Graham knew of an ice-cream shop that made its own ice cream that was really high quality. So high quality and in such demand, they only opened at weekends and only for the summer. And one day Graham gets on his bike, and he cycles 10 miles - that is 16 kilometres away - to this shop and buys an ice-cream and he said it was absolutely delicious. Probably no better than the ice-cream he could buy today he says – but because it was a treat and because he'd had to make a real effort to go and get it, it tasted like the most delicious ice cream he had ever had. 

So, after all that tea drinking, food preparing and cooking and eating then as now there was the washing up to be done. But unlike now there was a shortage of soap! You were only allowed from 1942 onwards three ounces or 75 grams of soap for four weeks, so you had to make that soap last of month before the next month's coupon was valid. To overcome that challenge, one lady wrote a helpful suggestion to a magazine. Now I don't know if you've noticed with all your hand washing, that a bar of soap gradually gets smaller and smaller and then you end up all the scrappy ends that are really quite fiddly. Well, this was what she suggested placing inside an empty tin - maybe one of those dried egg tins that were now empty. You'd pop all the scraps inside she said, punch some holes in the lid and then when you've got a hot bowl of water solution swish the tin around the soap inside would create lots of suds and you'd have some soapy water to wash up the dishes. Or she went on to write, you could wash your hair in it. I don't know if I would take up that suggestion however, I do have a suggestion that maybe you would take up.  

Remember Potato Pete and Doctor Carrot? Why don't you think of your favourite vegetable, fruit or other food item. Go and find it, give it a character, a name, a slogan and put all that together to create your very own campaign poster encouraging people to eat more of your chosen food item. And you can always share them with us at the Imperial War Museum we'd love to see what you come up with! That's it on our history adventure for this week.  

Next week you will be with aviation expert my friend Craig who works at the Imperial War Museums' airfield in Duxford. Until then thank you very much for joining me on this week's Adventure in History 

Curriculum Links and Learning Objectives

  • KS3/4 - Challenges for Britain, Europe and the wider world 1901 to the present day. 

  • GCSE - Warfare and British society, c1250-Present.   

  • To increase understanding about life on the Home Front and rationing during the Second World War.

An eggless sponge

Family Mission - Episode 2 Graphic

Rationing meant that foods such as eggs, butter and meat were often in short supply. Ingenuity and inventiveness were needed to satisfy a family’s sweet tooth.

Try this Eggless Jam Sponge recipe, hot from the IWM archives, and solve the mystery of an eggless cake.

Watch the mission briefing

Rationing in Britain

© IWM COI 155

There wasn't any shooting, but this ordinary shopping street has been the scene of a revolution. A social revolution caused by the war which has changed the buying habits and therefore the living habits of the British people as drastically as bombs changed their towns.  

Pre-war, Great Britain imported two thirds of the food it ate, and it ate pretty well. Mrs Bill Green, an average British housewife, filled her market basket with her choice of foods brought from all over the world. She bought as much as she wanted of anything she could afford, but on that old system the British could never have survived the war. So, they cut down their food imports by half, they rationed all basic foods except bread and vegetables, they controlled prices strictly. It put the dollar-a-day man on an eating level with a dollar-a-year man. 

There are four in the Green family. Their basic rations don't amount to much, but they are sure of getting them every week. Two pounds of sugar (half a pound each week for everyone), half a pound of tea (two ounces each) half a pound of butter, half a pound of lard, and a pound of margarine. That is two pounds of fats for the Green family. Three ounces of cheese for each person (for cheese is an excellent meat substitute), a box of dried eggs from the United States, and finally a full pound of bacon. 

Canned goods, but few there are, and spaghetti, breakfast food, and all that sort of thing are rationed on the points system. And since all prices are controlled, housewives can afford the cost in money – it's the cost in points is the problem. Shredded wheat, for example, is three points. The jar of jam is on the basic ration. 

When Mrs Green has collected all her groceries, she has to start thinking about the meat ration. Meat is rationed by value. Twenty-three cents worth for everybody each week. It works out at an average of a pound a week on each individual's plate. While Mrs Green stands in line for her meat, Bill Green gets ready to take the 10:30 morning express to Birmingham. Because he works on the railway, Bill gets an extra tea allowance – for tea is as precious to British workers as coffee is to Americans. Bill must get along on odds-and-ends of meat substitutes in his sandwiches, but he doesn't grumble if he gets plenty of tea strong enough for a mouse to trot on.  

Helen Green, who was drafted to work in a tank factory, does a semi-skilled job of drilling for at least forty-eight hours a week. She eats her lunch in a factory canteen. Since the war began, ten thousand new canteens have been started mostly in factories and schools. These canteens get extra allowances of food.  

Jimmy, the baby of the family, and his pal have had a good lunch at school, but Jimmy can never get enough candy to fill his sweet tooth. His ration, like everybody’s, is only three ounces a week. He finished that days ago, but his chum is a hoarder – he has saved a whole month's ration. Saving has always seemed rather an anaemic virtue to Jimmy except at such moments as this but maybe he can persuade his chum to do a little bartering? Uhh-uhh. Candy is worth more than a penknife in a swap.  

Back at the butchers, Mrs Green is lucky enough to get that roast she was hoping for as her family's meat ration for the week. Price: ninety-two cents. If they slice it thin enough, there may be some left for hash. Even though the rest of the family eat their lunches out, Mrs Green finds that feeding them well when they're at home is no small job. 

[Mrs Green] “Well I do have to give a lot more thought to housekeeping problems than I did before the War. The rations have to be evened out over the week – that's no easy job. Take butter and margarine for instance. We used to eat at one meal what has to last us a week now. Before the war, I used to pride myself on my homemade cakes, but now because of the fat ration I can only bake them once a week. Then take sugar. We used to like our tea sweet and strong, but now dad and I take it without sugar so that Jimmy can have enough for his breakfast cereals, and I have to keep a strict watch on the tea ration. If I didn't, dad would be taking a can of hot water with him to work by the end of the week. All the time I have to be thinking about substitutes. Substitutes for meat, for milk, for eggs, and all the other things we used to have in plenty and believe me it's quite a problem.” 

For Helen Green, the war's biggest riddle is how to keep pretty and decently dressed in the midst of luxury taxes and stringent clothes rationing.  

[Helen Green] “It's a waste of time now walking into a shop and asking for your favourite brand of cosmetics. You just take what you can get and as they're classed as luxury goods the government slaps a hundred percent purchase tax on them. But the main headache is trying to figure out a wardrobe on twenty-four clothing coupons every six months. If I want a woollen frock that takes eleven coupons leaving me just enough for a pair of shoes and say a blouse. Mother takes the other two for towels and of course there's a purchase tax on clothes too. My last winter coat cost twice as much as I'd have paid pre-war but when every coupon counts you can't afford to buy cheap stuff.” 

All women's magazines offer hints and women have used more ingenuity over their clothes and ever before they simply have to with only twenty-four coupons to spend every six months.  

[Onscreen animation of a paper doll demonstrates one way to spend twenty-four coupons over six months] 

That's one way of spending coupons and here's another way. 

[Onscreen animation of a paper doll demonstrates a more efficient way to spend twenty-four coupons over six months] 

By patching and mending and making things over women have managed to look neat and fresh on the outside even if they sleep without nighties and cut down on lingerie.  

British families know that all these restrictions are necessary to victory, but even to father they are irritating sometimes.  

[Mr Bill Green] Tobacco, beer and all the other things that I consider necessities, they class as luxuries and are taxed accordingly. Take this tobacco for instance – cost me more than twice the pre-war price and most of the extra goes on tax. The same with beer – that's gone up double and the strengths only half what it was. The restrictions on manufacture hits in a hundred different ways we might walk down the street full of shops with well stocked windows but when you get inside, you find your favourite shaving creams out of stock or your size in shoes they haven't seen for a month. We've got to get a permit to buy furniture and the book you want is out of print. We have to search for substitutes but wherever you go, in every shop, you've got to pay a purchase tax on luxuries. It might be sixty percent on the original price or a hundred percent, but it puts a lot of things beyond our pocket.” 

[Mrs Green] “Jimmy?” 

[Jimmy Green] “Yes, mum?”  

[Mrs Green] “It's time you bought another saving stamp.” 

[Jimmy Green] “Have a bit of chocolate, mum.” 

[Mrs Green] “I thought you'd spent all your sweet coupons? You haven't been swapping, have you?"  

[Jimmy Green] “Well, I've got five bars of chocolate and a bag of candy from Tommy." 

[Mrs Green] “And what did you give him?” 

[Jimmy Green] “My saving stamps?” 

[Mr Bill Green] “You must admit, mother, that lease lends a wonderful arrangement.” 

Find out more about rationing during the Second World War in this film from 1944. In it, an American commentator explains how one family copes with the rationing system, the workings of 'point' systems and other restrictions, and the difficulties people face when eating 'on the ration'.

© IWM COI 155




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