8 January 1940: food rationing is introduced in Britain

When Britain entered the Second World War in 1939 it relied on the rest of the world for a large proportion of its food – 20 million tons of food a year was imported. With almost a fifth of our meat, a quarter of our butter and half our cheese imports coming from New Zealand, for instance, there was clearly great potential for the enemy to cut Britain’s food lines and starve the country into submission.

To make sure there was enough food to go round and to prevent hoarding, the Ministry of Food introduced rationing. Initially, just bacon, butter and sugar were restricted. But rationing was soon extended to cover many staples, including meat, in March 1940, and cheese, milk and eggs.

Every household in the country was issued with a ration book containing coupons, which had to be handed over to or signed by shopkeepers when buying food. Adults received different rations to children, and pregnant women and nursing mothers received additional rations, including a full pint of milk a day and double the normal ration of one egg a week.

Fruit and vegetables, however, were never rationed. Instead, the government’s “Dig for Victory” campaign urged citizens to turn over their gardens and allotments to growing food, while many public parks were also planted with fruit and veg. Fish was also not rationed, but given the perils of catching it, it nonetheless remained in short supply. Vegetarians had their meat allowance substituted with extra cheese and eggs, while those who didn’t eat ham or pork for religious reasons could also receive substitutes.

It wasn’t just at home that the menu was limited. Meals in restaurants were restricted to a maximum of three courses, only one of which could contain meat, fish or poultry. The maximum cost of a meal out was set at five shillings.

Once the war ended, rationing continued well into peacetime. Indeed, in 1946, bread, which had come off ration during the war, was re-rationed because of a poor harvest. And the long, hard winter of 1946/47 resulted in potatoes being rationed too.

Six years after the end of the war, the issue of rationing was central to the 1950 general election. The Labour government wanted to extend it, while the Conservatives ran an “anti-austerity” campaign. Labour won, but only by a narrow margin, and its majority fell from 180 seats to just 35. In the election of 1951, the Conservatives were returned to power (despite gaining a smaller proportion of the popular vote).

But it wasn’t until 4 July 1954 that food rationing finally came to an end in Britain, when the sale of meat was de-restricted.

Also on this day

8 January 1835: US national debt hits $0

By selling land, collecting taxes and cutting public spending, the US national debt was brought down to $0 for the first and only time in the country’s history on this day in 1835. Read more here.