The Kitchen Front


An extract from Norman Longmate: How we Lived Then - A history of everyday life during the Second World War (1971): published by Pimlico ISBN 0 09 908080 x

(used by permission of  The Random House Group Limited)




How We Lived Then -- buy this fantastic book from Amazon!

Introduction of Rationing, Fish, Meat, Onions, Fruit & veg, Eggs, Milk, Shopping, Disasters

Making food go further, Guests, Eating out, Black Market, Lord Woolton, Ministry of Food propaganda




'Carrot Flan . . . reminds you of Apricot Flan but has a deliciousness all its own.’

Ministry of Food advertisement, 1941   




One day in the middle of the war a Staines housewife baked a cake that contained so few of the usual ingredients that she christened it ‘The Nothing Cake’. The name – and the fact that her family ate the cake with enjoyment, though it consisted mainly of flour, custard powder and dried egg – symbolised the difficulties which British housewives faced from 1933 to 1945 and the way in which they defeated them. Even those who never saw an incendiary bomb or heard an enemy bomber had to go into action several times a day against an enemy even older than Hitler, hunger. 

Women who remembered the breakdown of food distribution in the first world war, with its perpetual queues, un-met ration coupons, and desperate shortage of every necessity from potatoes to edible margarine, dreaded similar experiences in the second. But this was one area where things turned out better than expected. The British system of wartime rationing and food control proved an immense success, due largely to the patriotic self-sacrifice and resourcefulness of the ordinary housewife. The Kitchen Front was the only one where Great Britain never lost a battle. 

The housewife was introduced to rationing by easy stages. She first had to take her ration books when she went shopping on Monday 8th January 1940, though only for bacon or ham, four ounces a head a week, sugar, twelve ounces, and butter, four ounces. Meat rationing began in March with 1s. 10d. worth a week for everyone over six, and 11d. worth for smaller children, the adult ration later being reduced to 1s. 1d. and 1s. 2d. worth at various times, though offal was excluded. Fish remained unrationed, but was hard to find. A Ministry of Food advertisement optimistically predicted: 

The fishermen are saving lives 

By sweeping seas for mines, 

So you'll not grumble, 'What no fish?’ 

When you have read these lines. 

In July rationing really began, to use an appropriate word, to bite, when it was extended to tea, for the two ounces a week allowed were not enough for most families. Women now began to tear open their empty tea packets in search of a few hidden grains, or followed the Minister of Food's advice to use ‘one spoonful for each person and none for the pot’. At the same time margarine and cooking fats went on coupons and before long the rations settled down at around two ounces of cooking fat, four ounces of margarine and four – later two – ounces of butter a week. Housewives began to scrape the last morsel of butter or cooking fat from its wrapper and finally to rub the greasy paper on dish or frying pan, while many people gave up sugar in their tea or coffee for the duration. The tea and sugar rations pressed hardest on old people. A Surrey girl, aged ten, used to feel sorry for her grandfather who was firmly upbraided by her mother for stealing an extra spoonful of sugar when her back was turned. Some people experimented with using honey or golden syrup in their tea, which turned it black and tasted strange, but in March 1941 jam, marmalade and syrup also went on coupons, followed by mincemeat, lemon curd and honey. The amount varied, according to the season, from eight ounces to two pounds a month. It was a heavy blow to most families when cheese was rationed in May 1941 at only an ounce a week, barely one decent mouthful, but the ration later went up and for most of the war was two ounces, with from August 1941 an extra eight ounces to a pound a week for agricultural workers, miners, and other heavy workers who carried their food with them. Every wartime housewife will remember, too, other highly-prized bonuses – the extra sugar during the jam-making season, the 'Ministry of Food’ Christmas present of extra rations in December, the extra ounce of tea for the over-seventies introduced in December 1944  

By the end of 1940 most family store cupboards were almost empty. Nathaniel Gubbins's humorous column in the Sunday Express nicely reflected the universal experience in such melancholy news items as, in Letter from an Aunt, ‘Your uncle George came to tea – last of the tinned Salmon’. Tinned salmon, like tinned meat and fruit and many other items, was not on coupons but they had all disappeared  almost everywhere until, on the 1st December 1941, the Ministry of Food unveiled its masterpiece, the points rationing scheme. Under the scheme every holder of a ration book received sixteen points a month, later raised to twenty, to spend as he wished, at any shop that had the items he wanted. At first only canned meat, fish and vegetables were 'on points’, but in the next twelve months one item after another was added, including rice and canned fruit, condensed milk and breakfast cereals, biscuits and oatflakes. The points scheme brought back to the shops items which had not been seen for months, for the Ministry had built up stocks to get it off to a good start. It proved immediately popular for it made the house- wife a discriminating shopper again, instead of a mere collector of rations. 

To the Ministry the scheme had the great advantage of being infinitely adjustable. If tinned sardines or baked beans proved too popular and stocks began to run low, they simply raised their points value; if cream crackers or tapioca were piling up unwanted, they had only to cut it to clear the shelves. Guessing, towards the end of a rationing period, which items were likely to go up or down, added a new interest to the weary routine of catering for a family, and housewives turned to the list of 'Changes in Points Value’ in the newspaper with all the zeal of a gambler looking for the racing results. To discover some points 'bargain’ was also a matter for deep satisfaction. The outstanding 'buy’ was generally agreed to be the large tin of American sausage meat which cost a whole sixteen points, but besides providing enough meat for several main meals contained a thick layer of nearly half a pound of fat, invaluable for cooking. One Cambridgeshire woman thought it added 'a touch of pre-war luxury' to dull wartime diet and another, in Hertfordshire, served it so often to a Polish guest that he 'must have thought sausage meat was our national dish’. Another popular import was Spam, American canned spiced ham. It had soon become the great wartime standby, fried with bread as a main meal, eaten cold in sandwiches, serving as the meat in 'pork' pies, gracing wedding receptions as filling for the vol-au-vent. 


Introduction of Rationing

The Ministry of Food constantly urged the public to try entirely new foods, especially in the case of fish, for which no satisfactory distribution system was ever found. The queues outside the fishmongers', the one unrationed item, apart from the even more elusive offal, which could provide a main course for a meal, were always the longest and the most frustrating. It will not surprise any wartime housewife that, as one remembers, the queue outside the fish shop was the only one not to disperse when the sirens went one morning in Paddington in 1944 and that even when a V1 cut out overhead the queuers merely ducked. A Shenfield woman used to wait up to two hours in a fish queue for 'great slabs of salted cod that had the taste and texture of boiled flannelette’. A Nottingham woman queued for one and a half hours on a bitter February morning to obtain three herrings, and a Blackpool woman admits being moved to tears of disappointment on finding, after she had queued for an hour drawing nearer and nearer a splendid piece of hake, that only a wretched piece of tail was left when her turn came, the woman in front, who ran a billet for airmen, had bought twenty-six portions. To relieve the shortage the Ministry of Food scoured the world for obscure varieties, exhorting women to buy them with such verses as:  

When fisher-folk are brave enough  

To face mines and the foe for you  

You surely can be bold enough  

To try fish of a kind that's new.  

But women who did try the new fish rarely did so twice. An East London woman still winces at the thought of 'great black slabs of. . . that awful tuna fish', and a Mansfield housewife simply threw away the evil- smelling and unnamed white fish pressed upon her. But it was whalemeat at which most palates rebelled. A Nottinghamshire woman never forgave the fishmonger's assistant who assured her that 'it was really nice. If I cooked it like stewing steak, no one would know’. The salesgirl had underrated her family, her husband 'demanding to know what he was eating. . . . The stunned silence, the expression on the face of the ‘victim’ is something to remember.' A Falmouth hotel worker remembers a chef who grilled and served the whale as if it were steak but one guest promptly sent it back – a very brave thing to do with any dish in wartime – all the other diners also rejected their steaks and 'even the dog would not touch them'. A Bournemouth woman who tackled various 'fish of doubtful origin, like some sort of cat fish' and 'dried salted fish', admits, 'But the whalemeat beat me. I thought it was horrible.' 'Repulsive', 'revolting', 'ghastly', 'tough and fishy', like a lump of cod liver oil', like fishy liver', these are how other women describe it, and two sum up their reactions in the same brief monosyllable: 'Ugh!' 



Offal was even scarcer than fish. What happened to the previously unwanted sections of cattle, now that everyone wanted them, was the cause of much indignant discussion in the butcher's queue – and of great rejoicing if one was in luck and actually offered some. 'If I got some liver I ran home as happy as if I had won a fortune', one woman remembers. Others acquired a taste for 'pigs' fry', pigs' trotters, brains, sweetbreads, cowheel and, according to a Deptford woman, 'best of all, ox-cheek'. In Lancashire tripe was praised as 'a good standby' though generally felt to need onions, and a Mansfield woman, who has never tasted one since, says 'we lived on beasts' hearts'. A few brave women even boiled down a sheep's head. One Ipswich woman will 'never forget the awful job of preparing it and getting the bones out. At any rate we had the tongue and some nourishing soup but I never attempted it again.' 

Some offal found its way into sausages, which were unrationed. The sausage had always been considered comic, but during the war it became a target for two main jokes: that its ingredients were best not enquired into – one family nicknamed it ‘sweet mystery of life’ and another 'firewood sausages' – and that it contained little but bread. A Lincoln woman remembers a man remarking to her, as their bus passed a queue for sausages, ‘Why queue? – you can get bread without queueing the other side of the road. One Essex housewife jokes, ‘We didn't know whether to put mustard or marmalade on them’. One contemporary cartoon showed even the fish spurning the sausage which baited every hook. Yet sausages did provide a meat dish and, as one Ipswich woman who used to queue for an hour outside one shop before it even opened remembers, 'it seemed a matter of life and death . . . to get one pound’. 



One of the first ways in which the war made itself felt to the ordinary housewife was in the sudden disappearance of onions, due to the loss of supplies from the Channel Islands and Britanny. This was, one Scottish journalist felt, 'the one real traumatic lack. Their absence was terribly noticeable.' The taste of this humble vegetable, so long taken for granted, seemed suddenly the peak of gastronomic pleasure, partly because with meat rationed by value, not weight, stews, which used the cheapest cuts, were in favour. At least two Odes to an Onion were written in 1941. 

O pungent root, so lately dear to me, 

Thou bulbous, aromatic rarity . . . 

Today thou are a treasure vainly sought . . . 

began the lament of one frustrated cook at Tipton, Staffordshire, in January. By September the shortage was no better as, these verses in one London firm's house magazine testified: 

My cupboard might as well be bare. 

Bereft, I wander everywhere 

And try, nose in the empty air, 

To sniff a whiff of onion. 

In February 1941 a one-and-a-half pound onion, raffled among the staff of The Times, raised £4 3s 4d and in March, when one woman remarked at a first aid lecture in Chelsea that she did not cry if she wore her gas mask when peeling onions, every woman present instantly shouted, ‘Where did you get them?’ Onions became popular prizes at socials and one wartime Girl Guide in Accrington can still recapture her pride at winning one in a treasure hunt, in honour of which her mother baked a special pie. A Cheshire doctor remembers ‘taking home in triumph’ the best gift he ever received from a grateful patient: a large Spanish onion. One 'aunt' on Children's Hour, wishing ‘A Happy Birthday and lots of presents’ to one small listener, added, 'I did hear of a lucky girl the other day who was given some onions, but we can't all expect a lovely present like that,’ A Worcestershire woman used the same onion in cooking for a month before finally eating it, and in North Queensberry in Scotland one family ‘tried putting an onion in a glass of water like a hyacinth bulb and, as the green shoots appeared . . . cut them off and used them for flavouring’. The Minister of Agriculture, announcing in February 1941 a fifteen-fold increase in the onion crop, expressed the hope that ‘onions would then be eaten and not talked about’, and by 1942 this expectation was being fulfilled. 



Onions, like other vegetables, were never rationed, though the Ministry of Food operated for them a system of Controlled Distribution under which scarce items were allocated in turn to various parts of the country. The shopkeeper had to mark each customer's ration book, but if he had any surplus he was usually allowed to distribute it. From May 1941 there were occasional allocations of oranges in this way, though they were usually reserved for the under-fives and expectant mothers, or for those aged five to eighteen. A sympathetic greengrocer sometimes stretched the rules to a favoured customer and one woman who had benefited in this way still remembers her embarrassment when her landlady’s small son, seeing her with some precious oranges, innocently asked, ‘Have you got a green book [for expectant mothers] or are you under sixteen ?’ Her age was then forty-eight. To be caught trying to get a second share involved social disgrace and a Tunbridge Wells woman, a self-confessed rubber-out of pencil marks, still blushes at the memory of being finally 'shown up in a crowded Sainsburys’. When oranges were available the usual allowance was only a pound a book, and the peel was carefully hoarded for making marmalade. A woman doctor in Westmorland remembers being called in at midnight to see a small girl suspected of having appendicitis and finding there was a simpler explanation of her stomach pains – the patient had had for supper the first orange she had ever seen and, knowing no better, had eaten it peel and all. 

Lemons simply vanished for the duration and one Tunbridge Wells woman, who had received a box of them from her nephew, in Sicily with the Eighth Army, proudly took them round to show her green- grocer who had not seen one for years. Bananas were the greatest rarity of all and there were many stories of children given one as a treat who tried to bite into the skin or howled at the unfamiliar sight. A Gloucester- shire teenager who won a banana in an office raffle in 1942 – it had been given to one of the typists by a newly-arrived Australian airman – took it home, where, after it had been inspected by the neighbours, ‘it was cut up into pieces with a taste for each member of the family. It seemed criminal just to throw the skin away, so we put it in the middle of the road outside the house and had a lot of fun watching the surprised looks of several passers by, a few of whom could contain curiosity no longer and picked it up to see if it were real.' Some other fruit were almost as scarce. One London resident remembers 'word going round that the greengrocer would have a few cooking apples, queue starting at 6 a.m. following morning. It was a mile long. One apple apiece until they had gone. I was first to be refused.' A Rotherhithe woman also turned out at 6 a.m. one Saturday to queue for three hours outside a greengrocer's. Her prize was 'three apples or a pound of rhubarb – then home for a warm drink and out again, this time to the offal shop'. For luxury fruit some ridiculous prices were paid, a melon in August 1941 fetching £2, for example, and grapes 17s. 6d. a pound. 


Fruit & veg

A more serious shortage than fresh fruit was that of eggs, which became scarce during 1940 following cuts in imports and the slaughter of millions of hens to save feeding stuffs. Before the war everyone in Great Britain had eaten on average three eggs a week; during the war the total dropped to roughly one a fortnight, though there were long periods with none at all. Most people now realised for the first time the important role eggs had played in their diet. Anyone whose work took him into the country would now enquire, as a matter of course, at any likely-looking farm or cottage if there were eggs for sale. One Oxfordshire farmer remembers a driver, who was giving him a lift, gladly going eight miles out of his way – a serious offence during petrol rationing – to buy a dozen eggs from him. A woman who jokingly asked someone to be careful other case on a railway journey as it was 'full of eggs', was embarrassed when one fellow passenger after another pleaded with her to sell them some. A wasted egg was a major disaster. A London woman remembers frying her husband their only egg that week for his breakfast, until 'it got more and more like lino as I kept it hot. In a fury I cast it into the kitchen boiler and gave him breakfast in bed after that.' But while the ordinary adult, 'the holder of R.B.1' in the jargon of the Food Office, went short, the 'priority classes' of expectant mothers and children under five actually received on average slightly more eggs during the war than the pre-war average. The sight of a small child reluctantly and messily toying with a precious egg, while other members of the family watched hungrily, was one to try the patience of even the most conscientious mother. A Lancashire curate's family compromised when their small daughter, born in December 1943? brought two welcome eggs a week into the household by letting her have what she wanted, but taking it in turns to eat any she refused. 

To compensate for the shortage of shell eggs, from June 1942 onwards packets of another wartime novelty from America began to appear on the grocers’ shelves. Few things more rapidly evoke the whole feel of wartime than the slightly biscuity (some said 'cardboard') taste of dried eggs. The Ministry of Food's publicity campaign stressed how much shipping space dried eggs saved – 'Shell eggs are five-sixths water: Why import water ?’ – but to the housewife they possessed a simpler attraction: they were almost always available. Apart from a few months in 1942 and 1943 at least one drab, grey packet, its contents equivalent to a dozen fresh eggs, was available on every ration book every four weeks, and for long periods they could be sold without restriction to registered customers. Although one Southampton woman felt that 'everything tasted rubbery with dried egg and Yorkshire pudding came out of the oven as flat as it went in', personally I found a dried egg omelette perfectly palatable and scrambled dried eggs were the favourite bedtime snack among the monitors in my house at school. I found that a little cheese greatly improved the flavour, and the nurses at a Clydeside hospital favoured them spread with mustard. The small amount of dried egg powder required was deceptive. One Scotswoman, who proudly cooked the first breakfast other married life in October 1944, 'mixed the egg as instructed on the tin. It didn't look very much so we doubled the amount. It still looked a bit on the small side so I added a bit moreby this time three-quarters of a tin had been used. What we didn't know was that it swelled in cooking and we had enough . . . to feed a family of twelve.' A little later in her marriage the mistake might have seemed less hilarious, as it did to the wife of a Middlesbrough cinema manager whose 'husband . . . decided to make an omelette from dried eggs and used up a whole precious packet, which nearly caused a divorce'. Dried egg became the universal resource for housewives puzzled what to give their family at the next meal. The wife of a miner living in Blaenavon, Monmouthshire, remembers that when she made her invariable reply, 'Wait and see', when he asked what was for supper, he would make the ritual, but only too truthful, retort: 'Oh, I know, dried egg!' 



Almost as common a sight in wartime kitchens as the dried egg packet was the dried milk tin. Controlled Distribution of liquid milk began in November 1941, the usual amount allowed being from two to two-and-a half pints a head a week, and to supplement it from December tins of dried skimmed milk powder, known as Household Milk, went on sale. Each was said to equal four pints of liquid milk when water was added and, for most of the war, every family was allowed one tin a month. Household Milk, though barely drinkable by itself, was certainly better than nothing in coffee or cocoa and just better than nothing in tea, but really came into its own in cooking. Children under one, and later two, years old were also entitled to National Dried Milk, a full-cream product much nearer the real thing. To find a chemist with tins of this which had outlived the 'Not for consumption after. . ‘ date on the label, and could now be sold to ordinary customers, was a real triumph. One of the innumerable changes to which housewives had to become accustomed in those years was a new milkman, for even if their usual roundsman had not been called up, from the autumn of 1942 only one milkman, apart from the Co-op, visited each street, and deliveries were often cut to four days a week. The baker could call up to three times a week, but most other goods the housewife now had to carry home herself, usually unwrapped. This produced some strange sights. One could see dignified men in business suits carefully carrying kippers by their tails and fur coated women laden with string bags bulging with – a great treasure – ham bones. It became socially acceptable to stop a perfect stranger in the street and ask where she had found some scarce item and soon, as one woman remembers, the news would spread and housewives would be hurrying from all directions like flies round a jampot’. 



Most familiar brands of goods simply vanished, as production was concentrated in a few factories to save labour. The 350 varieties of biscuits on sale pre-war were reduced to twenty, and soft drinks were sold under labels like 'Orange Squash, S.W. I53’, the only clue to the manufacturer's name. Packages were standardised, labels grew smaller and less colourful, and if one saw a familiar name it was often on some old stock that the shopkeeper had been trying to get rid of for years. (One man remembers buying in 1943 a packet of porridge oats printed with an entry form for a competition that had closed in 1937.) 


Although in most homes money was now more plentiful than before the war, the smallness of the rations made careful shopping more necessary than ever. One question much debated in the queues was whether it was better to spread one’s ration books over several shops, to increase the chance of obtaining the vital extras, or to register the whole family with the same shopkeeper, in the hope of preferential treatment when some scarce but unrationed item like coffee, custard powder or pepper known as 'white gold’ – was available. People also argued about whether one did better at a large shop or a small one. Many women still praise the private rationing scheme run by the large firm of Sainsburys, but others have kindly memories of some ‘small shop round the corner’ which, perhaps, put a precious jelly aside when some child's birthday was approaching. Despite a few surly or bullying shopkeepers and assistants, who sent their customers out muttering darkly ‘Just wait till after the war!’, most shops, large or small, went to great trouble to be fair. The trouble taken in the village shop at Bourton in Dorset speaks for itself. The manager's wife, having received one Christmas seven pounds of dried fruit, actually counted out the various items to ensure that each registered customer got her fair share. One housewife's allocation was three prunes, four dates, twelve raisins and one ounce of sultanas. 'We made a Christmas cake,’ she remembers, 'though it wasn't a very big cake.’ 

When, about once a year, new ration books were issued, it was possible to change one's retailer without explanation, but to do so in between was, in the words of a Coulsdon housewife, 'rather like getting a divorce’. It was obviously sensible to try to keep on good terms with your shop- keeper. In one Colchester shop it was a joke among the customers that when the owner put up the welcome notice 'Currents today’ not one of them dared to correct his misspelling. To lose one's ration book was also a serious matter, though it was replaced on payment of a shilling, and on signature of a declaration witnessed by a responsible person. The most famous excuse was put forward by a travelling circus family who wrote to Blackpool Food Office, 'Please can we have new ration books as the others have been eaten by our elephant ?' 



An even greater disaster than a lost book was a waste of food. A woman living in Irvine, Ayrshire, who told off her son for drawing on her single egg for that week never did so again: full of contrition, he tried to rub out his picture, with disastrous results. An Ipswich woman who incautiously left a packet of tea – four people's ration for a week – in the baby's pram while choosing her books at the library, came out to find that the baby had emptied the whole half-pound on to the ground. A four-year-old girl in Paignton, mistaking the week's sugar ration for toilet cleaner, emptied it all down the lavatory. An Enfield woman put a precious gift of fresh eggs from a cousin in waterglass in a bucket kept in the bedroom, safely away from her small children, until 'One day the elder girl found she was tall enough to reach door handles, found the eggs and amused herself making a squishy mess'. One Northampton woman, who saw a dog dashing out of a butcher's shop with a large piece of suet in his mouth, followed him on her bicycle and watched him bury the suet. 'When the dog was safely away I went to the spot . . . and confiscated the hidden treasure . . . I took home that suet, cut out the mauled part and then made suet pudding.' 

With food so scarce many women acted on the principle 'what the eye doesn't see . . .’ or even, on occasion, 'what the eye does see . . .’ One London woman, who dropped the family's entire butter ration on the kitchen floor, simply scraped it back on the dish for an important guest, though her small son made pointed remarks on the subject at table. A Birmingham woman, whose husband's dinner was knocked out other hand, pushed it back on to the plate and ‘tidied it up’ with some more gravy so that ‘the poor man never knew until long after the war’. A King's Lynn woman saw a neighbour who had dropped half a dozen eggs in the gutter when pushing her pram scraping them up; she scrambled them for supper. Even doctors relaxed their customary standards. A Westmorland doctor who found her weekly joint covered with maggots 'scraped them off and roasted the joint again’. She also salted down butter in a large bedroom jug. 'One morning I found a mouse drowned in the salty water,’ she remembers, 'but I used the butter.’ 



Most women had some private 'wrinkle’ to make the rations go further, like begging the grocer for the cheese rind for flavouring or the scraps of meat from the bacon slicer, mixing cornflour with the dried egg to stretch it out, shaking up the top of the milk in a bottle to make butter, melting the butter and spreading it with a brush, or putting saccharine in the teapot rather than the cup. Dripping on toast, baked potatoes served with bottled sauce, and bread soaked in Oxo were all useful for visitors, while the favourite snack taken to her munitions factory by my sister consisted of sandwiches filled with potato crisps. Keen cooks regarded each new shortage as a challenge to their ingenuity. Dried elderberries and chopped prunes were used in cakes as substitutes for currants, and one woman successfully tried wine gums, though they tended to sink to the bottom of the dish. Household Milk and melted chocolate was used for icing, and, until the vigilant Ministry of Food restricted sales to 'medicinal purposes only’, glycerine and liquid paraffin in place of cooking fat. Little was thrown away. One Hertfordshire family ate to the last crumb a 'disinfectant cake’ made by mistake with Dettol, which had been kept in a bottle labelled 'Almond Essence’. A Croydon housewife served her family 'M.I.5 Pudding’, refusing to disclose the ingredients. They were, in fact, liver, sausage meat and onion, and her children 'thought it super’. 


Making food go further

In wartime guests who did not do justice to the food set before them were rarely asked twice. A London woman remembers queueing for hours for some liver and cooking it with the week’s bacon ration 'to make a delicious supper for a business guest and the wretched man let me give him the best helping and left it on the side of his plate’. Equally infuriating were husbands who did not appreciate their wives’ sacrifices. One Melton Mowbray housewife can still barely forgive her husband for having secretly helped himself each morning to golden syrup to sweeten his tea from a two-pound tin she had hidden on a top shelf. Only when the time came to call on this vital reserve did she discover it was empty. And every wartime housewife will share the feeling of mingled exasperation and amusement of a Nottingham woman whose husband, having offered to do the shopping, returned home empty- handed. ‘The queues,' he explained, 'were awfully long.’ 



To bridge the gap between rations and appetites the government expected every family to eat out, on average, about one day a month and for some members of the family to have their main meals at school or work. School dinners, which before the war had been available only to 250,000 children, were by its end almost universal, numbering nearly 1,850,000 a day. Factory canteens had numbered 1,500 in 1939. By 1945 there were 18,500 and any firm over a certain size was legally compelled to provide one. The most important innovation of all was the British Restaurant, a simply furnished cafeteria, providing a filling meal very cheaply. A typical dinner at one in London in 1942 consisted of roast beef and two vegetables, treacle pudding, bread and butter and coffee and cost only l1d. By the end of the war there were 2,000 British Restaurants serving more than half a million meals a day. Their nearest equivalent in the countryside was the Pie Scheme, launched in 1941, under which meat, and later fruit, pies were distributed to village centres for sale to workers in the fields. Sad to relate, not all the million pies sold each week were greatly appreciated. One young girl, living in a north Norfolk village, never forgot the local doctor's disgusted glance at the pie she had just taken up for her sick father's dinner, and his remark, 'Good God, man, if you can eat that, you can eat anything'‘ 

After public criticism of the lavish meals being served in hotels and luxury restaurants, in July 1940 it became illegal to serve more than one main course at any restaurant meal, the restricted dishes being marked on the menu by a star. One unfortunate woman and her daughter, who arrived at Liverpool from India in September 1940, and as yet knew no better, confidently ordered whitebait, assuming it to be the fish course, only to learn later they were no longer entitled to a meat course, so they ‘went to bed very hungry’. In June 1942, after complaints of profiteering, controls were tightened still further with the introduction of  a 5s maximum for all restaurant meals, though luxury establishments could demand an extra 7s. 6d, cover charge, and some luxuries, like oysters and caviare, were excluded. Certain 'patriotic' dishes, like lentil cutlets, were labelled with a V for Victory. One Scottish gourmet considered the V 'an indication of the victory of necessity over the palate’. It has been left to these later years,’ he wrote sadly, 'the experience of potatoes and margarine as a main dish.’ 

Many famous West End resorts, like the Cafe Royal, would not accept bookings after 9.30 or had by then long since run out of food. Even the Savoy by 1942 served vegetables already on the plate. No coupons were surrendered for restaurant meals, though anyone staying in a hotel for more than three days had to hand in his ration book, or the emergency ration card one could obtain for journeys away from home. The only source of unrationed food to eat at home came in food parcels from the Dominions and United States, which went mainly to those with friends abroad. Like most people, I never saw one. 


Eating out

Charges were often made about the existence of a widespread Black Market but the opinion of one farmer that 'there was more talk than do about this' was also held by the then Minister of Food. The Ministry was also remarkably successful in keeping down prices. In the first world war food prices had risen by 130 per cent, in the second, which was half as long again, they rose by only 20 per cent, and even without government subsidies the increase would have been only 50 per cent. 

The most outstanding achievement of all was surely that at the end of six years of war the British people were far healthier than they had been at the beginning. In 1939 the average housewife hardly knew a calorie from a protein; by the end of the war, to the delight, if embarrassment, of the Minister of Food, she was angrily writing to complain if her corner shop was failing to provide her family's share of body- building, energy-giving and protective foods. This result reflected credit both on her and on the15,000 employees of the Ministry of Food. But the greatest responsibility for the Ministry's success, which had ensured that Britain was not starved into surrender, rested upon one man: Frederick Marquis, 1st Baron Woolton. 


Black Market

When, in April 1940, Lord Woolton became Minister of Food he was aged fifty-eight and had had an exceptionally varied career. After leaving Manchester University he had become warden of a social-work settlement in the Liverpool slums, then, after the first world war, had risen to be managing director of the great Manchester store of John Lewis – not to be confused with the London firm of the same name. In 1030 he reluctantly agreed to become director-general of the Ministry of Supply and in 1940, even more reluctantly, Minister of Food. When Churchill came to power he told his cronies, 'We shall have to be ready with a rescue squad for Woolton', but instead, three years later, it was Woolton who was called in to rescue his Conservative colleagues, and forced, much against his will, to become Minister of Reconstruction, to show that the government was in earnest about post-war planning. As Woolton had foreseen, his abilities were totally wasted in his new post, while his successor as Minister of Food is now largely for- gotten. (He was in fact Colonel J. J. Llewellin.) 

From 4th April 1940 to 12th November 1943 Lord Woolton was, in the ordinary housewife's eyes, the Ministry of Food. ‘I found the Ministry of Food suffering from a general depression', he wrote in his memoirs. ‘The press was against them and they were dejected, and frankly puzzled, by their unpopularity.' His first step was to restore morale by visiting his staff in their offices and by inviting the King to tour his headquarters, which raised the Ministry's public standing. About its competence he had no fears; the detailed planning and administration which rationing involved was just the type of job at which the Civil Service excelled. 


Lord Woolton

The next step was to gain public confidence. Although never an effective parliamentary speaker, Woolton became an excellent broadcaster. He would spend a day preparing a twelve-minute talk and sit in his shirt- sleeves in the studio, repolishing his script and working right through the lunch hour. Woolton's policy was simple; to ration nothing, however scarce, until there was enough to go round and then to ensure that the ration, however small, was always honoured. He had no sympathy with those who complained that others could get some luxury which they never saw. 'Food control,' he insisted, 'does not mean preventing the other fellow from getting something. It is a means of ensuring that we get all the things that are necessary.' 

Lord Woolton's greatest success was in winning the ordinary housewife to his side with a brilliant publicity campaign. The phrase The Kitchen Front soon became universally familiar through a series of press advertisements carrying the message, 'Food is a munition of war. Don't waste it', supported by Food Flashes at the cinema, short talks every morning in The Kitchen Front, after the eight o'clock news, and comic dialogues between 'Gert and Daisy', Elsie and Doris Waters, who often appeared with Lord Woolton on the platform. Sometimes the Ministry offered recipes like 'Pigs in Clover – a novel way with baked potatoes and sausage', sometimes warnings like It's not clever to get more than your share', sometimes simple encouragement: 'Carry on Fighters on the Kitchen Front. You are doing a great job.' Its most sustained efforts were devoted to boosting the consumption of 'Carrots, bright treasures dug from good British earth' and 'Potatoes . . . a rich store of all-round nourishment'. The faces of Dr. Carrot and Potato Pete were soon looking out from the pages of every women's magazine, the one thin and alert, the other plump and reassuring. 'Call me often enough and you'll keep weir, Dr. Carrot told mothers. The Ministry also constantly stressed that 'carrots contain sugar' but the public remained unconvinced. The claim that 'Carrot Flan. . . has a deliciousness all its own' proved only too true, and one wartime child has described how his father, after a single mouthful of carrot marmalade, simply picked up the pot, walked out and emptied it on the compost heap. The Ministry's master-stroke was spreading the belief that carrots enabled one to see better in the dark, thus ex- plaining the sudden success of' Cat's-eyes Cunningham’, and other night- fighter aces, which was in fact due to the introduction of radar. 

Potato Pete became so well known that one Battersea schoolgirl affectionately called a class-mate she 'had a crush on’ by this name, and according to the Ministry there were few things he could not do, from saving fuel to combining with rhubarb and honey in ‘Sweet Potato Pudding’. The Ministry offered a weekly prize to the green- grocer with the best selling potato display, and organised ‘Potato Pete's Fair’ in Oxford Street, where visitors could buy 'Potato Stamps’ to exchange for extra potatoes at their greengrocers'. Its efforts succeeded by the end of the war in raising the consumption of potatoes by 60 per cent, the largest increase in any commodity. 

Woolton’s other great 'filler’ was bread and in April 1942 he launched the National Loaf made from grey, wholemeal flour. The public never really took to it and in his memoirs Woolton admitted that people blamed every minor ailment on 'this nasty, dirty, dark, coarse, indigestible bread', but by the end of the war 20 per cent more bread was being eaten than in 1939. Perhaps the rumour, passed on to Lord Woolton at a party, that it was an aphrodisiac, helped. 

Over the staff entrance to the Ministry of Food was the inscription 'We not merely cope, we care’ and complaints from the public were always carefully investigated, Lord Woolton personally signing many thousands of the replies. A woman living in a Sussex village, where the local shop refused to accept the Emergency Ration Cards issued by her children's boarding schools, who sent a protesting telegram to the Ministry at 8 a.m. one hot July day, was astounded when, at 6 p.m. that evening, while she was 'busy dismembering a revolting sheep's head . . . a departmental young man, with black coat, pin-striped trousers, umbrella and bowler hat, appeared on the terrace of our country cottage, perspiring in these unsuitable clothes after a country walk of five miles uphill. He had a local Food Office girl with him. ‘I'm the man from the Ministry’, he said.' He explained that he had looked into her complaint, and had already put matters right. 'Next day I had urgent calls from the village stores, as the lorries began to arrive . . . asking if I could lend the services of the schoolboy sons to help unload.' Thus did Lord Woolton's Ministry cope and care. 

Few wartime ministers can still be remembered with such admiration. One Dorchester housewife explains the reason. 'Lord Woolton was always so sympathetic and if he could not give us more butter he added an extra ounce to the margarine. We all trusted and loved him.’ When this great public servant died in 1961 no one wrote his biography and no statue was raised in his memory and, ironically, his name is now linked with one of his Ministry's few failures, Woolton Pie, a combination of carrots, parsnips, turnips and potatoes, covered with white sauce and pastry. 'Dry and uneatable’ was the general verdict, according to a Brighton war worker, and one London W.V.S. member recalls that when she placed 'about the hundredth of the war’ before her five-year-old he took one look and burst into tears. An Ipswich British Restaurant manageress cautiously admits it was 'one dish which was not a favourite’. From Aberdeen a wartime dishwasher at a hotel, who saw what even the hungry British public would not eat, pays Lord Woolton's memory a sincere, if back-handed, compliment: 'I just can’t believe that such a wonderful man could have given his name to such a dish’.          


Ministry of Food propaganda