How Britain learnt to live on rations

70 years ago this week it was announced that food was to be controlled for the good of the war effort. Historian Terry Charman explains how it went down with the public

Friday 15 January 2010 01:00

Even in wartime, relations with the press can make or break a politician. That was a hard lesson for William "Shakes" Morrison, a Tory MP and thrice decorated war hero who was the minister to introduce food rationing 70 years ago this month.

"Shakes" was a coming man in Neville Chamberlain's government, tipped as a future prime minister, when the "phoney war" began. Britain and France were at war with Nazi Germany, though nothing much seemed to be happening. Shakes, who earned his nickname from his habit of quoting Shakespeare, was Minister for Food, and very sensibly decided that since wars cause shortages, food would have to be rationed.

It was a good decision, but disastrous public relations. The Daily Mail, whose proprietor, the first Lord Rothermere, had only recently shed his admiration for Adolf Hitler, went for the jugular.

"It would be scarcely possible – even if Dr Goebbels were asked to help – to devise a more harmful piece of propaganda for Great Britain," the newspaper's editorial thundered. "Our enemy's butter ration has just been increased from 3ozs to just under 4ozs. Perhaps because of Goering's phrase 'guns or butter' has given butter a symbolical significance. But mighty Britain, Mistress of the Seas, heart of a great Empire, proud of her wealth and resources? Her citizens are shortly to get just 4ozs of butter a week. There is no good reason to excuse Mr Morrison, the Minister of Food, for this stupid decision."

In more restrained language, The Economist agreed: "The methods adopted by the Ministry of Food, first to oppose rationing, and secondly to find reasons for postponement, have run the whole gamut of plausibility and ingenuity and are now verging on the fantastic."

The hostility of the press was not entirely shared by the members of the public who saw prices rising, and suspected that traders were using the war as an opportunity to make a quick profit. A Liverpool housewife told the government's social research organisation, Mass Observation: "I wish to goodness they would introduce rationing. At least I would be able to go into a shop and get what I was allowed." A Dorking cleaner said that the "price of food at the local grocer is scandalously high. And I am sure he's profiteering. He complains he'll be ruined by the war. I hope he will."

After Morrison made his announcement, on 1 November 1940, a poll showed that 60 per cent of those questioned thought that rationing was necessary. But the press sniping at Morrison continued without let-up, until Neville Chamberlain decided to shift him to a less sensitive job as Postmaster General. His career as a party politician never recovered, though his fellow Tory MPs sympathised with him enough to elect him Speaker of the House of Commons after the war.

Meanwhile, Chamberlain sent for a non-politician to deal with the tricky question of rationing. He was a Manchester businessman named Frederick Marquis, ennobled as Lord Woolton, who had built up Lewis's department store (not to be confused with John Lewis). Woolton was a Fabian socialist in his youth, who did not join the Conservative Party until the day when it lost power in 1945. He turned out to be an inspired choice as Minister for Food.

The ministry he inherited was well-organised, but suffering from a bad public image and low morale. This, the 58-year-old Woolton rectified in a masterly fashion. He got King George VI to make a morale-boosting visit to the Ministry which, Woolton thought, "did more good for the internal morale of the Ministry of Food than anybody else could have done in a year".

He also proved to be a brilliant communicator. Coached by the BBC commentator Howard Marshall, who became the Ministry's first director of public relations, Woolton became a popular broadcaster, as well appearing on film and at press conferences. He had private meals with newspaper proprietors, and found time to deal with a vast volume of daily correspondence – 200 letters a day by the time he left the ministry in November 1943.

To the public he was "Uncle Fred". He took the public into his confidence, warning them of impending shortages, and frankly admitting and correcting the occasional errors of judgement and maladministration by his ministry.

Rationing began on 8 January 1940, after ration books had been distributed. Bacon and ham were rationed to 4ozs a week, sugar to 12ozs and butter to 4ozs. Meat was rationed from 11 March 1940, and it was done by shillings and pence instead of pounds and ounces. The ration was one shilling and 10 pence (1/10d) at first, but after some fluctuations it went down to 1/2d on 7 July 1941. Cooking fats and tea were rationed in July 1940, preserves from March 1941 and cheese from May 1941.

It did not end with victory in Europe in 1945. Far from it. On 27 May 1945, barely three weeks after VE Day, the basic ration was cut. Bacon went down from 4ozs to 3ozs, cooking fat from 2ozs to just one, and the part of the meagre meat ration of 1/2d had to be taken in corned beef. Bread, never rationed during the war, was put on the ration in July 1946, where it remained for two years. Rationing was finally abolished after Winston Churchill had returned to office.

Labour's Minister of Food, John Strachey, was competent, but did not inherit Woolton's popularity. "Shiver with Shinwell [the Minister of Fuel and Power], and Starve with Strachey" became a popular catchphrase during the winter of 1946-1947. When a consignment of inedible frozen pineapples arrived in Dundee, Strachey was became known as "Pineapple John". But it is Woolton's name that is permanently associated with wartime food and rationing. When he died in December 1964, his former colleague Lord Attlee gave him a generous eulogy: "Not only had he great administrative gifts; but he had human sympathy. The ordinary people felt that here was a man who understood their wants. This was expressed to me by an old Devonshire dame, who said: 'That Lord Woolton, he do sometimes right and sometimes wrong; but we poor folk are beholden to him because he thinks of us'."

Terry Charman is senior historian at the Imperial War Museum. An exhibition, The Ministry of Food, will run at the museum from 12 February until 3 January 2011

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