A look back to the days of rationing
PUBLISHED: 10:23 28 September 2015 | UPDATED: 10:23 28 September 2015
During the Second World War even what we now consider to be essential items could cause excitement. John Leete takes us back to the days of rationing…
Betty Hockey was bored with her administrative job, and although she understood it was a necessary contribution to the war effort, she couldn’t help but think that there were other opportunities she could pursue which would prove to be more interesting.
With the help of a few friends and with a lot of determination, Betty formed a concert party for the sole purpose of providing entertainment to the men and women of the Armed Forces whose numbers were increasing month by month in and around Berkshire and Buckinghamshire. “We were supposed to operate in the Southern Command Area, which was based in Reading, although from time to time we answered the call to visit camps and airfields further afield,” she recalled.
One of the ‘perks of the job’, as Betty puts it, was the meal the concert party enjoyed after the show. “We were all on rations of course, and so the extra food was not only welcome, but was essential for us if we were to keep up our stamina. We performed the shows in the evening after doing our day jobs, so you can imagine it was quite exhausting. But it was in a good cause and we all felt we were making a real contribution.
“Having even a bit more food in our stomachs was considered very special, a luxury if you like. When we played the American camps like Aldermaston we were given steak sandwiches with apricots. For the servicemen that was a normal meal, for us, it was a luxury.”
The dictionary definition of luxury is ‘An inessential, desirable item which is expensive or difficult to obtain’ and whilst a luxury on the Home Front meant different things to different people, when it was a matter of obtaining extra meat, sugar and other foodstuffs like eggs, necessity outweighed the argument of indulgence.
“You might hear that there was some sugar available, you had to track down the supplier and if you were lucky you could find it, for a price,” said David Edwards who lived in Maidenhead
Maureen Taylor, who was billeted near Wing in Buckinghamshire, recalled her hosts having a seemingly ready supply of goods from a black market source. “For them, cigars and perfume were the luxuries that made their war a little more bearable, but for me it was a pair of stockings. I managed to get a pair from a WAAF friend who was serving with some Americans at Bovingdon. I wore the stockings only on high days and holidays because who knew when such luxuries would become everyday fashion?”
David Taylor (no relation to Maureen) says that towards the end of the war: “We were in school one day in Slough when the teacher told us that apples were arriving from Canada. We were told to bring in a bag the next day. We were each given about five or six apples to take home. Later we had malt extract in jars. To the children and their families this was a real treat, and I suppose you could say it was a luxury.”
Betty Hockey also remembers the hunt for petrol: “Although we had coupons for fuel so that we could entertain at the camps, this supply never lasted long, to be honest. One treat, but a necessity for us, was to get hold of additional petrol; quite often at camps it would be arranged for a couple of full Jerry cans to be ‘left’ in the boot of one of our cars or in the lorry we occasionally used. This meant, of course, that we could visit more camps. Our concert party all wore costumes which needed repair or replacement and when this happened we would be given material as a ‘thank you’ for giving concerts. Again, this was a necessity to help keep us going but it was also, I suppose, a luxury in a time of very strict rationing on so many everyday items.”
Rationing of items such as cloth meant that when clothes wore out they had to be repaired and repaired again. Marjorie Williams, who lived in Aylesbury, said that her mother received a copy of Make do and Mend which was a pamphlet issued by the British Ministry of Information (MOI) mid-war. Its purpose was to give housewives useful tips on how to be both frugal and stylish in times of strict rationing. “With its clever design ideas and advice on re-using old clothes, Make do and Mend was a valuable guide. Readers were advised, for example, to create decorative patches to cover holes in worn garments and to unpick old jumpers and re-knit alternatives. It also showed you how to turn men’s clothes into women’s and showed how to darn, alter and protect against what was then a very common menace of moth.”
Thrift, recycling, imagination and common sense seemed to be the cornerstones of surviving the austerity era and for most people the simple act of making it through was more than compensation for missing out on ‘life’s little luxuries’ such as they were. “An orange in the Christmas stocking was a real treat. When bananas came back to the markets they made many people sick because the taste was so different to the diet we were used to,” said David Taylor.
Food rationing began in January 1940 when limits were imposed on the sale of bacon, butter and sugar and two months later, all meat was rationed. Clothes coupons were introduced and a black market soon developed, while queuing outside shops and bartering for extra food became a way of life.
There were allowances made for pregnant women, who used special ration books to get extra food, and breastfeeding mothers had extra milk. Restrictions were gradually lifted three years after war had ended, starting with flour on 25 July 1948, followed by clothes on 15 March 1949. On 19 May 1950 rationing ended for canned and dried fruit, chocolate biscuits, treacle, syrup, jellies and mincemeat. Petrol rationing, imposed in 1939, ended in May 1950 followed by soap in September 1950. Three years later sales of sugar were off ration and finally butter rationing ended.
An entire generation had become very adept at making do and this became inherent with families across the country for many decades after the war.
Adapting to the better times of the post rationing era proved a challenge for many, after all they went without for so long and it was second nature. At war’s end, when many camps and bases across Berkshire and Buckinghamshire were vacated by the Armed Forces, stocks of food and stores were sometimes disposed of in the local communities, and indeed in the late 1970s in a house near Newbury, items from Greenham Common airfield including lipsticks, cigarettes, ration packs and dry goods, all in the original packaging, were discovered when the owner passed away.
Today we interpret a luxury in a completely different and casual way. In the wartime era an extra sweet for a child, a slice of bacon for all the family, mum having her hair done, really meant so much. We cannot begin to understand the true value although we can say that more often than not, for that generation, a luxury was in fact an essential.
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