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Rationing in the United Kingdom


Rationing in the United Kingdom

Civilian rationing: A shopkeeper cancels the coupons in a British housewife’s ration book in 1943

Rationing was introduced temporarily by the British government several times during the 20th century, during and immediately after a war.[1][2]

At the start of the Second World War in 1939, the United Kingdom imported 20 million long tons (20 Mt) of food per year (70%), including more than 50% of its meat, 70% of its cheese and sugar, nearly 80% of fruits and about 70% of cereals and fats. The civilian population was about 50 million.[3] It was one of the principal strategies of the Germans to attack shipping bound for Britain, restricting British industry and potentially starving the nation into submission.

To deal with sometimes extreme shortages, the Ministry of Food instituted a system of rationing. To buy most rationed items, each person had to register at chosen shops, and was provided with a ration book containing coupons. The shopkeeper was provided with enough food for registered customers. Purchasers had to take ration books with them when shopping, so the relevant coupon or coupons could be cancelled.


  • World War I 1
  • The General Strike 2
  • World War II 3
    • Public catering 3.1
    • Health effects 3.2
  • Standard rationing during World War II 4
    • Food rations 4.1
    • Non-food rations 4.2
  • Post-World War II 5
    • Political reaction 5.1
    • Timeline 5.2
  • Suez Crisis 6
  • 1970s oil crises 7
  • See also 8
  • References 9
  • Further reading 10
  • External links 11

World War I

A World War I government leaflet detailing the consequences of breaking the rationing laws.

In line with its “business as usual” policy, the government was initially reluctant to try to control the food markets.[4] It fought off efforts to try to introduce minimum prices in cereal production, though relenting in the area of controlling of essential imports (sugar, meat and grains). When it did introduce changes, they were only limited in their effect. In 1916, it became illegal to consume more than two courses whilst lunching in a public eating place or more than three for dinner; fines were introduced for members of the public found feeding the pigeons or stray animals.[5]

In January 1917, Germany started using U-boats (submarines) in order to sink all ships headed to Britain in an attempt to starve Britain into submission. One response to this threat was to introduce voluntary rationing in February 1917.[5] Bread was subsidised from September that year; prompted by local authorities taking matters into their own hands, compulsory rationing was introduced in stages between December 1917 and February 1918,[5] as Britain’s supply of wheat stores decreased to just six weeks' worth.[6] It is said to have in the most part benefited the health of the country,[5] through the “levelling of consumption of essential foodstuffs”.[7] To assist with rationing, ration books were introduced on 15 July 1918 for butter, margarine, lard, meat, and sugar.[8] During the war, average energy intake decreased only three percent, but protein intake six percent.[5]

The General Strike

The government made preparations to ration food in 1925, in advance of an expected

  • History in Focus: War – Rationing in London World War II
  • Information about clothes rationing
  • Information about clothes rationing

External links

  • Hammond, R. J. Food and agriculture in Britain, 1939–45: Aspects of wartime control (Food, agriculture, and World War II) (Stanford U.P. 1954); summary of his three volume official history entitled Food (1951–53)
  • Home Front Handbook.  
  • Zweiniger-Bargielowska, Ina. Austerity in Britain: Rationing, Controls & Consumption, 1939–1955 (2000) 286p. online
  • Zweiniger-Bargielowska, Ina. ‘Rationing, austerity and the Conservative party recovery after 1945,’ Historical Journal (1994) 37#1 pp 173–97 in JSTOR

Further reading

  1. ^ Zweiniger-Bargielowska, Ina (2002), Austerity in Britain: Rationing, Controls and Consumption, 1939–1955,  
  2. ^ a b c d e  
  3. ^ Macrory, Ian (2010), "Annual Abstract of Statistics, No146 2010 edition", ( 
  4. ^ Samuel J. Hurwitz, (1949). State Intervention in Great Britain: Study of Economic Control and Social Response, 1914-1919. pp. 12–29. 
  5. ^ a b c d e Beckett (2007), pp 380–382
  6. ^ Morrow (2005), p 202
  7. ^ Beckett attributes this quotation (page 382) to Margaret Barnett, but does not give further details.
  8. ^ Palmer (1992), pp 355–356
  9. ^ William Keith Hancock; Margaret Gowing (1949). British war economy. H.M.S.O,. p. 52. 
  10. ^ Reagan, Geoffrey. Military Anecdotes (1992) pp. 19 & 20. Guinness Publishing ISBN 0-85112-519-0
  11. ^ Angus Calder, The people’s war: Britain 1939–45 (1969) pp 276–77
  12. ^ a b c d e f Sucking Eggs (largely about wartime rationing in Britain), by Patricia Nicol, Vintage Books, London, 2010, ISBN 9780099521129
  13. ^
  14. ^ a b Ministry of Agriculture and Fisheries (1946). Fisheries in war time: report on the sea fisheries of England and Wales by the Ministry of Agriculture and Fisheries for the Years 1939–1944 inclusive. H.M. Stationery Office. 
  15. ^  
  16. ^ Keesing‘s Contemporary Archives Volume IV-V, June, 1943 p. 5805
  17. ^ Keesing’s Contemporary Archives, Volume IV, (June, 1942) p 5224
  18. ^ Home Front Handbook, p. 78.
  19. ^ see Extract from: ‘Sources for the History of London 1939–45: Rationing’ History in Focus: War
  20. ^ a b Dawes, Laura (2013-09-24). "Fighting fit: how dietitians tested if Britain would be starved into defeat". The Guardian. Retrieved 25 September 2013. 
  21. ^ "Wartime Rationing helped the British get healthier than they had ever been". 21 June 2004. Retrieved 20 January 2013. 
  22. ^ "History in Focus: War – Rationing in London WWII". Retrieved 20 January 2013. 
  23. ^ Home Front Handbook, pp. 46–47.
  24. ^ a b Courtney, Tina (April 1992). "Veggies at war". The Vegetarian ( 
  25. ^ Home Front Handbook, p. 46.
  26. ^ Home Front Handbook, p. 47.
  27. ^ Home Front Handbook, pp. 47–48.
  28. ^ a b c d Home Front Handbook, p. 48.
  29. ^ Home Front Handbook, pp. 50–51.
  30. ^  
  31. ^  
  32. ^ Mackay, Robert (2002). Half the Battle: Civilian Morale in Britain during the Second World War. Manchester University Press.  
  33. ^ webley, Nicholas (2003). A Taste of Wartime Britain. Thorogood Publishing. p. 36.  
  34. ^ Daily Telegraph 23 May 1945, reprinted on page 34 of Daily Telegraph Saturday 23 May 2015
  35. ^ "22 Police Journal 1949 Motor Spirit (Regulation) Act, 1948, The". 
  36. ^ "1950: UK drivers cheer end of fuel rations". BBC. 26 May 1950. Retrieved 27 March 2009. 
  37. ^ Ina Zweiniger-Bargileowska, ‘Rationing, austerity and the Conservative party recovery after 1945,’ Historical Journal (1994) 37#1 pp. 173–97
  38. ^ "Rationing in Britain during the Second World War".  
  39. ^ a b "Government Cheddar Cheese". Retrieved 13 July 2011. 
  40. ^ Potter, Mich (9 October 2007). "Cool Britannia rules the whey".  
  41. ^ "1957: Cheers as petrol rationing ended". BBC. 14 May 1957. Retrieved 2009-03-27. 


See also

Petrol coupons were issued for a short time during the in preparation for the possibility of petrol rationing during the 1973 oil crisis. The rationing never came about, in large part because increasing North Sea oil production allowed the UK to offset much of the lost imports. By the time of 1979 energy crisis, the United Kingdom had become a net exporter of oil, so on that occasion the government did not have to even consider petrol rationing.

1970s oil crises

Petrol rationing was briefly reintroduced in late 1956 during the Suez Crisis but ended again on 14 May 1957.[41] Advertising of petrol on the recently introduced ITV was banned for a period.

Suez Crisis

Although rationing formally ended in 1954, cheese production remained depressed for decades afterwards. During rationing, most milk in Britain was used to make one kind of cheese, nicknamed “Government Cheddar” (not to be confused with the “government cheese” issued by the US welfare system).[39] This wiped out nearly all other cheese production in the country, and some indigenous varieties of cheese almost disappeared.[39] Later government controls on milk prices through the Milk Marketing Board continued to discourage production of other varieties of cheese until well into the 1980s.[40]

  • 25 October 1951: United Kingdom general election, 1951. The Conservatives came back into power.
  • February 1953: Confectionery rationing ended.
  • September 1953: Sugar rationing ended.
  • 4 July 1954: Meat and all other food rationing ended in Britain.[38]


In the late 1940s, the Conservative Party exploited and incited growing public anger at rationing, scarcity, controls, austerity and government bureaucracy. They used the dissatisfaction with the socialistic and egalitarian policies of the Labour Party to rally middle-class supporters and build a political comeback that won the 1951 general election. Their appeal was especially effective to housewives, who faced more difficult shopping conditions after the war than during it.[37]

Political reaction

  • 27 May 1945: Bacon ration cut from 4 to 3 ounces/week. Cooking fat ration cut from 2 to 1 ounces/week. Soap ration cut by an eighth, except for babies and young children.[34] The referenced newspaper article predicted that households would be grossly hampered in making food items that included pastry.
  • 1 June 1945: The basic petrol ration for civilians was restored.[12]
  • 19 July 1945: In order to preserve the egalitarian nature of rationing gift food parcels from overseas weighing more than 5 lb (2.3 kg) would be deducted from the recipient’s ration.
  • Summer 1946: Continual rain ruined Britain’s wheat crop. Bread rationing started.
  • January–March 1947: Winter of 1946–1947 in the United Kingdom: long hard frost and deep snow. Frost destroyed a huge amount of stored potatoes. Potato rationing started.
  • Mid-1947: A transport and dock strike, which among other effects caused much loss of imported meat left to rot on the docks, until the Army broke the strike. The basic petrol ration was stopped.[12]
  • 1 June 1948: The Motor Spirit (Regulation) Act 1948 was passed,[35] ordering a red dye to be to put into some petrol, and that red petrol was only allowed to be used in commercial vehicles. A private car driver could lose his driving licence for a year if red petrol was found in his car. A petrol station could be shut down if it sold red petrol to a private car driver. See List of Acts of the Parliament of the United Kingdom, 1940–1959: 1948.
  • June 1948: The basic petrol ration was restored, at a third of its previous size.
  • 1948: Bread came off ration.
  • May 1949: Clothes rationing ended, according to one author[12] because attempts to enforce it were defeated by continual massive illegality (black market, unofficial trade in loose clothing coupons (many forged), bulk thefts of unissued clothes ration books).
  • 23 February 1950: The 1950 general election is fought largely on the issue of rationing. The Conservative Party campaigned on a manifesto of ending rationing as quickly as possible.[2] The Labour Party argued for the continuation of rationing indefinitely. Labour was returned, but with its majority badly slashed.
  • 26 May 1950: Petrol rationing ended.[36]

On 8 May 1945, the Second World War ended in Europe, but rationing continued. Some aspects of rationing became stricter for some years after the war. At the time this was presented as needed to feed people in European areas under British control, whose economies had been devastated by the fighting.[2] This was partly true, but with many British men still mobilised in the armed forces, an austere economic climate, and a centrally-planned economy under the post-war Labour government, resources were not available to expand food production and food imports. Frequent strikes by some workers (most critically dock workers) made things worse.[2] A common ration book fraud was the ration books of the dead being kept and used by the living.[12]

Post-World War II

Whether rationed or not, many consumer goods became difficult to obtain because of the shortage of components. Examples included razor blades, baby bottles, alarm clocks, frying pans and pots. Balloons and sugar for cakes for birthday parties were partially or completely unavailable. Many fathers saved bits of wood to build toys for Christmas presents,[32]:112–113 and Christmas trees were almost impossible to obtain due to timber rationing.[33]

In Mr Stanley Unwin’s recent pamphlet Publishing in Peace and War, some interesting facts are given about the quantities of paper allotted by the Government for various purposes. Here are the present figures:
Newspapers 250,000 tons
H. M. Stationery Office 200,000 tons
Periodicals (nearly) 50,000 tons
Books 22,000 tons
A particularly interesting detail is that out of the 100,000 tons allotted to the Stationery Office, the War Office gets no less than 25,000 tons, or more than the whole of the book trade put together. [...] At the same time paper for books is so short that even the most hackneyed “classic” is liable to be out of print, many schools are short of textbooks, new writers get no chance to start and even established writers have to expect a gap of a year or two years between finishing a book and seeing it published.
— As I Please, Tribune, 20 October 1944[30][31]

The paper shortage often made it more difficult than usual for authors to get work published. In 1944, George Orwell wrote:

Newspapers were limited from September 1939, at first to 60% of their pre-war consumption of newsprint. Paper supply came under the No 48 Paper Control Order, 4 September 1942 and was controlled by the Ministry of Production. By 1945 newspapers were limited to 25% of their pre-war consumption. Wrapping paper for most goods was prohibited.[29]


The Fuel and Lighting (Coal) Order 1941 came into force in January 1942. Central heating was prohibited “in the summer months”.[28] Domestic coal was rationed to 15 long hundredweight (1,700 lb; 760 kg) for those in London and the south of England; 20 long hundredweight (2,200 lb; 1,000 kg) for the rest (the southern part of England having generally a milder climate).[28] Some kinds of coal such as anthracite were not rationed, and in the coal-mining areas were eagerly gathered as they were in the Great Depression (see Road to Wigan Pier).


All types of soap were rationed. Coupons were allotted by weight or (if liquid) by quantity. In 1945, the ration gave four coupons each month; babies and some workers and invalids were allowed more.[28] A coupon would yield:


Clothes rationing ended on 15 March 1949.

There were 66 points for clothing per year, in 1942 it was cut to 48 and in 1943 to 36, and in 1945 to 24. In 1945, an overcoat (wool and fully lined) 18 coupons; a man’s suit 26–29 (according to lining); men’s shoes 9, women’s shoes 7; woollen dress 11. Children aged 14–16 got 20 more coupons. Clothing rationing points could be used for wool, cotton and household textiles. People had extra points for work clothes, such as overalls for factory work.[27] No points were required for second-hand clothing or fur coats, but their prices were fixed. Before rationing lace and frills were popular on knickers but these were soon banned so that material could be saved. From March to May 1942 austerity measures were introduced which restricted the number of buttons, pockets and pleats (among other things) on clothes.[28]

Cigarettes and tobacco

Non-food rations

Milk was supplied at 3 imp pt (1.7 l) each week with priority for expectant mothers and children under 5; 3.5 imp pt (2.0 l) for those under 18; children unable to attend school 5 imp pt (2.8 l), certain invalids up to 14 imp pt (8.0 l). Each consumer received one tin of milk powder (equivalent to 8 imperial pints or 4.5 litres) every eight weeks.[26]

Arrangements were made for vegetarians so that their rations of meat were substituted by other goods.[24]

  • 1 egg per week or 1 packet (makes 12 “eggs”) of egg powder per month (vegetarians were allowed two eggs)
  • plus, 24 “points” for four weeks for tinned and dried food.

1s 2d bought about 1 lb 3 oz (540 g) of meat. Offal and sausages were only rationed from 1942 to 1944. When sausages were not rationed, the meat needed to make them was so scarce that they often contained a high proportion of bread. Eggs were rationed and “allocated to ordinary consumers as available”; in 1944 thirty allocations of one egg each were made. Children and some invalids were allowed three a week; expectant mothers two on each allocation.

Item Maximum level Minimum level Rations (April 1945)
Bacon and Ham 8 oz (227 g) 4 oz (113 g) 4 oz (113 g)
Sugar 16 oz (454 g) 8 oz (227 g) 8 oz (227 g)
Loose Tea 4 oz (113 g) 2 oz (57 g) 2 oz (57 g)
Meat 1 s. 2d. 1s 1s. 2d.
Cheese 8 oz (227 g) 1 oz (28 g) 2 oz (57 g) Vegetarians were allowed an extra 3 oz (85 g) cheese[24]
Preserves 1 lb (0.45 kg) per month
2 lb (0.91 kg) marmalade
8 oz (227 g) per month 2 lb (0.91 kg) marmalade
or 1 lb (0.45 kg) preserve
or 1 lb (0.45 kg) sugar
Butter 8 oz (227 g) 2 oz (57 g) 2 oz (57 g)
Margarine 12 oz (340 g) 4 oz (113 g) 4 oz (113 g)
Lard 3 oz (85 g) 2 oz (57 g) 2 oz (57 g)
Sweets 16 oz (454 g) per month 8 oz (227 g) per month 12 oz (340 g) per month

Food rations

The standard rations during World War II are as follows. Quantities are per week unless otherwise stated.[23]

Standard rationing during World War II

The results—kept secret until after the war—gave the government confidence that if necessary food could be distributed equally to all, including high-value war workers, without causing widespread health problems. Britons’ actual wartime diet was never as severe as in the Cambridge study because imports from America successfully avoided the U-boats,[20] but rationing improved the health of British people; infant mortality declined and life expectancy rose, discounting deaths caused by hostilities. This was because it ensured that everyone had access to a varied diet with enough vitamins.[21][22]

In December 1939 Elsie Widdowson and Robert McCance of the University of Cambridge tested whether the United Kingdom could survive with only domestic food production if U-boats ended all imports. Using 1938 food-production data, they fed themselves and other volunteers one egg, one pound of meat, and four ounces of fish a week; one quarter pint of milk a day; four ounces of margarine; and unlimited amounts of potatoes, vegetables, and wholemeal bread. Two weeks of intensive outdoor exercise simulated the strenuous wartime physical work Britons would likely have to perform. The scientists found that the subjects' health and performance remained very good after three months, with the only negative results being the increased time needed for meals to consume the necessary calories from bread and potatoes, and what they described as a “remarkable” increase in flatulence from the high amount of starch in the diet.[20]

Health effects

Some 2,000 entirely new wartime establishments called “British Restaurants” were run by local authorities in schools and church halls. Here a plain three-course meal cost only 9d and no ration coupons were required. They evolved from the London County Council’s Londoners’ Meals Service, which began as an emergency system for feeding people who had been blitzed out of their homes. They were open to all and mostly served office and industrial workers.[18][19]

  • Meals were limited to 3 courses; only one component dish could contain fish or game or poultry (but not more than one of these)
  • In general no meals could be served between 11 p.m. (midnight in London) and 5 a.m. without a special licence
  • The maximum price of a meal was 5 shillings, with extra charges allowed for cabaret shows and luxury hotels.

Restaurants were initially exempt from rationing, but this was resented, as people with more money could supplement their food rations by eating out frequently. The Ministry of Food in May 1942 issued new restrictions on restaurants:[17]

A British Restaurant in London, 1943

Public catering

In addition to rationing, the government equalized the food supply through subsidies on items consumed by the poor and the working class. In 1942–43 £145,000,000 was spent on food subsidies, including £35,000,000 on bread, flour, and oatmeal, £23,000,000 on meat and the same on potatoes, £11,000,000 on milk, and £13,000,000 on eggs.[16]

Certain foodstuffs that the 1940s British consumer would find unusual, for example whale meat and canned snoek fish from South Africa, were not rationed. Despite this they did not prove popular.[2][15]

On 1 July 1942 the basic civilian petrol ration was abolished; this was announced on 13 March 1942.[12] (Ivor Novello was a British public figure sent to prison for four weeks for misusing petrol coupons.) After that, vehicle fuel was only available to “official” users, such as the emergency services, bus companies and farmers. The priority users of fuel were always, of course, the armed forces. Fuel supplied to approved users was dyed, and use of this fuel for non-essential purposes was an offence.

As the war progressed rationing was extended to other commodities such as clothing. Clothing was rationed on a points system. When it was introduced, on 1 June 1941, no clothing coupons had been issued, and at first the unused margarine coupons in ration books were valid for clothing. Initially the allowance was for approximately one new outfit per year; as the war progressed the points were reduced until buying a coat used almost a year’s clothing coupons.

Fish was not rationed but price increased considerably as the war progressed. The government initially allowed this, since it realised that fishermen would need to be able to collect a premium for their catch if they were at risk of enemy attack while at sea, but prices were controlled from 1941.[14] Like other non-rationed items, fish was rarely freely available as supplies dropped to 30% of pre-war levels,[14] and long queues built up at fishmongers and fish and chip shops. The quality of wartime chips was often felt to be below standard, because of the low-quality fat available.

Most controversial was bread; it was not rationed until after the war ended, but the “national loaf” of wholemeal bread replaced the ordinary white variety, to the distaste of most housewives who found it mushy, grey and easy to blame for digestion problems.[11] An order was passed that bread must not be sold to a customer until the day after it was baked: the stated reasons were to reduce usage because (1) it is difficult to slice just-baked bread thinly; (2) the tastiness of just-baked bread is likely to encourage people to eat it immoderately.[12] In May 1942, an order was passed that meals served in hotels and restaurants must not cost over 5 shillings per customer, and must not be of more than three courses; at most one course could contain meat or fish or poultry (but only one of the three). This was partly in response to increasing public concerns that “luxury” off-ration foodstuffs were being unfairly obtained by those who could afford to dine regularly in restaurants.[13]

Poster for the “Dig for Victory” campaign, encouraging Britons to supplement their rations by cultivating gardens and Allotments.

Fresh vegetables and fruit were not rationed but supplies were limited. Some types of imported fruit all but disappeared. Lemons and bananas became unobtainable for most of the war; oranges continued to be sold but greengrocers customarily reserved them for children and pregnant women, who could prove their status by producing their distinctive ration books. Other domestically grown fruit such as apples still appeared from time to time, but again the sellers imposed their own restrictions so that customers were often not allowed to buy, for example, more than one apple each. Many people grew their own vegetables, greatly encouraged by the highly successful digging for victory motivational campaign. In 1942 numerous children between five and seven years old had become used to wartime restrictions. When questioned about bananas, many did not believe such items existed.[10] Game meat such as rabbit and pigeon were not rationed but were not always available. A popular music-hall song, written 20 years previously but sung ironically, was “Yes! We Have No Bananas”.

In June 1942, the Combined Food Board was set up to coordinate the worldwide supply of food to the Allies, with special attention to flows from the U.S. and Canada to Britain. Almost all foods apart from vegetables and bread were rationed by August 1942. Strict rationing inevitably created a black market. Almost all controlled items were rationed by weight, but meat was rationed by price.

After World War II began in September 1939 the first commodity to be controlled was petrol. On 8 January 1940, bacon, butter and sugar were rationed. This was followed by successive ration schemes for meat, tea, jam, biscuits, breakfast cereals, cheese, eggs, lard, milk and canned and dried fruit.

Child’s ration book, used during World War II.

World War II


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