Rationing in the First World War

From the records held at the Norfolk Record Office.

With attacks on merchant shipping, agricultural labourers leaving the land to fight on the Front and horses being requisitioned for the war, there had been growing concerns about food shortages as the war progressed.  Articles abounded on wartime economies and in May 1917 the Bread Pledge was introduced encouraging people to eat less grain. However, as food shortages continued to be an ever growing concern, compulsory rationing was introduced in January 1918.  At first only sugar was rationed but, in April, it was followed by the rationing of meat, flour, butter, margarine and milk.

Before rationing, in time-honoured fashion, women in the home had been called upon to make economies.  The Carrow Works magazines, held at the Norfolk Record Office, give a typical picture of the situation.  In July 1916 the magazine announced:

Three rules for housewives.  Buy Economically.  Prepare Carefully.  Avoid all Waste.

The earlier edition in January 1916 quoted the Right Honourable Arthur Henderson of the Board of Education:

Economy in food at the present time is absolutely necessary.  It is part of the patriotic duty of every British citizen, rich and poor alike”. 

The following year an economy exhibition was held at the Castle Museum.  The Carrow Works magazine for April 1917 reported:

“. . . . cakes without eggs” were on view, and various preparations of nuts, cheese and lentils.  It has to be remembered that dishes of this kind will probably become necessities during the present year.

‘Dig for Victory’ may have been a slogan from the Second World War but the message was the same for the First World War.  The Carrow Works magazine for July 1917 stated:

Let us all who have any available ground cultivate it . . even window-boxes may be set with cress .  . and many an otherwise waste spot may be made to produce some form of vegetable life.

Photo 1 Zigomala cropped

Potatoes were even grown outside Buckingham Palace. NRO, MC 2738/14 

 

By December 1917, the situation was grave.

Photo 2 Aylsham DC Letter cropped

Letter issued by Aylsham District Council. NRO, MS 21630/114

But, despite the best efforts of the majority, sugar rationing was introduced the following January.  The Ministry of Food issued a Meat Rationing Order in March 1918 in preparation for meat rationing the following month (NRO, BR 254/65).  The Order issued guidance to butchers and others such as caterers on how to obtain meat supplies under the Meat Rationing Scheme.  The scheme applied to those living in England and Wales and outside London.  From April 7th 1918 meat could only be sold to those who had registered with butchers as customers.  Registration was carried out in March and butchers had to send a list of those who had registered with them to the Food Control Committee.  If the Committee considered the butcher had too many registered then they had the power to transfer some of the customers to another butcher.

The guidance recommended that butchers in a local area should group together to form Butchers’ Committees which would act as trade associations.  One person on the committee should be responsible for buying livestock and another for dead stock.  A levy should be paid for each butcher joining the committee and this money would provide a working fund and pay for any expenses incurred by the butchers.  It was recommended that the committees drew up rules limiting the financial responsibilities of each member to avoid any irregularities.

Photo 3 Meat Rationing Order cropped

Part of the guidance issued to butchers in 1918. NRO, BR 254/65

The meat rationing scheme started on April 7th from which time butchers needed a permit to buy meat.  If there was insufficient meat to provide for those registered with the butcher then this would be reported to the Deputy Meat Agent who would try to procure supplies. Equally the agent was to be informed if there were surpluses so that the stock could be redistributed where there was a need.

Photo 4 Children's Meat Coupons cropped

Children had their own coupons.  These shown here were handed in to butchers D W Bellamy & Sons of 136 King St, Gt Yarmouth. NRO, Y/D 74/58

 

Margarine was also rationed from April 1918.  The Carrow Works magazine for that month wrote:

Any Margarine?  Well four ounces a week – when you can get it.  But please don’t call it Mar-jer-ine.  Ask for Mar-gar-ine, and if you detect a smile on the face of the shopkeeper, tell him that the word “Margarine” comes from the Latin word ‘Margarita’, signifying a pearl; and that the ‘g’ is hard.

A letter written by Frank Palmer to his father about his father’s imminent visit to Norwich expresses concern about the availability of food supplies that his father had requested.  (NRO, MC 2440/1/16, 973×4).  From his address at 9 Market Place, Norwich Frank wrote:

Unfortunately it does not lay in my power to obtain only such quantities of Butter, Tea & Sgr to which we are entitled to.  Here we are only allowed 1oz of Butter and 5 ounces of Margarine each per week.   2 ounces of Tea & 1/2lb Sugar per week also.

 

Photo 5 Ration allowances cropped

Ration allowances for adults. NRO, MS 21630/114

 

 

Hardships continued throughout the war but these were ameliorated by several initiatives.  The work of the Woman’s War Agricultural Committee recruited women to work on the land.  This was later formalised into the Women’s Land Army in January 1917.  The introduction of mechanization with tractors made up for the loss of horses and men,  The employment of German prisoners of war, while not without its problems, also helped fill the gap in labour shortages.  Such initiatives, along with the determined efforts of men, women and children to do their bit, ensured that Britain may have been hungry but it did not starve.

NRO Blogger – Daryl Long

 

 

 

 

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