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






“Dousing the Glim” and Other Essential Activities

The Role of Special Constables in the First World War

From the records of Frederick Eaton, held at the Norfolk Record Office (ETN 6/14/1/1-52)

There is a long history of the voluntary role of Special Constables which predates the First World War. By the early 1860s a regular paid police reduced the need for a volunteer constabulary. It was in the First World War that their role was redefined with the passing of the Special Constables Act 1914. A large force was recruited to both compensate for the loss of regular members who joined the war effort and to add an extra layer of protection during wartime.

Frederick Ray Eaton, a Norwich solicitor and notary, played a key role in the Special Constabulary in the First World War. His records give some insight into the valuable and yet often under-valued role of the Specials in keeping the city safe.


Certificate of Service issued to Frederick Eaton after the war. Norfolk Record Office: ETN 6/14/1/12

The following account is taken from the records of Frederick Eaton. Where there are quotes, these are from a handwritten record in Eaton’s collection written by C.E.T in January 1919 (ETN 6/14/1/40). C.E.T began as a Special in another part of the country before moving to Norwich in 1915. His identity remains a mystery.

On enlisting C.E.T wrote:

“I am sure my dear Enemies and friends thought I was a fool. . . . and I began to think so too . . . and surely the War could not possibly last more than six months at most. . . . . . many people looked upon the SC as one who was trying to ease his conscience by serving his country in the least disagreeable manner to himself . . . . but few Englishmen I am sure joined with any less motive than that of patriotism”.

The first group of Specials was sworn in at St Andrew’s Hall, in Norwich following an initial meeting at Caley’s Factory on 2nd September 1914. Four companies were formed with each company taking charge of the whole city a week in turn, initially alongside the regular constables. Eaton was commander of the fourth company. When C.E.T moved to Norwich, he joined the third company. He did 3-4 duties every 28 days.

After enlisting the Specials would be issued with a warrant card, an armlet and a truncheon. C.E.T was also given a pair of handcuffs when he served in another part of the country but in Norwich he was given a silver whistle and chain instead. At first the handcuffs proved to be somewhat of a challenge! C.E.T tested them on his aunt who escaped unscathed. Then he put them on himself.

It required the united efforts of the whole family to say nothing of the Cat and Dog and took nearly half an hour before the key could be made to work”.

After Christmas 1915 Specials were issued with uniform. “At least the Specials provided their own overcoats and the City provided a hat”. C.E.T bought an ex- Navy coat for 12s 6d “and a splendid coat it has proved”.  They were later given a summer uniform too. They were also given an enamel badge to wear with ordinary clothes and, after 3 years of service they were given a silver star to wear on their right arm sleeve of their uniform.

Eaton kept a record book of all the Specials in his company along with their address and availability as the role was in addition to their day to day job. For example; “ill, don’t summon”, “evening duty only”, “joined up”. He noted there was great enthusiasm for drills particularly those held in the open air at Earlham Road Recreation Ground. Training also took place in the Drill Hall at Chapelfield. Route marches were also part of the training. Starting at Norwich market place they would take a circular route venturing as far afield as Wymondham, Wroxham and Attlebridge.

Before coming to Norwich C.E.T had had to guard a river mouth. He took his collie dog Rollo with him. In November 1914 orders were received to keep the telegraph office open all night. As the postmaster was over 80, C.E.T offered to keep vigil and slept on the sofa.  Occasionally a nighttime call was received to see if all was well. “I suppose the enquiry was really to find out if I was awake”.

When C.E.T. arrived in Norwich he commented on how dark the city was.

I did not at that time realise the efforts being made by the Police and Special Constabulary to save the ancient and noble City from the attentions of the Flying Hun”. 

One of the key roles of the specials was to “douse the glim”, ie. to ensure no lights were showing to protect the city from zeppelin raids. The instruction was not always well received.

People could not seem to understand that even if the Zeppelins came their little light could be seen.  Then there was the expense of buying dark curtains.  No they were certainly not going to bother”.

When doing beat duty Specials nearly always worked in pairs. “Occasionally another Special and I were placed on top of the Castle Keep. This was a very cold duty even in the summer. . . . . We found it practically impossible without a compass to say exactly what building or even from which street the light proceeded”. In pursuing a light in a residential district the householder explained he could not close the blind in the bathroom as his wife was having a bath. “The lady in question was sitting in a hot bath in the dark and could not see to get out”.

C.E.T concluded:

I have stood on duty in the streets on more than one occasion when the Zeppelins buzzed over the city . . . . . . I believe the Specials saved the City from damage by hostile bombs”.


Detailed instructions were issued should there be an air raid. NRO: ETN 6/14/1/20

At the end of 1917 the Norwich Emergency Committee met to plan the measures that would be taken if the city was under threat. The confidential minutes of 28th December 1917 detailed what had been agreed:

  • The city’s 900 specials would be divided into 8 companies and would be called upon only when a total emergency had been declared.
  • Each company had a specific role. 1 Company would collect tools and dispose of petrol. 2 and 3 Companies would form working parties to execute any work required.  4 Company would remove horses and mules. 5 and 6 Companies would remove or destroy vehicles. 7 Company would remove or destroy barges and lighters at quays and harbours. 8 Company would remove or render useless motor cars and cycles.  Electrical lighting equipment and tramway equipment would also be dismantled.
  • Specials would be required to control traffic at busy crossings.
  • With regard to an exodus from the city, 600 specials would patrol to prevent disorder. Three exit routes were identified; Earlham Road to Watton, Hall Road to New Buckenham or Stoke Holy Cross and City Road to the county via Stoke Holy Cross.

Being a Special certainly took its toll. C.E.T caught a very bad chill from regular nighttime exposure.

I only mention this to bring into prominence the fact that many Specials have actually died through the effects of unaccustomed exposure on cold winter nights”. He reminds the reader that Specials were working all day then on duty at night. “This for no pay, little hope of glory or honour or even thanks and a little ridicule”.

Their wives too were affected.

How many times have those dear Wives of ours waited our return in the early hours of the morning. How we have appreciated the hot bacon or bread and milk they have had ready for us. They have been alone in the Great Cities and in the lonely country while the bombs have been falling”.

Not all duties involved keeping the city in the dark. Rationing was introduced in 1918. C.E. T describes regulating queues for butter, meat and margarine. One day he noticed a large queue outside a greengrocers. “I heard that the people were waiting for Dates!”  The dates were 6d a pound and very popular.


Other duties of the Specials taken from the booklet ‘Work & Duties of Special Constables’ by John Henry Dain, Chief Constable of Norwich (1917). It was issued to all Specials. NRO: ETN 6/14/1/7

C.E.T describes the occasion of Queen Alexandra’s visit to Norwich on 12th November 1918 to unveil the Edith Cavell Memorial.

A very gracious Lady visited Norwich just before the Armistice was signed in order to unveil a War Memorial. 



Those Specials guarding the Queen’s route were issued with an enamel star as a memento of the occasion. NRO: ETN 6/14/1/26

After the end of the war Eaton organized a social evening at Buntings Restaurant in Norwich. This was no doubt to thank his company for their service throughout the war.


Social evening for Eaton’s 4th Company in January 1919. NRO: ETN 6/14/1/41-52

C.E.T and his company had their final inspection after 11th November 1918 and did his last duty before Christmas. At the end of his account, he reflected on his role as a special.

What we, whom the Army or Navy did not claim, have tried to do to keep the home fires burning and paradoxically the lights from shining”.

Compiled by Daryl Long, NRO Research Blogger.

All the Allies want British coal and must have it!

This is just one of several hundred newly digitised original photographs, posters and notices connected with the First World War in Norfolk. The material is all held in the collections of the Norfolk Heritage Centre and over the course of the next few years will be posted on http://www.picture.norfolk.gov.uk (the online picture archive for Norfolk County Council Library and Information Service)
coal is the key to victory