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Default How Britain Learned To Live On Rations [WWII History]

January 15, 2010

"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

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 [in the early 50's].

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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