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 was importing 20,000,000 long tons of food per year, including about 70% of its cheese and sugar, nearly 80% of fruits and about 70% of cereals and fats. The UK also imported more than half of its meat, and relied on imported feed to support its domestic meat production. The civilian population of the country was about 50 million. [3] It was one of the principal strategies of the Germans in the Battle of the Atlantic 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 that the relevant coupon or coupons could be cancelled.

First World War

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

In line with its business as usual policy during the First World War, the government was initially reluctant to try to control the food markets. [4] It fought off attempts to introduce minimum prices in cereal production, though relenting in the area of control of essential imports (sugar, meat, and grains). When it did introduce changes, they were limited. In 1916, it became illegal to consume more than two courses while 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 unrestricted submarine warfare to try to starve Britain into submission. To meet this threat, voluntary rationing was introduced in February 1917. 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 as Britain's supply of wheat decreased to just six weeks' worth. [6] To help the process, ration books were introduced in July 1918 for butter, margarine, lard, meat, and sugar. [7] For the most part, rationing benefited the health of the country. During the war, average energy intake decreased by only 3%, but protein intake by 6%. [8]