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World War Two Rationing in Britain

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A ration book

During the Second World War, (1939-45), there were a lot of shortages of essential foodstuffs, not just luxuries. Supplies started to become short and some items impossible to obtain, especially imported goods such as tea, bananas, oranges and grapes. It was to be six or seven years before any of those fruits were seen again. Then butter, lard, sweets, cakes, flour and sugar became hard to get too, followed by meat and fish.

Ration Books

Ration books were issued to each person containing tokens which could be saved up or used at the owner's discretion. The shopkeeper would remove the tokens before he issued the goods.

There were different kinds of ration books. The most common was the buff-coloured one. These were issued to adults and school-age children. Green books were issued to expectant mothers as they had extra tokens. The possession of this book would 'give away' the woman's secret. People were much more private about their personal circumstances in those days, and a pregnancy outside of wedlock was considered scandalous.

The tokens had no monetary value, they were merely a means of ensuring that everybody got a fair share of what was available, and to try to prevent stockpiling.

The tokens were for food, and later, also for clothing.

It was on 8 January, 1940 (four months after the war started), that food rationing came into force.

To start with, the rations were (per person per week):

  • Butter or lard: 4 ounces (113.4 grammes)

  • Sugar: 12 ounces (340.2 grammes)

  • Raw bacon or Ham: 4 ounces (113.4 grammes)

  • Eggs x2

  • Cooked bacon or Ham: 3.5 ounces (99.3 grammes)

Meat rationing started 11 March, 1940.


As the war went on, bread became in short supply. Queues would form outside shops very early in the morning because even if people had coupons, there was no guarantee that shops would have sufficient bread for everyone. Rumours would circulate that a certain shop was expecting a supply of butter or meat and immediately women would form a queue outside that shop. Many shops opened for only two or three days a week because of food shortages.


Eventually coupons became necessary for clothes. This affected women more than men because they couldn't get silk stockings (there was no nylon nor any tights back then). The ingenious women did all sorts of things to make it look as if they were wearing silk stockings - like staining their legs with tea, a mixture of sand and water, or even a thin mixture of gravy colouring; and then making a line down the back of their legs with eye liner - to look like a stocking seam!

Patches were sewn on the elbows to make jumpers1, cardigans and jackets last longer. These became quite fashionable and popular. Special clothing, such as a bridal gown and bridesmaids' dresses, would be passed around a family to be worn again, rather than using up the precious clothes coupons.

Bartering became a way of life, and there was an illegal black market.


  • Pregnant women were allowed more food tokens.

  • Nursing mothers were allowed more milk.

  • Infants up to one year were included in their mother's green book.

  • Children aged one year to five years - mothers of these children sometimes had 'extras', a few extra vegetables or a cracked egg, slipped into their shopping baskets by kindly shopkeepers.

Children aged over 5 years had their own books of tokens.

End of Rationing

Rationing did not end with the war. It was years before the country was rebuilt and life got back to normal. Some things like sweets were still on ration in 1953.

Quote from a schoolgirl during the war:

I remember my uncle fetching back some bananas when he came home on leave. He gave me one and I took it to school. Everyone crowded around me and my teacher showed it to the whole class. It seemed like a priceless treasure. I was a very popular girl that day. Everyone wanted me to open it and eat it, but I wouldn't. I took it back home with me and left it till it went black, but it still smelled so good. Even now I can't smell ripe bananas without evoking that memory.


This entry was written with the help of Mrs Violet Wolstencroft - the Researcher's mother.

1In British English usage, a jumper is a knitted pullover.

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