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Rationing and Food Shortages

Rationing is often associated with the Second World War but, like so many other things, its roots lie in the First World War. In 1914, the UK produced a lot of its own food and resources, supplemented by imported food and other basic goods.  Once the war had begun, many of the sources of those necessities were threatened. 

As men who traditionally worked in agriculture and rural industries joined the Armed Forces, women stepped forward to work on the land. However, the lack of horses, many of which had been requisitioned and sent off to war, meant that some of the essential heavy work, such as pulling ploughs, was very difficult, resulting in slower output. Access to fertilizers was also restricted putting even more pressure on home grown produce. 


The German Navy threatened supplies reaching the UK from the British Empire and other regions, although their blockade had limited effect even after the German U-Boats resumed unrestricted activities. Some trading partners were no longer friends. Sugar cane came to the UK from the Caribbean but sugar beet was mainly imported from Austria. The result, not surprisingly, was that sugar shortages occurred very early in the war. 

Eventually, people began to be affected by shortages of many goods; foodstuffs, textiles and machinery. As food prices rose across the country, people started to hoard products and fill their larders. Shop owners began to limit the quantities that could be bought to stop individuals and the wealthy taking an unfair share of the goods. Long queues became a regular feature of everyday life. 

Government campaigns encouraged the British public to consider what they cooked and not to waste food.  People who had gardens started to grow their own vegetables and fruit.. Recycling and repair of clothes and household items became a way of life. It is worth remembering that many people did not have a great number of possessions and buying second hand or using ‘hand me downs’ was already the norm.

DORA (Defence of the Realm Act) introduced food standards and usage regulations to ensure that shortages did not lead to a far-reaching crisis and that staple goods such as bread were not produced at substandard quality. Most importantly, the authorities acted to ensure that food supplies continued to reach those at the Front and in the military.

By 1918, the Government decided to introduce formal rationing. Everyone was issued with a Ration Book including the King and Queen. Sugar, butter and margarine, bread and meat were all rationed. Fruit and vegetables were not restricted, but prices limited the amount people could purchase, especially in the urban areas. Some basic food prices were regulated with fines for anyone who tried to charge more.  After the war, some goods remained scarce and butter continued to be rationed until 1920.

The importance of ensuring that food and goods were evenly spread and distributed across the UK was a lesson understood and learnt. Subsequently, once the Second World War began, plans for rationing were drawn up straight away and introduced formally in 1940. 

Link to a ration card


Marcus Segal (1896-1917) wrote home to his parents while he was serving in France. In his letters he refers to the food packages that he was sent from his family from BarnetT's deli in Stanmore.

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London Jews in the First World War - We Were There Too

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