Whilst writing Winter Downs and the world of my heroine, Rose ‘Bunch’ Courtney, there were many things that required some careful research. The first that came to mind was the knotty problem of rationing. Conducting a small straw poll the general perception of many people seems to be that rationing came in with a bang the moment war was declared, and remained there until the end of the war, when it was lifted immediately. This was not the case.
Mindful of the privations suffered in the Great War, the Ministry of Food was set up to oversee supplies and there was an original plan to implement full rationing from September 1939. The MoF did announce rationing several times in those early months – only to postpone them due to some vociferous newspaper campaigns, spearheaded, by all accounts by a series of editorials in the Daily Express; which, for example, urged the public to “…revolt against the food rationing system.”
In retrospect, during the period known as the phoney war from August 1939 it is easy to see how it was going to be tough persuading the general public of the need to go without when they had only just clambered out of the privations of the depression years.
Rationing of petrol began in 1939, within two months of war being declared. That all changed of course and by July 1942 even the basic civilian ration was cut off and only ‘official users’ were able to obtain supplies; ‘official’ meaning the armed services as first priority, followed by emergency services, farmers and public transport. What rationed fuel there was available was dyed for easy identification.
Campaigns to urge people to take public transport or walk were launched, and it is worth noting from a writer’s perspective how fuel rationing affected people across the board – from Lords to laymen. Public transport came under heavier use, and even quite well off people were unearthing bicycles for local trips. Hence Bunch often uses her horses, even in the snow, and was thinking twice about non-essential journeys by car. Petrol coupons was very strictly regulated and those found breaking them could be fined or even imprisoned. Famously the composer and singer Ivor Novello received a one month jail sentence in 1942 for this very offence.
Winter Downs is set in January of 1940, which saw the very start of rationing with bacon, butter and sugar; quickly followed in March with by meat rationing, and by tea and margarine in July of the same year. Many more items were added to the list over the coming three years but never vegetables. True there was a shortage of imported stuffs such as onions, tomatoes or bananas, but the dig for victory campaign launched in October 1939 where private gardens, public parks and village greens were put to the spade and hoe, ensured that there was a supply of fresh veg and fruit – but more on that another time.
It is worth noting that both alcohol and tobacco evaded the rationer’s sword as they were deemed vital to general morale of the British public. Prices did rise as scarcity dictated and herbal alternatives were sometimes added to tobacco supplies by the unscrupulous to eek out the supply in much the same way that some beers and spirits were suspiciously weaker than their pre-war versions. In fact, other than the clothing and soaps much later in the war, luxury items were never rationed – provided you had sufficient cash!
Uboat activity began in the very earliest days of the war and with Atlantic convoys coming under constant threat of attack, cargo space was rapidly being prioritised for the essentials only. Imported luxury goods rapidly became scarce; nylons being the example that spring readily to many minds.
My rationing conundrum was complicated by having to rewind the story by twelve months. In the original setting of 1941 shortages had begun to bite even harder, but even so it would seem that the needs of feeding the armed services put a strain on supplies of basic goods such as meat. It was possible to eat at cafes and restaurants without rationing as late as May 1942, again at a price.
The British Restaurant emerged to feed those bombed out or displaced and served a basic meal for 9d without need for coupons, but were seen by most as basic refuelling stops. It has been suggested by some that it was these emergency cafes that gave rise to Britain’s world wide reputation in some quarters for poor food, which persisted for many years after the war ended.
Keeping a careful eye on what was legally available when and in what quantities quickly became an important line of research in order to maintain the right balance of time and place.
Did rationing make its mark from summer of 1939? Yes it did, but, petrol aside, the starker levels of privation envisaged in the era probably did not take affect in communities outside of the major cities until the end 1940 and the Battle of Britain.