Tuesday 27 January 2015

The 75th Anniversary of Rationing

When the first stages of food rationing were imposed on the British public in January 1940, only months after World War II broke out, I was eight months old. When it finally ended in June 1954, I was 15 and about to leave school. I therefore spent the whole of my childhood accepting as the norm that the amount of food my mother could buy for the family – Mum, Dad and three children – was restricted not only by what she could afford but by how many ‘coupons’ were left in the family’s ration books. I watched my mother cream together lard and margarine when she was making sandwiches, without realising that it was a thrifty measure to make the margarine ration go further. I can remember that a childhood favourite was a slice of bread spread with dripping from the meat tin, sprinkled with a little salt – very tasty! Years later, when creaming together 4ozs of margarine, two eggs, and 4ozs of sugar to make my own children a batch of fairy cakes that would disappear very quickly, I’d forgotten that I was using one adult’s weekly ration of those staple foods.

My father, a small, wiry man, had failed his medical for the army due to an untreated childhood illness (possibly polio) which left him with wasted muscles in one leg, yet throughout the war he did a physically hard job and fire-watched in the evenings. Needing energy, the meagre sugar ration was a particular problem for him; we used to joke that he put tea in his sugar rather than the other way around. As we children grew, my mother, in the interests of fair play, used to divide the week’s sugar ration into five separate jars with our names on. Of course, Dad’s jar always emptied first, and ‘selling’ him what remained of my ration at threepence a go earned me my first pocket money!

I don’t know at what age a child received its own ration book, presumably at eight months old I would not need margarine, eggs, sugar, etc, but I do remember queuing up with my mother at the Congregational church in Huyton to renew the green ration book I was entitled to up until the age of five. This enabled my mother to buy me bananas or oranges – although since it was extremely rare for these to appear in the shops during the war years, it was not much of a concession.

There were aspects of rationing which would have had absolutely no bearing on my family. I’ve read that central heating was prohibited during the summer months. To working-class families, central heating would have been a ‘pipe-dream’! The living room in our ‘two-up, two-down,’ terraced house was heated by a coal fire which scorched your legs whilst leaving your back freezing! There were also small fire-grates in the bedrooms but you had to be practically at death’s door before a fire was ever lit in those – and if it was, the black smoke that billowed back into the bedroom would probably make your illness worse. I can remember winters when there was ice on the inside of the bedroom windows and you put your socks on in bed before putting your feet down on the freezing lino. Living in the north of England, I believe that we were entitled to a higher coal ration than those lucky southerners basking in warmer climes – but the coal still ran out before the month did. It was common to see children walking along the railway line that led from the colliery to the goods yard, picking up pieces of coal which had fallen from the wagons.

Another aspect of rationing which would not have inconvenienced working-class families was the restriction on dining out. From May, 1942, the cost of meals served in hotels and restaurants must not exceed five shillings per customer and must not consist of more than three courses – only one of which could be meat, fish or poultry. The only ‘dining out’ I ever did as a child was when Dad occasionally took me to St John’s Market in Liverpool – there was a small indoor cafĂ© where he would buy tea and toast before we walked the lanes of the outdoor market. I can remember getting upset at seeing the caged puppies and kittens for sale.

Any mention of sweet rationing brings back vivid memories of my local sweet shop, ‘Toffee Jones’s, so called because the paper-shop next door was owned by his brother, ‘Echo Jones’! Sweets were served, 2ozs at a time, in small, cone-shaped paper bags; Dolly Mixtures were a favourite, the smaller the sweet, the more you got in your bag.

Two sweet-related incidents stand out, both involving merchant seamen. A neighbour came home from a trip with blue 2lb sugar bags full of sweets for his two children and also one each for me and my best friend, Pat. I can still picture them, but can’t remember how long we made them last! On another occasion, when I was in hospital for a number of weeks, my seafaring uncle sent me the biggest bar of chocolate I’d ever seen. My excitement was short-lived as I was made to share it among a ward of about 20 children.

I’m surprised to learn that cigarettes weren’t rationed, because they were certainly in very short supply in our district, even after the war. I was often sent out on ‘foraging trips’ to all the local shops within a mile radius, gaining Dad’s approval on the occasions I came home bearing a packet of ten Woodbines which had been brought out from under the counter.

Clothes rationing ended around the time of my tenth birthday. Again, this would have affected the middle-upper classes more than working-class families, most of whom were already used to wearing ‘hand-me-downs’. Shoes were a problem of course; it was common practice to line them with cardboard when the soles began to wear thin – although this probably had as much to do with shortage of money as shortage of coupons, especially in large families.

My mother was a good knitter and would unravel large sweaters, leave out wool that had worn thin, and re-knit the rest into a smaller garment. A maiden aunt was also a good knitter and at the age of five I was kitted out in a warm, hooded coat knitted in dark red bouclĂ© wool. A special treat was again due to my sea-faring uncle – on one leave he brought two gingham dresses, a red one for me and a blue one for my sister.

Often, merchant sailors would bring home jars of pickled hard-boiled eggs – a welcome change from dried-egg powder – large tins of jam, and other delights, which would be shared out among the wider family. My husband remembers his father coming home on leave from the Royal Navy with a kitbag bulging with hard, round objects. On exploring the outside of the bag, he asked what was in it and was told, ‘bombs’, and was relieved to discover the next day that they were in fact coconuts!

One thing rationing taught my generation is to hate food wastage. I will never put on my plate more than I know I will eat, and a recent innovation of our local council has met with my firm approval; potato peelings, fruit skins, egg shells etc can now be re-cycled and turned into compost. In my childhood, these were collected by ‘the pig lady’; dressed in men’s clothing and pushing a wheelbarrow, she would walk the local streets collecting everyone’s leftovers to feed her pig.

I don’t remember ever being hungry as a child. We had a garden where Dad could grow vegetables, and sometimes keep a couple of hens. There was always food on the table, although I know there were children from large families who were not so lucky. My mother was a great believer in supplements, I was regularly dosed with Virol; the iron tonic Parrish’s Food; malt extract; Scott’s Emulsion; and the orange juice and cod-liver oil available from the children’s clinic. Unlike many children, I loved the taste of all of these!

Developing chest problems at the age of eight, I also attended sessions of sun-ray treatment at a local clinic – wearing dark goggles and dressed only in my knickers. It is worrying to discover that a link has now been made between that treatment and skin cancer in later life. On two occasions I was sent to a children’s convalescent home by the sea; for three weeks at the age of eight, and later for a spell of six weeks and here, and at school, I can remember food being adequate – I even liked sago pudding, referred to by some children as ‘frogspawn’! I had my first taste of honey whilst staying at a convalescent home run by nuns who kept bees. It’s been a lifelong favourite ever since.

Whilst realising now that food rationing added greatly to the stress of wives and mothers, especially during the war years, I believe that it didn’t do the health of our generation any harm, certainly obesity was extremely rare. And medicinal supplements and spells by the sea must also have worked their magic for me, since I am still here to tell the tale!