As time marches on, it becomes increasingly important for family historians to collect personal memories of the Second World War, as older people who remember those challenging days become fewer in number. A great source of information for me is my Aunt Nan. She was evacuated during the War and recently, we were talking about food and what she remembers about rationing.
In September 1939, Nan, and her older sister, Betty, my mother, were enjoying a summer holiday with their parents in Wylye, Wiltshire, where they had family. When War was declared, it was decided that the children should stay on in Wylye, living with their grandfather, Albert, and two maiden aunts, Lil and Kit. It was not safe for them to return home to Kent because of the threat of German air raids. My mother, Betty, was ten years old and Nan was only six.
I asked Nan what food was like during the War. Was there enough of it? In Nan’s view, food during the War was pretty plain and the rations were tiny, only just adequate. I am sure my mother thought the same. During my own teenage years, when I was going through a growth spurt and had a hearty appetite, my mother told me that she remembered always being hungry at a similar age. People said that she must have hollow legs!
Rationing was first introduced on January 8th 1940 to ensure a fair distribution of foodstuffs and put a stop to hoarding and high prices. Ration books were given to everyone who then registered at a shop of their choice. When a purchase was made, the coupons were checked off in the book. At first, only butter, sugar and bacon were rationed but by 1941, meat, milk, cheese, eggs and cooking fat were also included. At the time, Britain imported much of her food: 70% of cheese and sugar, 80% of fruit, 70% of cereals and fats and over half of its meat, which put the country in a vulnerable position. U-Boat activity in the Atlantic was designed to stop food getting in, thereby starving the country into submission. By August 1942, almost all food had been rationed with the exception of vegetables and bread. Rationing was based on the weight of the food with the exception of meat, which was based on price.
In Wylye, given the number of sheep grazing on the chalky downlands of Wiltshire, it is no surprise that mutton was the usual meat served at dinner time. The aunts would boil this in a stew and Nan remembers the meat being quite chewy! Sometimes, a man would appear at the door selling wild rabbits so a rabbit might also enter the pot from time to time. Apart from mutton and rabbit, there was, of course, the ubiquitous spam, which Nan quite enjoyed.
Vegetables were grown by granddad on his allotment, (vegetables and fruit were not rationed), and this was encouraged by a government campaign to get people to grow their own produce:
“We want not only the big man with the plough but the little man with the spade to get busy this autumn. Let ‘Dig for Victory’ be the motto of everyone with a garden.”Rob Hudson, Minister for Agriculture, in October 1939
Producing good meals was difficult with the constraints of wartime and rationing. Cooks had to make do with limited ingredients and needed to be creative in order to serve imaginative meals. However, in some cases, poorer people landed up being better fed and healthier than before the war, though richer people had to do without many of the luxuries they had become accustomed to. On the whole, the health of the nation improved and people did not suffer the deprivations that the German people went through.
Nan remembers that the bread, which was not rationed, tasted very good. A lovely white, fluffy cottage loaf could be bought from the village bakery. However, much to people’s disgust, white bread was replaced by a wholemeal loaf known as the “National Loaf” in 1942 by the National Federation of Bakers. Apart from the increase in fibre, it also had the added benefit of containing calcium and other vitamins that were added by government mandate. However, as the war went on, people were encouraged to eat more potatoes instead of bread, as flour became scarcer due to cereals being largely imported.
In those days, if you were good, an adult might invite you to tea. Making sure you were spotless and putting on your best clothes, it was an opportunity to have a much better tea than usual, as there would usually be cake as well as bread and jam. The jam was likely to be homemade apple and blackberry, the blackberries being foraged from the hedges of country lanes at the end of summer.
Nan remembers being invited one day to have tea with the rector of Wylye and his wife, who had no children of their own. My mother was very prim and proper, a right “goody two- shoes”, thus a favourite with many adults who looked favourably on her saintly behaviour compared with that of her more rambunctious younger sister. The rector of Wylye, the Reverend William J.F. Groves, was very fond of my mother and even wrote a congratulatory letter to her after she won a place at the grammar school in Salisbury. My mother was therefore keen that Nan should not embarrass her but be well-behaved and have impeccable manners. On the way to the rectory, she gave Nan a lecture and told her that if she was offered a cake, she should take the cake nearest to her on the plate. Poor Nan, when she did as she was told, received a reprimand from the rector who accused her of taking the biggest one.
Nan’s eyes light up when she remembers the wonderful treat of a home-baked apple cake. The aunts made this on the black, kitchen range and it tasted absolutely delicious!
Sweets were another occasional treat and could be bought from the village shop if you had a few pennies. Chocolate was a rarity but my grandfather, who was serving in the Royal Navy at the time, had a chocolate ration. He saved this up for his girls and sent a parcel to Wylye. When it arrived, Betty and Nan were so excited but the aunts decided that the chocolate should be kept for Christmas and stored it in granddad’s bureau. On Christmas morning, there was great anticipation for at last, the chocolate could be tasted. You can imagine the disappointment when the bureau was opened and it was found that the mice had got their first!
Nan remembers that pure orange juice and rosehip syrup could be obtained from the chemist. During the War, government scientists realised that rosehip syrup contained over twenty times the amount of vitamin C compared to oranges, (which were in very short supply anyway). They were also rich in other vitamins too so a national week for the collection of rosehips was established in late September 1941. Voluntary groups such as scouts, guides, women’s institutes and even school children, foraged in the nation’s hedgerows and 200 tonnes of hips were gathered that autumn. This resulted in the manufacture of 600,000 bottles of rosehip syrup. Mothers were informed that a teaspoon of rosehip syrup would supply half the vitamin C needs of children.
In 1942, Betty and Nan returned to their home in the small village of Wainscott, Kent, which was situated a few miles from Chatham Dockyard. Though the Blitz had ended, danger was never far away. Nan often saw “doodlebugs” (V1 rockets), flying above her in the skies of Kent.
Although the family lived in a small bungalow, they had a large garden and kept chickens. Eggs were a welcome source of protein and were collected each day to be distributed as rations by the local authorities. The family were fortunate as since they kept the chickens, they could have a bit extra. If it was known that someone was sick, a neighbour might call, asking if they could have an egg to give to that person. However, as hens did not lay eggs all year round one method of preserving them was to pickle them in jars or buckets filled with “water glass”. Water glass was a sodium silcate solution that sealed the pores of the egg shells to stop the eggs going bad. Another alternative to fresh eggs was powdered egg, which made very rubbery scrambled eggs but was certainly better than nothing if used in cooking.
In general, there was a lot of community spirit and a willingness to share what you had with those in need. Sometimes people also swapped rations if they managed to have a surplus of something. When my granddad was posted to the Firth of Forth in Scotland, he was able to get hold of a box of smoked kippers, which was quite a luxury at the time. Fish was not rationed but it was expensive and hard to obtain. He sent the kippers back home and my grandma shared them out with all her neighbours.
On one occasion, granddad, whilst serving in Scotland, sent a parcel to his family filled with goodies that he had saved from his rations. The children were delighted when they saw the contents but sadly, granddad had made one error when packing the parcel. Apart from the food items, he had also included some Lifebuoy soap, as soap was also rationed. Unfortunately, this contaminated the edible stuff, making all the food taste of the soap. You can imagine the sad faces!
I have very much enjoyed hearing about Nan’s memories of food and rationing during the War. In particular, I have appreciated the stories about the community spirit that rationing engendered, despite the hardships. My grandparents shared the eggs they produced if someone was in need, gave away the kippers that were a special treat and saved up chocolate for the benefit of their children. Similarly, children such as Nan and my mother, Betty, who were evacuees, far from home, were invited out to tea by strangers who shared the best food that they had with them. These are stories to be cherished.