Primary History

World War 2: Food and shopping

  • Wartime shopping

    There were no supermarkets. You went to different shops for different items. For fruit and vegetables, you went to the greengrocer. For meat, to the butcher. For fish, to the fishmonger. For bread and cakes, to the baker. For groceries such as jam, tea, biscuits and cheese you went to the grocer. Other shops sold clothes, shoes, medicines, newspapers and all the other things people needed to buy.

    In most shops, the shopkeeper or shop assistants served customers from behind a counter. Many shops were small family businesses. Most big towns had department stores.

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  • Rationing

    Food rationing began in 1940. This meant each person could buy only a fixed amount of certain foods each week.

    Much of Britain's food came from other countries in ships. Enemy submarines sank so many ships that there was a shortage of some foods. Rationing made sure everyone got a fair share. You had to hand over coupons from your ration book, as well as money, when you went shopping. When you had used up your ration of one food (say, cheese or meat), you could not buy any more that week. Vegetarians could swap meat coupons for other foods.

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  • What could people buy?

    People had to register with local shops to use their ration books. Often long queues formed as soon as people heard that shops had more supplies. The first foods rationed were bacon, sugar, tea, butter and meat. Lots more foods were rationed later, including sweets! One egg a week was the ration in 1941. There were no bananas, so younger children did not see their first banana until the war ended.

    Clothes were rationed too, so clothing factories could switch to war work. Paper, petrol and other things, such as soap (one bar a month) and washing powder, were also rationed.

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  • What foods would we have missed?

    Frozen pizza, chicken nuggets, burgers and chips perhaps. Remember, there were no home freezers! Potatoes were not rationed, so you could make your own chips - if you could find some oil or fat to cook them in. In summer, people were asked to eat more salads, to save cooking fuel.

    With eggs rationed, people tried dried egg powder. One packet was equal to 12 fresh eggs. Dried egg made good scrambled eggs, but it was bad luck if you only liked eggs fried or boiled. Unfamiliar foods appeared too, such as Spam (tinned meat) from America, and snoek, a fish from South Africa.

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  • Grow your own food

    Many people grew vegetables at home or on allotments. Children helped 'Dig for Victory' by digging, planting and weeding. Some children worked on farms picking potatoes and fruit.

    Some families kept chickens, ducks and rabbits (to eat). People started 'Pig Clubs', collecting food leftovers in pig bins to feed the pigs.

    There were plenty of potatoes and carrots, and lots of suggestions for new ways to cook them! 'Potato Pete' and 'Doctor Carrot' advertised these foods, to encourage people to eat more of them.

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Fun Facts
  • The BBC 'Radio Allotment' grew 23 kinds of vegetables, with weekly radio reports on progress.

  • No icing on birthday cakes, after the government said no more icing sugar (1942).

  • From 1942, children under 5 got free cod liver oil, and blackcurrant or orange juice.

  • Eating carrots was said to help you see in the dark.

  • Carrolade was a children's drink made from carrot and swede juice.

  • People made tea with loose (leaf) tea, not teabags. Some people reused tea leaves!

  • The only sweets not rationed in wartime were cough sweets. Sweet rationing lasted until 1953!

  • Even the moat at the Tower of London was dug up for vegetables.

  • Children's clothes were rationed too. In 1941 you needed 6 coupons for pyjamas, 3 for a pair of shoes and 1 coupon for a pair of socks.

  • A few people wore wooden shoes (clogs), which weren't rationed.

  • Women in the Women's Land Army killed rats, which ate 2 million tons of food every year.

  • One nursery rhyme was rewritten as: 'Little Jack Horner, Sat in a Corner, Eating potato pie...'

  • There was lots of new meat-free recipes, such as turnip pie, or parsnip and carrot pie.

  • There was a suet pudding called 'National Roly-Poly'.

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Jump to: A-D | E-G | H-L | M-O | P-S | T-Z

A to D

air raid
An attack by planes dropping bombs.
air raid drill
Practice for what to do in air raid, such as going to the shelter.
air raid shelter
A building to protect people from bombs.
Countries (including Britain, France, the Soviet Union and the USA) who joined forces to fight the Axis Powers.
Small plot of land for growing vegetables.
atomic bomb
Weapon first used in 1945 when two bombs were dropped on Japan, killing more than 100,000 people.
Axis Powers
Germany, Japan, Italy and other countries that were allies in World War 2.
Wartime ban on street lights and other lights at night.
German air raids, from a German word 'blitzkrieg' which means 'lightning war'.
British Empire
Countries ruled by Britain.
Controlling what people say or write.
People not in the armed forces.
Civil Defence
A network of civilian volunteers who assisted in the war effort by helping in air raids and rescuing people from bombed buildings.
Group of friendly countries almost all of which were once part of the British Empire.
concentration camp
Prison where Jews and other prisoners were kept by the Nazis.
Slip of paper marked or torn out of a ration book.
6 June 1944, the date Allied forces landed in Normandy, France.
department store
Large shop selling different things in different departments.

E to G

Someone who was evacuated, moved from a danger area to a safer place.
Places where things are made.
The Army, Royal Air Force, Royal Navy and other services.
Frank,Anne (1929-1945)
A German Jewish girl who spent two years hiding from the Nazis in a house in Holland. Her wartime diary was published after the war.
gas mask
Face mask to protect people against poison gas.
general election
Vote to choose Members of Parliament, and a new government.
Machine for playing music records.

H to L

Hitler,Adolf (1929-1945)
Leader of Nazi Germany.
Mass murder of Jews and other people by the Nazis.
host family
People who took in evacuees to live with them.
Attacked and taken over by an enemy.
People who follow the religion of Judaism.
To free from an enemy's control.

M to O

military uniform
Clothing worn by soldiers, sailors and airmen.
To do with the navy or warships.
A fight between ships at sea.
Short for National Socialist Party (in Germany), a follower of Hitler was also called a Nazi.
Taken over by enemy forces.

P to S

prime minister
Leader of the government of Britain.
prisoners of war
Soldiers captured by the other side.
Controlling news media (such as radio) to show your side in the best way.
Controlling the supply of food, clothes, petrol and other things.
A person forced to leave their home, often by war.
A list of names. In WW2 people had to register with shops before they could use their ration books there.
Fighting back in an occupied country, for example by refusing to help the enemy.
scrap metal
Waste metal such as old cooking pans.
Machine that made a wailing noise as a warning when enemy planes were seen.
A catchy phrase or saying.
Soviet Union
Country made up of Russia and other states that are now independent.
steam train
A train pulled by a locomotive burning coal.
stirrup pump
Small hand pump for squirting water to put out fires.

T to Z

A short message sent by phone, then printed out and delivered.
London's Tube rail system.
United Nations
Organization set up in 1945 by the Allies to work for world peace.
People who don't eat meat.
war crime
Mass murder or cruel treatment of people during a war.
Wooden board with ridges, for scrubbing dirty clothes on.