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15 October 2014
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Timeline - 1939-1945

Fact File : Ration Books Introduced

8 January 1940

Location: Britain
Players: Lord Woolton, the Minister of Food
Outcome: National expenditure could be diverted to the war effort and food could be distributed more efficiently and fairly, which boosted the population's morale.

When Britain declared war with Germany in September 1939, the government had already devised the Food Defence Plans, and had imported 55 million tons of food in readiness for war. A week after the war broke out, a separate government body known as the Ministry of Food was established, eventually employing around 50,000 officials under Lord Woolton.

Petrol rationing began as early as 22 September 1939, just weeks after the outbreak of war, but it wasn't until January the following year that the Ministry of Food started implementing food rationing.

Initially, the purchase of bacon, butter and sugar was limited and distributed via the ration book. Rationing was then extended to include meat, jam, biscuits, breakfast cereals, dairy products and canned fruit. Fresh fish, although never rationed, was practically unavailable.

The ration book contained food coupons and was issued to every home. Once a family had a ration book they had to register with a local grocer and butcher to obtain their rations. Tea, that old British favourite, was not under restriction until July 1940, and from the outset children were entitled to extra foods considered essential for growth, such as milk and orange juice.

Everyone was expected to adhere to rationing, including the Royal Family, although country homes enjoyed some benefits - extra eggs and vegetables, for example. People were also encouraged to produce their own food under a scheme called 'Dig for Victory'.

One of the surprising effects of food rationing was that it improved the nation's health by encouraging a balanced diet.

Clothing was rationed from June 1941 and people came up with their own inventive responses to this particular restriction: for example, many women painted stockings onto their legs using gravy browning. 'Make do and mend' became a way of life for British women, as every scrap of old clothing was recycled into something useful.

The fact files in this timeline were commissioned by the BBC in June 2003 and September 2005. Find out more about the authors who wrote them.

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