logo - Join me in the 1900s mid C20th
The webmaster, Pat Cryer, as a young child

Keeping chickens and rabbits
in the shortages of 1940s-50s Britain

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free range chickens

Chickens kept in gardens.

Hitler tried to starve Britain into submission in the Second World War. So food was in short supply because of the risk to merchant seamen of bringing it in from overseas. These seamen risked their lives bringing in what they did, in perpetual fear of being sunk by German submarines.

Consequently householders set up ways to produce more food on the home front. One way was to keep livestock such as chickens and rabbits in back gardens.

Although home owners were encouraged to keep rabbits and chickens for food, I never at the time knew anyone who did. In some ways, I find this surprising, as the excerpts in the boxes show that it was an extremely worthwhile activity while so much shop food was rationed.

However, everyone I have later spoken to who kept chickens and rabbits had a man at home at the time, either because he was too old to be in the forces or because he was in what was called a reserved occupation. I suppose there must have been some exceptions, with women keeping chickens and rabbits.

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Why keeping rabbits was so worthwhile

Rabbits are very good at reproduction all the year round. so those families that kept rabbits had a never ending supply of rabbit and chips, stewed rabbit and rabbit pie. Rabbits were killed for eating whenever there were more rabbits than cages.

How to prepare a rabbit for cooking

To dispatch a rabbit, you suspended it by its back legs with the left hand with its back towards you. Then with your open right hand you struck it across the back of its neck with a swift chopping motion. The rabbit was then disembowelled and a stick of wood was placed in the cut to keep the cavity wide open. The following day the skin was removed.

The value of a rabbit's skin in wartime

The skin was worth money from the rag and bone man who sold it on for winter boots and clothing. First, though, it had to be dried. My father stretched it tightly across a board, nailed it to the board and rubbed in salt. When the skin was dry, it was as stiff as the board, but was softened up by rubbing it together and pulling it over your knees.

(Mole skins could be dried in the same way. My first mole trap cost 2/6 [half a crown] from Woolworths but it soon paid for itself as we got 6d per skin. The skin was parcelled up and posted to an address in the Exchange and Mart. Mole skins were needed by plumbers for wiping lead joints, and were used for the purpose ever since Roman times. Moles were bred on an industrial scale wherever the Romans took their civilization. Nowadays pipes are copper and plastic rather than lead.)

Peter Johnson

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Chicken food

It was possible to exchange a person's egg ration for chicken feed which encouraged people to keep chickens, as the exchange paid off very well in terms of meat and extra eggs.

Our chickens were fed on a mash made up at home - bran from the corn merchant mixed with cabbage and left-overs, and all stewed. Preparing the mash was a regular Saturday morning chore, making enough for the week. It made the house reek! But the eggs were plentiful.

John Cole

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Obtaining chickens

My father had an incubator in the back bedroom, so we were completely self sufficient for baby chickens, as we had a cockerel as well.

John Cole

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Home-made incubators to increase the stock of chickens

A wooden 'orange box', into which Granny placed frequently refilled old stoneware hot water bottles, was the make-shift 'incubator' for hatching eggs. The survival rate of the resulting chicks was, as far as I recall, not impressive! She kept this contraption next to the hot-water tank in the bathroom. In my memory, the smell lingers still!

Any eggs we didn't consume, Granny traded for a little extra sugar or tea. I know for a fact, that any rationed sugar, was kept for my sister and me.

Michael Sullivan

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Keeping the chickens safe in air raids

If you can add anything to this page or provide a photo, I would be pleased to hear from you.

Pat Cryer, webmaster

Chickens were important for our food, so they had to be kept safe like us in air-raids. Our neighbours put their chickens into their Anderson shelter at night and spent nights with us in our Anderson shelter. We shared the eggs.

Ros Collins

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Chickens as food or pets?

Chickens were killed for food as soon as they stopped laying eggs. We would all go and watch Dad wring a chicken's neck, and then we would sit in a circle and pull out the feathers. It was an unpleasant task because the small feathers got up one's nose. The remaining ones went into the compost bin. Chickens were cooked the same day that they were killed.

Peter Johnson

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Egg ration, chicken food and chicken pens

Each of our chickens was given a pet name and when the time came for one to be slaughtered, mother could not bear the thought of killing what she regarded as her pets. So we continued to have eggs but no chicken meat.

Richard Ouston

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This website Join me in the 1900s is a contribution to the social history of everyday life in 20th century Britain from the early 1900s to about 1960, seen through personal recollections and illustrations, with the emphasis on what it was like to live in those times.