Based on experiences in Edgware, north London in the 1940s
In general, people on the British home front
during World War Two were innovative in the face of
rationing and shortages. The mottos
were 'make do and mend', 'Be thankful and never grumble' - and 'Never leave
on your plate'. This page gives some of the best known examples, but there
were many, many more.
cardboard cake covers, iced to look like wedding cakes
Above: Cardboard cover decorated to look like a luxury
Top right: The cover lifted showing that it is hollow.
Bottom right: The smaller cake is revealed.
Photographed in Bushey Lincolnsfields Centre.
A well-known example of cunning creativity, which I knew about as a
child, but never actually saw, was the cardboard covers decorated with plaster and painted to look like wedding cakes. The
reality was very different - see the photos. These cardboard covers were passed
around from one wedding to another.
Furniture from scrap wood
A typical upturned vegetable box, generally
known as an 'orange box', used by greengrocers
in the 1940s and which probably served as many a piece of furniture in the
shortages of wartime Britain. One was my bedside cabinet.
As an example of making do, my early childhood bedside cabinet was an 'orange
box' from the greengrocer. It was made of coarsely cut unvarnished white-wood
slats which gave one splinters, hammered together with a few nails, like the
one in the photograph. I doubt if it had ever contained oranges, so the name
was not at all appropriate. 'Vegetable box' would have been a better name as all
vegetables arrived at greengrocers in these boxes and were often displayed in
them too. There were no plastic crates.
New clothes for old
Make do and mend poster. Photographed in Swansea Bay 1940s Museum.
Women became expert dressmakers and tailors. It was quite normal to 'decorate' tears and holes attractively from parts of other worn-out clothes and to cut down adults clothes to make clothes for children.
Swapping and bartering
Although selling rationed things for money was classed as
Market for which there could be a prison sentence, swopping was legal.
So bartering came into its own in this time of rationing and shortages. People would swap things, most shops had postcards in their windows
saying things like:
Swap two rabbits for a wedding
Babies cot swap for men's trousers.
Why shortages continued after the war
Shortages continued for several years after the war.
Rationing did not end until
1954 and was actually more severe in the immediate aftermath of the war than in the war itself.
Historians have argued extensively over all the reasons. One was certainly
that America withdrew its support of dried eggs and spam when a Labour
government was elected after the war.
By the end of the war there were millions of
displaced people in Europe from slave camps and concentration camps who
were starving to death and who had to be fed and made safe from
infection. The problem was gigantic. Holland, Belgium, Germany and Denmark
reduced to starvation diets by the war. In Holland people were
reduced to eating grass, and even cats and dogs. This I have since been told
during trips there.
So, although the safe seas, Australia and New Zealand
were able to ship out large quantities of beef, lamb, butter cheese, it was decided that we should go on a
reduced allowance in order to send supplies into Europe. The Irish, who
did not take part in the war, were able to supply us with fresh dairy
products once hostilities had ended, and most of our beef, both frozen and tinned was coming from Argentina.
Tins of Fray Bentos corned beef. Photographed in Swansea Bay Museum.
We seemed to live on corned beef from Argentina.
The brand was Fray Bentos, which became a household name.
The powdered eggs and spam that we had enjoyed from
America was diverted
into Europe. So rationing did not cease at the end of the war, nor were
the allowances increased. In fact, the UK was the last country to end
rationing after the war.
Britain had borrowed vast sums of money to
finance our part in the war, mainly from the USA, and they were
seeking re-payment. It took some 50 years to pay off this National
Debt. We were crippled by the war and in some ways have still not
This website Join me in the 1900s is © Pat Cryer.