Rationing and shortages in WW1

WW1 ration card

Food rationing in WW1 was set up in 1917 following the Germans sinking merchant ships carrying imports into England. This page reports on the food ration cards which required registering with shops and legal requirement for bread sales. However, in the event, rationing did not take place although there were food shortages. Coal rationing, however, did take place. Personal recollections bring the page to life.


Extracted from the memoirs of the webmaster's mother (1906-2002) and edited by the webmaster with further research

Rationing of certain foods was set up in 1918 close to the end of World War One. This was after German submarines had succeeded in sinking about 1½ tons of merchant shipping carrying imports into the UK.

Effects of food rationing on the public

Neither of my parents ever mentioned any sort of rationing or shortages in their childhood, and my mother in her extensive recollections of life in that period wrote nothing about them either. Of course families grew their own fruit and vegetables in back gardens and allotments, and the pests were fewer than in today's gardens. Grey squirrels had not yet arrived and wild rabbits preferred the cornfields.

So I can't imagine that the thought of food rationing worried ordinary people very much.

The WW1 Ration card

The ration card is of a rather dreary non-descript colour with an elaborate background pattern which was presumably intended to make it difficult to forge. It is printed on one side only.

British WW1 food ration card, 1918

My father's WW1 1918 food ration card

The card appears to have been set up for the immediate purposes of rationing meat, butter and sugar, but there are also spaces for other commodities to be added at a later stage. In the event, it was never used.

Registering with shops for rations in WW1

The card shows that individuals were required to register with a retailer for meat, butter and sugar and that the retailers rubber stamped the registration. Unfortunately the stamps have become too blurred over the years to be legible, but the word Silver can just be made out inside the butcher's stamp. So presumably my grandmother registered my father with a butcher in Silver Street, Edmonton.

How the ration cards were issued

The ration cards seem to have been issued road by road, because my grandparents' address of 3 Warwick Road shows a rubber stamp for the road name, with the number 3 inserted by hand.

The card bears the instructions:

To register for MEAT, BUTTER and SUGAR, fill up the counterfoils A B and C on the lower half of card, and give them to any Retailers you choose. The Retailers must write or stamp their names and addresses on these spaces. You will not be able to change your Retailer again without consent of the Food Office.

The issuing office was 472 Fore Street, Edmonton, issued according to Rationing Order 1918.

Legal requirements for bread

During the World War One, bread had, by UK law, to be sold by weight, not by loaf.

Bread was not rationed, but steps were taken to decrease its consumption. The government issued an order saying bread could not be sold to a customer until at least twelve hours after it was baked. The thinking behind this rationale was that fresh bread was very difficult to cut thinly, and people would therefore consume more if the slices were thick. Furthermore, the appetising taste of fresh-baked bread was more likely to encourage people to eat it 'immoderately'.

Another measure was to replace the ordinary white variety of loaf with a 'national loaf' made from wholemeal grain. We now look upon this as a healthier option, but at the time most people disliked the taste and found its colour unappetising, while many housewives blamed it for a variety of digestion problems.

from information supplied by the
Association of Master Bakers
for 'Charlotte's Beastly War' by James Melik, reproduced with permission

I am uncertain about whether there really was a national loaf in WW1 as there certainly was in WW2. I wonder if the sources were confused.


In order to be sure not to break the law, bakers weighed out or gave away extra little pieces of bread like tiny rolls with the loaves that they sold. According to my mother - see the Bakeries page - these were known as makeweights. Children - who used to go on errands to the bakers - were usually allowed to eat these makeweights on the way home.

Coal rationing

Other records state that coal was rationed towards the end of the war and that it hit people hard because coal was effectively the only form of energy for heating and cooking. I originally wondered if coal rations were not for individuals but for households, and this has since been confirmed - see the box below.

The Times newspaper cutting at the end of this page mentions coupons and ration books which we are most used to hearing about for WW2 rationing. I have never seen a WW1 ration book, but it appears that they were issued for coal.

The UK had plenty of its own coal. So presumably the shortage was due to miners who had been drafted to the fighting front.

"Coal has been in short supply for several months and has been rationed by the number of rooms one has in the house."

from a WW1 letter extracted with permission from
'Charlotte's Beastly War' by James Melik, and reproduced with permission

Household economy and the 1916 pamphlet urging economy

Although there was no rationing until early 1918, a pamphlet issued in 1916 urged civilians to conserve vital materials. Entitled Every Household Must Help to Win the War, it quoted Lord Kitchener as follows:

Either the civilian population must go short of many things to which it is accustomed in times of peace or our armies must go short of munitions and other things indispensable to them.

The pamphlet continued:

Which is it to be? Economy in the Household or shortage in the Navy and Army? If sailors and soldiers are to have all they need, and the War is to be carried to a victorious end, every member of every household must do without comforts, luxuries, and all else that is not essential to health and efficiency. Waste nothing, to save is everything, and to lend to the country all you can is the truest patriotism.

The pamphlet went on to explain how waste could be avoided.

Save Coal. Coal is wanted for the Navy, for the Army and for our Allies. Save Light. Coal is used to make light and to waste light is to waste coal, and thus to make things harder for ourselves and all who depend on us.

extracted with permission from 'Charlotte's Beastly War' by James Melik,
available from Amazon

The end of rationing

The image below shows a cutting from the Times Newspaper, dated May 2nd, 1919 on the end of rationing - which clearly meant coal rationing - but you may prefer to read its transcription:


After tomorrow food coupons will vanish, we trust never to reappear. There are people who would like so to be couponed and controlled forever, but the spirit of the nation is instinctively opposed to all but the most imperative restrictions upon our daily movements and acts. Though the coupons vanish, the ration books will remain in use for some time longer for purchases of sugar, meat, and butter.

The public will not be sorry when registration also disappears. Without it the nation could never have been successfully rationed; but, while it has suited the shopkeepers and the Food Ministry, it has never been popular with purchasers. Far too many retailers adopted an attitude of condescending arrogance which was exasperating and foolish.

It is expected that rationing will entirely cease in July, and the Food Ministry and local food committees be wound up. The one body which appears to regard its approaching eclipse with dismay is the Consumers' Council. The Council did excellent work, but it was inclined to exceed its province. When it asks to be perpetuated, it speaks for no one but itself.

Both the Food Ministry and the nation have every reason to be proud of the success of rationing. From the moment the coupon method was instituted, accompanied by a scientific method of food distribution, discontent vanished and complaints were rare. We believe no country in the world which has resorted to compulsory rationing has equalled the smoothness with which the change was made in liberty-loving England. As a race we are not naturally docile under restraint and fears were expressed that the ration book system might break down. Though experience pointed the way to improvements. on the whole the experiment of placing the country on rations was one of our greatest triumphs in the war. We owe a deep debt of gratitude to the late Lord Rhondda and to Mr Clynes, as well as to the many able men and women associated with them. If the Food Ministry was able to handle its gigantic task so well, it was largely owing to the genius of Mr Hoover and to the sacrifices of the people of the United States and Canada, not in the interests of this country alone. but of many European nations.

newspaper cutting on the end of WW1 rationing in Britain

Newspaper article on the end of WW1 UK rationing

So the end of coal rationing was on May 3rd, 1919.

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