Luxury goods, treats and the black market in 1940s wartime Britain
Although the Second World War and its aftermath was a time of severe rationing and shortages in Britain, various luxury goods were available for those with money and influence who were prepared to break or bend the law.
Very occasionally a few treats were also made legally available to the general public. Mostly, though, luxury items were withdrawn. The advert on the right, for Golden Shred Marmalade is an example.
Treats on ration
Even foods that might today be regarded as staple became treats during the war because of the severity of the rationing. I am sure that I must have enjoyed my one egg per week - two until I was five - but I can't remember.
What I do remember, though, was the treat of 4 oz of sweets per week. Because I was so young, my mother bought mine from the local Maynards, and I was given them every Sunday after Sunday School. For years, they were known in my family as my 'Sunday sweets'.
We also got 2 oz of sugar a week, and I mention this specifically because it was so little that few people used it to sweeten food. (My parents used the artificial sweetener 'Saccharin' in their coffee until the day they died because it had become habit during the war.) Instead sugar was saved up to use with home-grown fruit to make jam - and the jam was a treat!
Goods 'under the counter'
'Under the counter' was a well understood expression in war-time Britain and its aftermath. It meant that the shop really did have certain special goods available, but they were hidden and only offered to customers who could do them a bit of good in return. Only much later did I learn that the obvious teachers' favourites at school, who in my view were no different from the rest of us, had parents who managed shops. As far as I know, my mother was never offered anything from 'under the counter' because she wasn't able to give anything in return.
On one occasion during that late forties when I was sent shopping to our local grocer, father said as I went out the door, "If they say they haven't got any, ask them if they've got any under the counter". That was exactly what I did when told there was none of the item - and they did have it and let me have it. It was condensed milk, I think. The family ever after thought this was hilarious - as well as a comment on grocers commercial ethics.
'Treat' foods from overseas
Very occasionally 'luxury' goods came in from overseas. It saddens me now to think of all those merchant seamen who risked their lives to bring in anything that wasn't an absolute necessity. Their ships were at constant risk of being sunk by German submarines.
When there was a shipment of bananas, word got round and all the women queued up for them. My mother was very eager for me to try them, as I never had, but it was a strange taste to a palate unused to them, and I didn't like them. My classmates all reported the same.
Wartime children's reactions to bananas
I was a small child when my mother managed to bring home a single banana for the family. My elder brother related to me that the occasion was ceremonial as the war really was finally coming to an end. We were each given a small and precious piece. I spat mine out in disgust!
The rarity of bananas
On one occasion my friend and I were given a banana by a serviceman on leave and we wondered what to do with the skin.
We were sitting on his front garden wall at the time and a courting couple went by, strolling up the lane, arm in arm, oblivious to the rest of the World. So we threw the banana skin into the middle of the road in front of them to see what would happen. When they drew close, the man said "Mind the banana skin darling" and they stepped around it and carried on. After some five or six paces, they stopped, exclaimed together "Banana skin?!", retraced their steps and stood staring at it for quite some moments as if it had dropped from the sky. Such was the rarity of bananas in wartime.
My mother didn't give up: she would often tell me how much I would like this or that food when I would eventually be able to try it. One such food was ice-cream. Once she saw a marshmallow type of cake in a wafer cone and bought it for me because it looked like an ice-cream cornet. It was horribly sickly-sweet and I didn't want that either.
Treats at school
Towards the end of the war there were apples and cocoa powder from Canada. They were distributed at school for children to take home.
Two rare treats I remember being given at school were free malt extract and cocoa powder. We were told to bring large jars to school, and my mother, realising there was something scarce being given away, found the biggest jar she had - as did other mothers. One poor lad only had a small jar so I invited him home, where my mother put some more into another jar for him. She then told me to carry it his home, so that he wouldn't have to carry two jars.
I don't believe that my school ever saw any of the apples or cocoa that John Cole and Albert Smith remember. Yet I certainly remember the wonderful toffee-like malt extract. I assume that it came from the local clinic, but it may have come from school.
Luxury goods always seemed to be readily available on the Black Market, ie illegally and at a high price. From time to time my mother was offered them by neighbours who "knew somebody who knew somebody else". The offer was never explicit - because that would have risked being caught at breaking the law. Rather it was hinted at through saying things like, "Of course Mrs Clarke, if you are ever really short, I know someone who can probably do something to help". She never followed any of the offers up. She would never have considered anything illegal, and anyway, money was too short. Black market goods were always excessively expensive.