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World War Two: Meals at home


Fish-based cheap, high protein meals in WW2 UK


There was of course no imported fish. What we had came from our own coastal waters. Fortunately these were not as depleted as they are today.

Why fish was not rationed

Fish was not rationed in the war, but its availability was unpredictable, both in quantity and type.

The fact that a food that was so nutritious was not rationed is an example of one of the WW2 rationing policies: if there was enough of anything to go round in however small quantities, it was rationed so that everyone could have some of it, but if there was not enough to go round, if was 'first come, first served' with the inevitable queues.

Fish and chip shops

Fish from Fish and Chips shops was cheap and reasonably plentiful if you were prepared to buy whatever type happened to be available. There was always a long queue of people waiting for the shop to open. The same may not have been true at long distances from the coast.

Fish and chips from Fish and Chip shops was served in newspaper. So we could either eat it out of doors if the weather was fine or take them home to eat.

Peter Johnson

Herrings and kippers

Herrings were particularly popular. Kippers were popular too and sold ready to eat. Young children frequently assumed that they had been caught swimming in the sea like herrings, even though kippers are actually split, dried and smoked herrings.

Gutting herrings for cooking

I suppose fishmongers would have gutted fish for customers if they had been asked to, but this was not expected and would have delayed the queue. Even as late as the early 1960s, I regularly bought herrings as whole fish and gutted them myself. It was a messy business but I never questioned it. The innards were wrapped in newspaper and put in the dustbin, and the fish itself was dipped in flour and fried. It didn't need milk or egg to make the flour stick. Unfortunately, the frying pan needed a good clean afterwards, and many people kept a separate pan for fish.

Guest contribution

How to gut and prepare a whole herring for cooking

First remove the head and row. To do this, pick up the herring in your left hand as if it were about to swim off. Put it on a chopping board and hold it firmly just behind the head. Then with a sharp knife firmly cut into the head, going through the bone but not quite through the whole fish. Keeping the knife in place, use it to pull the cut pieces away from the fish. The cut pieces include the roe, i.e. the fish eggs which are regarded as a delicacy by some people. If you want to cook it and have it, say, on toast, put it to one side. Roes come in two types, hard and soft, depending on the sex of the fish.

To remove the backbone, split the fish open and lay it flat on the chopping board. It may be tempting to pick off the small bones one by one, but don't. Hold one end of the main backbone and lift and drag it upwards. All the bones will come away easily. Incidentally the same cannot be said for kippers. Tasty as they are, the multiple bones put many people off.

Neil Cryer

Guest contributions

Herrings with mash and onion gravy may sound odd but it was lovely, as was kippers with really new bread, which was our Saturday tea.

Anne Jameson

We seemed to have preserved fish quite often, particularly soused herring and soused mackerel.

John Cole

Fish cakes

Fish cakes of sorts were made by mashing some potatoes, mixing in some boiled fish then forming into scone-size shapes. They were then grilled on both sides.

Peter Johnson


Shellfish was generally sold already cooked.

On Sundays in the years of austerity after the war, a vendor used to come round the streets with a horse and cart, selling shrimps, winkles and cockles. These were often our treat for the week.

Mike Swift

The man who sold cockles, mussels, prawns and winkles always came on a Sunday. Presumably he had a shop during the week. He came round the streets ringing a bell and pushing a hand cart. We had his wares for Sunday tea.

Vera Harding
born Vera Eaton


Our occasional haddock was poached in milk and water and we children used to dip our bread in the juice while father had the fish. (For medical reasons he was not away in the armed forces.)

John Cole

Tinned fish in the austerity of the years after the war

After the war, rationing and shortages were even more severe, but the seas were safe for imports. The result for fish as food was an influx of tinned sardines and pilchards. Whenever my mother had visitors, the meal always seemed to be tinned sardine salad.

Fish in school dinners shortly after WW2

Tinned pilchards were all too common in school dinners in the late 1950s.

Julie Vanstone

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