London History Bulletin – January 8

Wartime food rationing began on January 8th, 1940. This London History Bulletin tells the tale.


London calling.

London Walks connecting.

London Walks here with your daily London fix.

Story time. History time.

It was all over the newspapers. The main story and a concatenation of related ones.

What was it like for Londoners? And for their compatriots the length and breadth of the country? Did they read those stories with a sinking sensation? Were worried looks exchanged? Nods? Were they thinking, ‘where’s it going to end?’ Or did they shrug and put a brave face on it?

Probably all of those reactions.

All right, you’ve waited long enough. It’s January 8th, 1940. The first day of wartime rationing of food.

All right, everybody knows there was food and clothing rationing in World War II – and a good few years after the war ended. Let’s turn this into a learning opportunity. Let’s open up the box labelled Rationing. See what’s in there.

This first wave of wartime food rationing was of butter, sugar, uncooked bacon or ham and cooked bacon or ham.

The weekly per person allowances were four ounces of butter. Twelve ounces of sugar. Four ounces of uncooked bacon or ham. And 3 and a half ounces of cooked bacon or ham. In Macdonalds terms, that’d be less than one quarter-pounder a week. Per person.

In catering establishments – which ranged from hotels to coffee stalls to works canteens – customers were allowed 1/6th ounce of butter and 1/7th ounce of sugar per person. It wasn’t much – but those allowances were coupon-free. What did a patter of butter weighing in at one-sixth of an ounce amount to? That’d be a piece of butter about the size of three pennies on top of each other. Ok, old pennies. But still. And the sugar ration for catering establishments – one-seventh of an ounce of sugar came to about two lumps of sugar for each hot drink served. 

Regimentation was the order of the day. Everybody was signed up at a local registered retailer. You took your ration book to your registered retailer. He removed the requisite coupons and returned your book to you. You handed over your money, got your ration of that week’s butter, sugar and ham and bacon and resignedly, I should think, made your way home. Probably thinking potatoes and bread, yes, but no Sunday roast, that’s for sure. And mostly unsweetened tea.

What it instantly brings to mind is why the Yanks were so popular when they started to pitch up three years down the road. They had chocolates for the kids. And the girls. And even nylons. Until the Yanks arrived British girls were drawing a fake seam up the back of calves, to make it look like they were wearing nylons. 

Anything else? Yes, the front page rationing story was that the King and Queen and other members of the Royal family were issued with traveling ration cards. The North Kensington food control office dealt with the royal cards when the royal family was at Buckingham Place. The torch was passed to the food control offices in Windsor and Sandringham when the royals were in Windsor Castle and Sandringham respectively. The newspaper story said, “the rationing for the Royal family will, at the King’s request, be as strict as possible.”

The Queen was said to have drawn up special menus which eliminated two courses from luncheon and dinner.

But as for their fellow Britons, well looking back at the food rationing story that applied to them, I noticed that just beneath it there was a huge ad for Ovaltine, which was headlined: The Best Answer to the Food Question. Now more than ever you need the Supreme Quality of Ovaltine. And then in the body of the ad, Food rationing need not prevent your family enjoying a completely nourishing diet. 

And further down, “Remember, too, that Ovaltine possesses definite nerve-restoring properties which are so necessary in these nerve-wearing days.”

Now who’s for a good cup of tea and a very buttery slice of toast?

You’ve been listening to the London History Bulletin for January 8th. 

Emanating from – home of London Walks, London’s signature walking tour company. London’s local, time-honoured, fiercely independent, family-owned, just-the-right-size walking tour company. And as long as we’re at it, London’s multi-award-winning walking tour company. Indeed, London’s only award-winning walking tour company.

And here’s the secret: London Walks is essentially run as a guides’ cooperative. 

That’s the key to everything. It’s the reason we’re able to attract and keep the best guides in London. You can get schlubbers to do this for £20 a walk. But you cannot get world-class guides – let alone accomplished professionals.

It’s not rocket science: you get what you pay for. And just as surely, you also get what you don’t pay for. 

Back in 1968 when we got started we quickly came to a fork in the road. We had to answer a searching question: Do we want to make the most money? Or do we want to be the best walking tour company in the world? You want to make the most money you go the schlubbers route. You want to be the best walking tour company in the world you do whatever you have to do to attract and keep the best guides in London – you want them guiding for you, not for somebody else. Bears repeating: the way we’re structured – a guides’ cooperative – is the key to the whole thing. It’s the reason for all those awards, it’s the reason people who know go with London Walks, it’s the reason we’ve got a big following, a lively, loyal, discerning following – quality attracts quality.

It’s the reason we’re able – uniquely – to front our walks with accomplished, in many cases distinguished professionals: barristers, doctors, geologists, museum curators, archaeologists, historians, criminal defence lawyers, Royal Shakespeare Company actors, a bevy of MVPs, Oscar winners (people who’ve won the Guide of the Year Award)… well, you get the idea. As that travel writer famously put it, “if this were a golf tournament, every name on the Leader Board would be a London Walks guide.”

And as we put it: London Walks Guides make the new familiar and the familiar new.

And on that agreeable note…come then, let us go forward together on some great London Walks. See ya tomorrow.

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