Today (February 1) in London History – the Dark Side of the London Moon

The day clothing rationing (pretty much) ended.


Just goes to show, you can’t trust everything you read.

There I was, casting about for a dark horse to feature on the February 1st Today in London History podcast. By dark horse I mean Something out of leftfield, something people hadn’t heard of, wouldn’t have thought of.  As opposed to going with the achingly obvious candidates – the ones that are in the Today in History books and on the Today in History websites. You know, the usual suspects: for example, the opening of The Shard to visits by the public. That happened on February 1st, 2013. Or the TV-AM launch – that was on February 1st, 1983. Or the king’s head being sewn back on – that bit of needlework took place on February 1st, 1649. Or Mary Shelley, the author of Frankenstein, dying, of a brain tumour, at her home at 24 Chester Square in London on February 1st, 1851.

No, I wanted something fresh, something different, something that would maybe catch you out – something that hadn’t occurred to you. 

And as luck would have it, I came across a Times newspaper story that said February 1st, 1949 was the day clothing rationing ended in this country. Eureka. That’s it. I’ve got it, I said.

But sod’s law – you can’t trust everything you read. I did a bit more digging and unearthed a Daily Telegraph story headlined All Clothes Off Ration Today. And the date? No, it wasn’t February 1st – it was March 15th.

So, was the Times telling porkies? Not really, On February 1st clothing rationing was dramatically liberalised – not done away with completely but almost there. So on the strength of that I decided to stay with the February 1st date. It will have felt like a day of liberation to Britons – maybe a bit like being told all Covid Lockdown restrictions were off except for the use of Changing Rooms in Clothing stores. 

There’s a lot to like about the clothing rationing tale. For starters, it’s not well known generally, let alone its specific dates. Everyone knows there was food rationing in World War II. That clothes were also rationed – that’s much more of a dark side of the moon story.

Clothing rationing was clamped on on June 1st, 1941. So nearly a decade Britons had to put up with it. And a pretty grim affair it was. And what I think is especially shocking about it is the rationing was even stricter after the war was over than it had been during the war. Why was that? Because the war was over. The Yanks went home. And they turned off the tap. American aid to this country was stopped. Result: even more belt-tightening for the Brits. How depressing that must have been. The war was over. They’d won the war. And the fruits of victory – even stricter rationing than they’d had to endure then when the war was being fought. The war ended in the summer of 1945. Three and a half years later there was still food rationing. And clothing rationing. And sweets rationing. That red-letter day for British kids didn’t turn up until April 24th. That’s almost ten years – a whole childhood – a generation of British kids didn’t see much in the way of sweets.

Those three and a half years after the glorious victory must have been such a hard slog, so depressing.

You get an idea of how grim it was when you get right in close and look at the particulars of the rationing. When it was clamped on in 1941 people were allowed 66 coupons a year. What would that get you – assuming you had the money to pay for the garments? Let’s look at what women could use their annual 66 coupons on. You wanted a new coat, you had to part with 14 of your precious coupons. A jacket – for spring or autumn – 11 coupons. A pair of shoes, 5 coupons. A pair of knickers, 3 coupons. That’s 33 coupons, that’s half your yearly total. A dress, 11 coupons. A blouse, 5 coupons. A skirt, 7 coupons. A pair of stockings, 2 coupons. A pair of gloves, 2 coupons. A nightie, 6 coupons. And that’s your other 33 coupons. Makes 66. That’s your yearly allowance used up. You want a scarf or a brassiere you’re going to have to wait for next year. One blouse, one pair of stockings, one pair of knickers, one skirt, etc. for a whole year. What fun, huh. Good luck keeping your spirits up, keeping your upper lip stiff. The Telegraph interviewed a woman who worked at the Kensal Road public wash baths. Pointing to a basket of freshly laundered clothing she said, “I dare not use a brush on them. In 34 years of married life, I have never had such difficulty in holding a few threads together.”

Finally, was everything rationed? Not quite. You didn’t have to use any of your precious coupons to buy shoelaces. Or sewing thread. Or sanitary towels. Or – this is the one I found the most interesting – hats and caps.

Having a cap or a hat – no matter what your station in life was – was a mark of respectability. You didn’t feel good about yourself if you had to go bareheaded. Look at old photographs of football crowds. They’re all topped to the north – with either a flat cap or a hat. That doesn’t change until the 1960s. Something on the other side of the Atlantic. A handsome young American president, John F. Kennedy, goes hatless at his inauguration. And just like that, something that had seemed eternal, one of the verities of existence, was suddenly gone with the wind.

And on that night, good night from London. Lots to look forward to tomorrow. Including, no rationing of clothing.  You can go out and get that scarf – you’re not going to have to wait until 1950. 

2 responses to “Today (February 1) in London History – the Dark Side of the London Moon”

  1. Carol says:

    Do you know of a book called “dark side of the moon” a story about Poland and Russia during the Second World War ? There was a reference in the book “our hidden lives” by Simon Garfield. Diaries of post war Britain. Thanks.

  2. David Tucker says:

    No, I didn’t know it, Carol. So I’m very pleased you flagged it up. Simon Garfield’s stuff is good so I’ll get it. Many thanks.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *