During the Second World War years there was a critical need for Britain to find ways to be self-sufficient in terms of food. With enemy blockades around our shores many of the goods that were usually imported were unable to reach us. By January 1941 the usual food supply coming from overseas had fallen by half. The Lend Lease system helped, with food arriving from the US and Canada. Nevertheless it was still necessary to introduce food rationing. Advice centres were set up throughout the country showing people how to make the best of the little that was available. With the scarcity of imported wheat, bread became more of a luxury, with ‘Potato Pete’ encouraging people to eat more potatoes, a foodstuff that could be locally grown.
Home-grown carrots were also in plentiful supply, leading the Ministry of Agriculture to suggest people could enjoy the healthy carrot in different ways in the form of curried carrot, carrot jam and a homemade drink called Carrolade (made up from the juices of carrots and swede!).
Families were asked to ‘Dig for Victory’ – with thousands answering the call to dig up their back garden and plant vegetables in place of flowers. And then there was the Land Army. By autumn 1941 more than 20,000 women had volunteered to serve in the Women’s Land Army, with many coming from life in a city that meant they were totally unprepared for the physical demands of farming. But they rose to the challenge in a spectacular way, involving themselves in agriculture or dairy farming. A further 6,000 joined the Women’s Timber Corps felling the trees that were urgently needed for pit props and telegraph poles.
Whole swathes of land were turned over to agriculture. In East Anglia thousands of acres of fenland were drained to create the farmland that we can still see today.
But what of food production once the war had ended? The Women’s Land Army weren’t disbanded until 1949 – as it took until then before soldiers returning from the war were able to take up farming work once more in sufficient numbers. Food shortages continued and further rationing was introduced. From July 1946 bread was rationed and animal products, such as cheese, bacon, ham, meat and fats, as well as sugar, all remained scarce. It wasn’t until the middle of 1954 that rationing finally came to an end. The black market thrived. One returning serviceman commented:
“I doubt if a single Englishman did not available himself of the help of the ‘black market’. Expedience was the name of the game.”‘Austerity Britain’ by David Kynaston
In 1947 a new Agriculture Act introduced a system of guaranteed prices for farmers and assured markets for most of their produce, as well as grants for modernisation. There was a determination on behalf of the government that Britain needed to do all it could to feed its population and reduce imports.
Consumers were the winners, now able to take advantage of cheap food as the government subsidies saw a significant increase in farm productivity. By 1950 output reached 146 per cent of the pre-war level.
Farm labourers, on the other hand, fared less well. They were poorly paid and worked long hours. The land suffered too. With the increase in production the landscape, the wildlife and the quality of the soil would all suffer. And the implications continue today…