1939 - 1945

by Brian Pears


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Council Food Notice
Courtesy of Gateshead Council

Britain was very dependent on imported foodstuffs and the government anticipated shortages in a wide range of commodities. The Ministry of Food and its Divisional Offices around the country took immediate steps to coordinate all aspects of food production and distribution. The Northern Divisional Office was at 16 Great North Road, Newcastle when war broke out but was later moved to Milburn House, Dean Street. Each local authority appointed a Food Executive Officer to work under a Food Control Committee consisting of consumer members who were almost exclusively councillors, trade members representing retail businesses, and trade (employee) members representing the unions. Our Food Executive Officer was the Clerk to the Council, John Henry Mulcahy, and two Rowlands Gill men served on the Blaydon Food Control Committee: Councillor Len White and Councillor Henry Swan. Letters confirming the appointments were sent to the committee members on the day war was declared, September 3rd 1939, and the committee met for the first time on September 6th at the Council Chambers, Blaydon.

A National Registration of the whole population was held on September 29th 1939 and heads of households had to provide information such as age, nationality, occupation and marital status of each member of the household, including children. This served many purposes, including the dreaded call-up to the Forces, but any temptation to omit names to avoid this was removed because anyone not registered did not get two of the essentials of wartime life -an Identity Card and a Ration Book, both of which were issued during October.

ID Card

ID Card reverse
Author's Collection

Although planned to begin in November 1939, rationing to customers was delayed because of a newspaper campaign. Instead the retailers were rationed, and this led to a great deal of unfairness in the distribution of certain basic foods. On November 3rd 1939 the General Manager of the Burnopfield Cooperative Society wrote to the Food Executive Officer, Mr Mulcahy, and complained bitterly about the position regarding their supplies of butter and bacon. They were limited to 40% of their average weekly butter supplies during the previous June and July, a period when their purchases were smaller than usual because many of their customers were on holiday. The position was even worse with their bacon supplies because they were limited to 25% of their June/July figures and this resulted in each customer getting less than 2 oz (57 grams) per week. Government statements in the press to the effect that there were adequate supplies of basic foodstuffs also made for strained relationships with their customers. The committee forwarded the complaint to the Divisional Food Office but, unfortunately, their response has not survived.

It was also a period when permits were required for trivial activities. Chopwell Salvation Army wanted to provide refreshments for a function at their premises on South Road on December 2nd 1939. They had to apply to the Food Executive Officer who put the request to his committee. Then he forwarded the endorsed application to the Divisional Food Officer who issued a permit for refreshments "for which bacon, ham or butter is required" to be provided at the appropriate time and place. Mr L. Easter of "Khyber", Taylor Avenue, Rowlands Gill, had to go through the same procedure when he, as Honorary Secretary of the Welfare Centre, wanted to buy 30 lbs (13.6 Kg) of tea from Messrs. Ringtons in ¼ lb (113 gm) packs to give as Christmas gifts to mothers who attended the Centre (presumably the "Welfare Centre" referred to was the Welfare Hall on Strathmore Road).

Ration Book 1
Ration Book 2
Courtesy of Gateshead Council

Rationing proper began on January 8th 1940 but initially only affected sugar, butter, ham and bacon. Each customer had to register with a named retailer for each item; this was done by filling in the appropriate counterfoil from the ration book and handing it to the retailer -the counterfoils determined the quantity that each retailer could buy. Then, to obtain the goods, the customer went to his retailer each week with his ration book and the retailer would mark a numbered square on the card to prevent the ration being claimed twice. If the customer did not claim the ration in a particular week it could not be claimed afterwards. Special arrangements were made early in 1940 for residential institutions -there were two in Blaydon U.D., Normans Riding Hospital and Axwell Park Approved School.

New Ration Books
Courtesy of Gateshead Council

The scope of rationing increased steadily as the war progressed. In March 1940 meat was rationed by price -you could only by 1 shilling's (5p) worth per week- but the restriction did not apply to poultry, game, offal, sausages or meat pies. In July 1940 tea, sweets, cooking fats, jam, margerine, syrup and treacle were added to the list of rationed foods.

In January 1941 strict price controls were put on 21 unrationed foodstuffs to prevent greedy retailers making excessive profits when they managed to get hold of foods in short supply -such as eggs. The shortage of eggs was due to the the reduced imports and to the mass slaughter of of hens to save feeding stuffs. The egg situation was helped a little in June 1941 when the government introduced "controlled distribution", and a year later it improved further when "Dried", or dehydrated, egg, imported from the U.S.A., became available -it was a poor substitute for the real thing, but nonetheless welcome.

Meanwhile, in May 1941, rationing had been extended to include cheese, and a number of other products had been rationed on a "points" system. Each customer had a weekly allocation of points -squares printed in the ration book- which could be used when buying any of the prescribed products -the number of points required for each product varied according to its scarcity. Unlike the squares for bacon and butter etc, which were cancelled by marking with an indelible pencil or rubber stamp, the "points" squares were actually cut out of the ration book by the retailer. Canned meat and some other canned goods were "on points" from November 1941 and dried fruit, rice, tapioca and pulses were added in January 1942. The controlled distribution of milk was introduced in November 1941 -the usual allowance was 2 to 2½ pints per week- and this involved the appointment of local authority Milk Officers. The milk ration was stretched a little in December when "Household Milk", which was dried skimmed milk, went on sale. Dried full-cream milk, or "National Dried Milk", was also available, but only for children under 1 year-old (later 2 years). Gradually the rationing net was extended; condensed milk and breakfast cereals from February 1942, biscuits from August 1942 and oat flakes and rolled oats from December 1942, but some items were never rationed, including potatoes, fish and bread -but the traditional white loaf disappeared from April 6th 1942 to be replaced by the off-white National Wheatmeal Loaf.

The actual quantities of rationed items available each week was varied from time to time but was typically 2 oz of butter, 4 oz of margerine, 2 oz of cooking fat, 8 oz of sugar with extra for jam making, 1 oz of cheese, 2 oz of tea, 4 oz of jam, 1 egg and 4 oz of bacon. Each person also got about 20 or 30 "points" per week - 1 lb of biscuits might require about 8 points while a tin of meat would need at least 20. Pregnant women were given an additional green ration book which entitled them to extra eggs and milk at reduced prices and supplies of orange juice (or cod-liver oil) and Young children too got additional rations and other extras. Food rationing for some commodities did not end until 1954.

The labour involved in writing up ration books -filling in a person's name, address and National Identity Number on the front page- was quite enormous. The job fell to local authorities at a time when their staff numbers were being depleted and when many were engaged on A.R.P. duties. For the initial issue of ration books in 1939 many teachers had given freely of their spare time to help the hard-pressed clerks. During 1940, however, in an effort to reduce the workload, two government ministries, the Board of Education and the Ministry of Food, came to an agreement whereby "scholars of elementary and secondary schools may be asked to help in writing up ration books". This was subject to permission from the relevant Education Committee, and when the Blaydon Food Executive Officer, Mr Mulcahy, wrote to the Director of Education, Mr T.B. Tilley, at Shire Hall, Durham City, requesting this permission, he was probably expecting a simple "yes" or "no" in reply. Instead he received a succession of increasingly ridiculous letters which included requests for clarification of self evident points and what might best be described as puerile sarcasm. It will come as no surprise to learn that no local schoolchildren took part in the preparation of the ration books, but many teachers and headteachers once again assisted in their own time.

Even distributing the completed ration cards -all 28,000 of them in the Blaydon U.D. area- was a major undertaking. Seven distribution points were used -the Council Offices, Hallgarth Hall, and the Warden Posts at Winlaton Mill; Norman Road, Rowlands Gill; Cardiff Square, High Spen; Derwent Street, Chopwell; and Barlow- and the a whole week, ending at noon on the Saturday, was generally allowed. These arrangements did not meet with universal approval; following the distribution of May 18th to 25th 1942, a resolution of the Spen Lodge of the Durham Miners' Association (dated May 26th) was forwarded to the Council by the Secretary of the Lodge, Mr Andy Lawther. It read: "That this Lodge protests against the inadequate facilities provided for High Spen for the distribution of Ration Books etc. We believe the A.R.P. Post was unsuitable for the large amount of work involved, and the area covered too big, resulting in queues forming almost all day".

Miners' Meals
Courtesy of Gateshead Council

"Dig for Victory" became an everyday catch phrase; flowers disappeared from front gardens to be replaced by vegetables, schools cultivated lawns and waste ground, and parks began to resemble markets gardens. Radio programmes and almost every newspaper carried recipes making use of plentiful ingredients. Some had intriguing names such as Beetroot Soup, Carrot Jam, Oatmeal Sausages and Eggless Cake, while others used plants we dismiss as weeds like dandelions and nettles. Other measures included the greatly increased provision of school meals -somewhat rare before the war- and works canteens; in fact large employers were compelled to provide them. Another innovation was the introduction of local-authority controlled restaurants -renamed British Restaurants in January 1942 at the suggestion of the Prime Minister, Winston Churchill- providing cheap meals to supplement the ration. Blaydon Urban District had two such restaurants; the first, opened on June 10th 1941 was at Shibdon Cottage, Blaydon (formerly a farmhouse), and the second, opened February 17th 1942, was in the Concert Rooms and Cloakroom of Chopwell Workmen's Club on Hall Road. Chopwell British Restaurant could accommodate 80 per sitting and 300 persons could be dealt with on a cash and carry basis. In the six months April to September 1942 Chopwell British Restaurant supplied no less than 10,515 dinners at 6d (3p), 7,713 soups at 2d (1p), 7,735 sweets at 2d, 6,702 cups of tea at 1d (1p) and 4,687 cakes at 2d. In addition the restaurant supplied packed meals for colliery employees. The Chopwell Restaurant closed on March 30th 1944, but that at Blaydon continued until October 5th 1946. Gateshead had five British Restaurants -Redheugh Bridge Road; Hawks' Assemblage, Coatsworth Road; Levine's Premises, High Street; Southern Memorial Hall, Low Fell; and Crozier's Premises, Herbert Street.

The less populous parts of the country did not warrant a British Restaurant but some areas did get Cash and Carry Restaurants, sometimes more mundanely termed Food Distribution Centres. In Blaydon Urban District there were four such establishments -Rowlands Gill, Highfield, High Spen and Winlaton. The Rowlands Gill Cash and Carry Restaurant was located in a disused shop at 4 Burnopfield Road (now demolished -it was opposite the present site of the Vale Of Derwent Club) which in much earlier days had been occupied by Joseph Eltringham and later, after the war, was used by a fruiterer, Mr James (Jimmy) Ball. At Highfield the room beneath Highfield Methodist Church (now converted to domestic property) on Highfield Road was used -this room had been built by church members during the 1926 strike; while at High Spen the front part of a disused shop at Stanley House was used. This shop, at the southern end of Front Street at the junction with the "Old Row", had previously been used by a Kitty Donnelly and is now also part of a house. Food for these Cash and Carry Restaurants was prepared at the British Restaurants and transported in Soup Containers supplied by the Ministry of Food or in Insulated Food Units purchased by the Council. The exact opening dates of these premises are not recorded, but it was probably mid-1942; the trustees of Highfield Methodist Church agreed to the use of their hall on February 24th 1942; at the end of March, in answer to a query from Mr J.E. Grant, the Secretary of the Spen Branch of the Communist Party of Great Britain, the Council said they were waiting to hear from the owner of premises at High Spen; and negotiations with Oswald Carter, agent for the owner of 4 Burnopfield Road, took place during April 1942. These Cash and Carry Restaurants were open between the hours of 11.30 a.m. and 1.00 p.m.

Anyone infringing the food regulations was liable to prosecution and possibly a fine or worse, but most allegations did not warrant such drastic steps. Three respected High Spen businessmen fell foul of the food regulations. Two grocers, both with long-established businesses on Ramsey Street, were visited on July 1st 1940 by a lady Enforcement Officer, Mrs Lowery. She noticed that neither were displaying the Ministry of Food Maximum Price List which they were required to do. One said he would obtain the necessary list, but unfortunately the other took exception to what he regarded as unnecessary interference in his business and he lost his temper. He proceeded to give Mrs Lowery a lecture on what he had done in the last war, how he had been in the business since boyhood, how his prices were always correct, and he added that he was not going to take orders from anyone and Mrs Lowery should tell that to the Ministry of Food. Nevertheless he did obtain the Price List and he apologised to Mrs Lowery, so no action was taken.

Rather more serious was a complaint against a butcher, Mr John George Adamson, also of Ramsey Street, High Spen -a man highly regarded both in his business and private life. Someone reported him for throwing away 12 sheep's heads around December 3rd 1941 contrary to the Waste of Food Order 1940. A major investigation followed and it eventually became clear that there was no case to answer although prosecution was certainly considered. Apparently Mr Adamson had received a consignment of 30 sheep's heads on November 26th and placed them in his fridge. On November 29th he found that the 12 remaining heads were unfit for human consumption and he had put them in the bone bag for salvage. Did the Ministry of Food really think that any butcher would throw away food that he could sell? Would they rather he had risked poisoning his customers? It seems that then, as now, intelligence was not a prerequisite for employment in the Civil Service.

In November 1942 a certain gentleman, to use the term in its loosest possible sense, who lived on Strathmore Road, Rowlands Gill, wrote to the Food Executive Officer complaining that Messrs. Figliolini of Chopwell were illegally manufacturing ice cream. It seems that they were indeed making ice-cream as they had for years, but they were doing it openly and were probably unaware of the recent (September 1942) regulations. Fortunately common sense seems to have prevailed on this occasion; Figliolinis stopped making ice cream and no further action was taken. One cannot help thinking that the complaint was made because of nationality rather than any considerations of justice.

One gentleman from Rowlands Gill, who had been working away from the area, faced very serious allegations when, in April 1941, he was found to have two current ration books at the same time. Subsequent investigations revealed that he also faced prosecution elsewhere in the County for Identity Card offences. Without any information on the outcome of the case, or indeed whether proceedings were actually taken against him, nothing more can be said. However, I would imagine that the difficulties encountered by anyone seeking to register for food rations while moving around the country could easily have led to misunderstandings; it was complicated enough even for permanent residents.

Emergency Provisions to ensure that goods, particularly food, would be available after heavy bombing were considered during the early part of 1940. The result was that retailers were encouraged to form Traders' Mutual Aid Pacts. These were arrangements between retailers whereby they would come to each other's aid if premises were damaged by enemy action. Such aid could include lending vehicles and staff to help recover stock from bombed out premises, provision for the storage of recovered goods, temporarily taking over another retailer's customers and allowing the temporary use of a part of the premises -a counter, for example. The large Cooperative Societies with shops in the Blaydon Urban District -the Blaydon, Burnopfield, Leadgate and Annfield Plain Societies- all undertook to aid each other and the smaller retailers in Rowlands Gill, High Spen and Winlaton. Laws Stores, Walter Willsons, Moore's Stores and L & N Stores, who all had one or more stores in the District, also came to an understanding. Other pacts were more localised such as the arrangement between Messrs. Murray and Cumberledge at High Spen and that between Messrs. Curry of Dene Crescent Rowlands Gill and Messrs. Whitfield, who had branches at Highfield, Victoria Garesfield and Dene Road, Rowlands Gill. Other tentative arrangements included the taking over of disused shops and other premises. Butchers in the area went much further than the government circulars suggested; their pact even included the provision of financial help.

Of more immediate assistance to the population after heavy bombing were the Rest and Feeding Centres mentioned elsewhere, but after really heavy attacks even these facilities could break down. To meet this eventuality the Ministry of Food provided a large number of mobile canteens, largely funded by donations fron the U.S.A., which were known as the "Queen's Messengers" or the "Food Flying Squad". A convoy of these mobile canteens would move into a heavily bombed area and provide immediate feeding facilities for survivors and rescue workers alike. A Queen's Messenger Convoy was drafted into Newcastle during the last week of April 1941, immediately after the heavy raid on the night of the 25th when Guildford Place, amongst other areas, was bombed.

Provision was also made to maintain supplies in case of invasion -often referred to as "a certain eventuality" in circulars. The country was divided into Consumer Areas and calculations were made of the quantities of five basic commodities -Tea, Sugar, Canned Meat, Canned Milk and Flour- required for three weeks by the populations of those areas. A suitable storage facility, preferably rural, was then selected and the required quantities of Tea, Sugar, Meat and Milk were placed there. Flour was already stored in large quantities throughout the country and was sufficiently dispersed to enable any area to obtain the necessary supplies at any time. Consumer Area No. 536 comprised the Blaydon and Ryton Urban Districts with populations of 28,979 and 13,607 respectively, and the required amounts were calculated to be 7 tons of tea (in 105 lb chests), 29 tons of sugar (in 2 cwt bags), 58 tons of Canned Meat (in cases holding 72 X 1 lb tins), 50 tons of Canned Milk (in 42 lb tins) and 239 tons of Flour (in 280 lb sacks). The storage facility was a room at the Hookergate Branch of the Burnopfield Cooperative Society, and here the 144 tons of Tea, Sugar, Meat and Milk were deposited in great secrecy and there they remained under the careful eye of the Grocery Manager who acted as the "Warehouse Manager". The "usual" warehousing rates for handling and rent were paid by the Ministry of Food. Similar emergency food supplies exist to this day, but the storage facilities, known as Buffer Depots, are on a much larger scale and the supplies are not static as they were during the war; instead food from the manufacturers goes into the Buffer Depots while food from the Buffer Depots goes into the shops. The only Buffer Depot in this region is believed to be Depot 322 at Wooler operated on the government's behalf by the Newcastle Warehousing Company, but this information may be out of date.

Commodities other than food were also rationed. The first was petrol which was rationed from midnight on September 22nd 1939, the quantity allowed was further cut at a later date and finally, on March 13th 1942, the supply of petrol for the private motorist was withdrawn completely. From then until the end of the war only those who needed a car for their jobs, such as doctors, or who used their vehicles for Civil Defence purposes, could get any petrol at all -the basic ration was restored in June 1945 but petrol rationing did not finally end until 1950. Coal was rationed from July 4th 1941 and soap from February 9th 1942 -but, after many complaints, miners were exempted from the latter restriction.

After food rationing, however, the most annoying restrictions, particularly to the women, were those relating to clothing. Rationing of new, but not second-hand, clothing was introduced on June 1st 1941; a points system was used with separate ration books. Other restrictions limited the number of pockets in a jacket to three, forbade turn-ups in trousers and the use of zips or buttons of metal or leather, and stated that trouser bottoms should not be more than 19 inches wide! Further restrictions were introduced on June 1st 1942 which banned embroidery, applique and lace work on women's and girls' underwear, limited skirts to three buttons, six seams, two box pleats and one pocket, and also banned double-breasted suits and pockets on pyjamas. Clothing conforming to the wartime restrictions was known as "Utility" clothing. From February 1st 1944 suits with pockets and turn-ups were allowed again and the restrictions on pleats and buttons on skirts were removed but some degree of clothes rationing continued until 1949.

Order for Utility Furniture
Author's Collection

Furniture was also subject to wartime restrictions. From August 31st 1942, all that was available was "Utility" furniture which covered 22 basic items each of which was available in three designs and 2 qualities. A permit was also required to buy furniture and these were only issued if a need could be shown such as setting up home for the first time or replacing bomb-damaged items. Do-it-yourself enthusiasts could always make their own, of course, providing they could find second-hand timber -no new timber had been allowed for domestic use since July 1940. Many items of "Utility" furniture still survive; not the latest in fashion, perhaps, but, in most cases, it remains as functional as the day it was made. I suspect that very little of today's furniture will be around in fifty years. The "Utility" idea -a limited range of functional items- was extended to include crockery (white only), pencils, sports' gear and jewellery -there was even a "Utility" wedding ring costing 30s9d (£1.54).

Weddings could be quite a problem. No extra clothing rations were available so wedding dresses were invariably borrowed or hired; nobody would waste coupons on a dress they were going to wear once. A permit could be obtained for a little extra food for the wedding reception but a little imagination was still needed to make much of the available supplies. It had been illegal to ice cakes since 1940, but you could cover them in chocolate -if you could find any. Some people made a plain cake and covered it with a white box decorated to look like an iced cake. There was no confetti, it was illegal to make it, and woe betide anyone who threw rice, that was contrary to the Waste of Food Order 1940. Here the solution was much better than the traditional practice; they threw flower petals. No doubt those responsible for cleaning the neighbourhoods of churches and Register Offices would welcome the idea. Wedding photographs were also a problem because photographic materials were almost unobtainable -some people had them taken long after the event. My own parents, married in 1941, did manage to have a few snaps taken at the time but they were on paper film which gave a somewhat unsatisfactory result. Last, but certainly not least, was the problem of getting both parties to the church -especially if one or both were in the Forces.

As well as rationed articles, there were many items which were very difficult to obtain -cigarettes, elastic, hairclips, paper, razor blades, toilet rolls, toothbrushes and torches to name but a few. Radios, or rather wirelesses as they were generally called, were also virtually unobtainable. Everything was standardised as production was concentrated in very few factories and branded goods, especially foods, all but disappeared from the shelves. Other things disappeared too; metal railings began to vanish from August 1940 to be melted down to make tanks and ships -the little stubs of long gone railings can still be seen on many park, church and garden walls- and countless aluminium pans were voluntarily donated to assist in aircraft production, though many later regretted having done so when they could not buy a pan of any sort for any price.

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