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During the next few days, as you elbow your way down the aisles at your local supermarket only to find that they’ve sold out of the Heston-this or Delia-that, or organic hand-reared hand-plucked pheasant, that you wanted, spare a thought for your predecessors in the 1940s and early 1950s, who had to celebrate Christmas under rationing and didn’t know until the Government told them what they were going to eat.

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A 1950s Christmas. Source: bagsandabun.com

Food rationing started in Britain in 1940, just as the war was getting underway, and Christmas Bonuses were a feature of it throughout. Bonuses were set annually at meetings of the whole Cabinet, generally in November. These continued right up until Christmas 1953, just a few months before rationing ended. Ministers agreed, down to the individual ounce, how much of particular foodstuffs (sugar, fat, tea and bacon) citizens were allowed to buy, above basic rations, and then imposed these stipulations on shopkeepers up and down the country. (If you thought centralised planning was just a feature of peacetime in Communist countries, think again.)

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A ration book from 1950. Source: St Albans Museum

Ministers reached the detailed decisions on Christmas shopping using information about which foods were in surplus across the nation and which were in short supply. They took into account the potential impact of purchasing food from abroad, too, weighing up the pros and cons of spending precious foreign currency to buy more Christmas fare for Britain, and also, as in the example below, considering the merits of breaching trade sanctions.

Each year, no matter what the Government did, tough choices had to be made and, as the surviving documentation shows, it was not just macroeconomics and international politics that held sway. Ministers of all political colours worried constantly about the impact of rationing on the national mood. If this was the case in general, it was particularly true at Christmas when the restrictions appeared most Scrooge-like. Above all, politicians regretted the effect of Christmas rationing on Britain’s housewives. It was housewives who had to turn the meagre rations into delicious festive dinners after all and this was no easy task. Incumbent political parties worried that these women might take revenge on them when next they went to the ballot box.

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Some things were in plentiful supply, if you could afford them. Source: woolworthsmuseum.co.uk

As you read the memorandum below, sent by the Minister of Food, Maurice Webb, to the rest of the Cabinet in November 1950, imagine what you would have made with your Christmas Bonus that year – and imagine too what you would not have been able to make. Especially striking, I think, is the fact that the extra sugar for Christmas could only be released by removing a sugar bonus in January, which was generally thought to be vital for making marmalade with leftover Christmas fruit. Note too how the Minister intended to make his ‘usual Order prohibiting the service of turkey in restaurants more than once during Christmas week’.

Not everything in life gets better, but some things do.

SECRET

CHRISTMAS BONUSES

Memorandum by the Minister of Food

6 November, 1950

1. At this time of the year it is customary for me to announce what bonuses of rationed foods can be given for Christmas. I have reviewed the position and propose to announce the following Christmas additions to the rations:-

Sugar – 1.5lbs

Sweets – 6ozs

Cooking fats – 4ozs

Tea – 4ozs for people over 70 years old

Bacon – 2ozs*

*provided supplies arrive as expected from Canada.

2. As far as Christmas fare other than rationed foods is concerned, the quantity of fruit (apples, tangerines and oranges) should satisfy demand, and mince-meat, crystallised fruit, dried fruit, nuts and Christmas puddings, will be at least as plentiful as last year. In view of the general sugar supply position, I do not propose to repeat the special issue of sugar which was made available last year to manufacturers of table jellies, candied peel, cakes and biscuits, but nevertheless I expect the supplies of these commodities available for Christmas to be at least as good as last year.

3. I cannot pretend that the Christmas bonuses I propose are as ample as I would have liked. They are, however, as much as I can safely recommend. And there will, of course, be greater variety of other foods generally available this Christmas than in previous years.

4. I think my colleagues may find the following observations on different commodities useful. Sugar is perhaps the commodity of greatest importance at present to the housewife. Last Christmas there was serious criticism of the absence of a sugar bonus, and this was not appeased by the announcement immediately afterwards that a 1lb bonus would be available in January. This year I can make 0.5lb bonus of sugar from savings secured by special reductions in the allocations of certain manufacturers, and in addition I propose to bring forward the 1lb bonus which would normally be given in January for marmalade. Of the total bonus of 1.5lbs of sugar, 0.5lbs will be in the form of Demerara to maintain a proper balance in our stocks. […]

7. I would have liked to have given a meat bonus, but unfortunately the cessation of supplies from the Argentine rules this out.

8. I am equally disappointed at not being able to recommend a bonus of tea for everybody. I have considered whether I could give a general tea bonus of only 2ozs. Apart from the stock position, there is a serious drawback to a 2ozs distribution, namely that tea is distributed in 0.25lb packets, which means that to serve a single consumer, or any family group consisting of an odd number of persons, the retailer has to split the packet. The weighing and packaging difficulties involved would be a heavy burden on the retail trade, particularly around Christmas time. […]

11. The supply of poultry for Christmas gives rise to a problem of which my colleagues should be aware. Unfavourable weather has reduced the number of home-grown turkeys and there is an embargo this year on imports from Hungary. Mainly for these reasons, it is estimated that the total supply at Christmas will be about 11,000 tons, as against 13,600 tons last year. Other types of poultry are likely to be, if anything, rather more plentiful than last year; but prices for the supplies which have so far reached the market are running very high and although there is some hope that they will fall when larger quantities come forward this is causing me some anxiety.

12. Removal of price control from poultry and restoration of private trade took effect on 1st July last and I have naturally considered whether in present circumstances price control should be imposed again. But if I were now to set a maximum price well below the current level of the market it is likely that the supplies already in this country would disappear from normal channels of retail trade and there would also be cancellation of overseas orders not yet delivered and diversion to other markets. […]

13. The only source from which substantial additional supplies of turkeys might be obtained is Canada [but] it is doubtful whether enough Canadian turkeys could be brought here in time to take effect on the market and to allow me to re-impose price control at a reasonable level before the general public begins to buy. I have therefore reached the conclusion that in the face of this uncertainty about the effectiveness of such a purchase in bringing down prices I should not be justified in incurring expenditure of about 1.5 million dollars.

14. I shall, of course, make the usual Order prohibiting the service of turkey in restaurants more than once during Christmas week. Apart from this, I think it will be best to rely upon the force of competition when larger supplies come into the market (supplies from Ireland are being held back at present and should have a marked effect) and on consumer resistance to high prices. Last year there was a marked resistance even at much lower prices and the market broke a day or two before Christmas. […] I propose a little later on to make it clear to the public that this is my hope and that the prices now ruling are unreasonably high.

15. I would like my colleagues’ approval to the proposals outlined above for the Christmas bonuses.

M. W.

Ministry of Food, SW1.

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