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Defending the East End

Air raid shelters
Air Raid Precautions staff and the Emergency Services
Auxiliary Fire Service and Rescue Teams
The blackout, barrage balloons and gun batteries
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A time of shortage

Surrender of U-111 to the trawler Lady Shirley
View full size imageSurrender of U-111 to the trawler Lady Shirley, 4 October 1941. © NMM
Londoners were forced to endure food rationing during the war, along with the rest of the country. Every man, woman and child was given a ration book at the beginning of 1940.

At that time food supplies began to be affected by the Battle of the Atlantic and the disruption caused to merchant shipping by U-boats.

Without rationing, the price of food would have gone up. Only the wealthy would have been able to afford to eat properly.

Ration books

Ration book and clothing book.
View full size imageRation book and clothing book. © NMM
The Ministry of Food was responsible for the supply and distribution of food. They made sure that everyone received their fair share at a price that all could afford.

This was done alongside a nationwide propaganda campaign that encouraged housewives to make the best of what little food they could get.

Shoppers had to register with one particular trader who would collect coupons from their ration book in return for certain products.

Shopping often involved long periods of queuing. A typical food ration book is shown here next to a clothing book. Clothes were also rationed because the armed forces had prority use of cloth.

Endless queues

One Deptford housewife recalled:

Quotation marks left
Every time you went for your rations you could be up to two or three hours in a queue, and people talked.

They would relay their experiences of a raid, or talk about food, and different things you

Quotation marks right
could do with making the rations stretch.

Ration queue on Walworth Road.
View full size imageRation queue on Walworth Road, July 1946. © NMM
Audio File A Deptford housewife
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The ration books themselves took some of the stress out of queuing since everyone knew that they would receive their fair share, however long the wait.

What was rationed?

There were several main forms of food rationing:

  • rationing of certain basic foods, e.g. sugar, meat, fats, bacon, tea and cheese
  • points rationing for tinned goods, dried fruit, cereals and pulses, syrup and treacle
  • group rationing, where the total amount could be taken in one of several products, such as jam and other preserves.

The distribution of a number of important foods like milk, dried milk, eggs, dried eggs and oranges were controlled. This made sure that babies, expectant mothers and the sick received priority allowances.

Dig for Victory

Greenwich Park allotments during the war.
View full size image Allotments in Greenwich Park during the Second World War. © NMM
The government encouraged people to grow their own food to supplement their rations. The 'Dig for Victory' campaign, which started in October 1939, was one of the most famous of the war.

The campaign encouraged people to use every spare piece of land, including parks and gardens, to grow vegetables. In Bermondsey over 75% of open space was turned over to vegetable production.

This photograph shows the allotments that were dug in Greenwich Park during the war.

Civil Defence and Food Office staff preparing food for Civil Defence personnel.
View full size imageCivil Defence and Food Office staff preparing food for Civil Defence personnel, 1939-45. © NMM

Healthier lifestyles

Although people grumbled about rationing, it brought improvements for many Londoners, especially the East End poor.

Many people were better fed during the war than in the 1930s. They ate less fat and more vegetables.

Standards of health improved and, thanks to government campaigns, people became aware of what was needed to maintain a balanced diet and keep 'fighting fit'.



Find out more
StoriesDocklands and the Blitz
London in the firing line
StoriesThe 20th-century port
The changing fortunes of Docklands and the port
GalleriesGrowing up in the Blitz
Children in London during the second world war.
Fact fileWinston Churchill
Wartime Prime Minister
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National Maritime Museum/Royal Observatory GreenwichNew Opportunities Fund 
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