Before the Second World War started Britain imported about 55 million tons of food a year from other countries. Understandably, the German government did what they could to disrupt this trade. One of the main methods used by the Germans was to get their battleships and submarines to hunt down and sink British merchant vessels. With imports of food declining, the British government decided to introduce a system of rationing. This involved every householder registering with their local shops. The shopkeeper was then provided with enough food for his or her registered customers.
In January, 1940, bacon, butter and sugar were rationed. This was followed by meat, fish, tea, jam, biscuits, breakfast cereals, cheese, eggs, milk and canned fruit. The food rationing system gave people the opportunity to obtain a balanced diet and as a result the health of the nation improved during this period.
Other goods such as cigarettes and alcohol were never officially rationed, but were often in short supply. Some shopkeepers kept their limited stocks for their favourite customers. This created a great deal of bad feeling and it was not uncommon for shopkeepers to be reported to the Ministry of Food.
The trade in goods in violation of the official regulations became known as the black market. A secret staff at the Ministry of Food investigated attempts by people to deal with black marketeers. Parliament passed legislation which enabled the courts to impose fines of up to £500, with or without two years' imprisonment, plus three times the total capital involved in the transaction. Eventually around 900 inspectors were employed to make sure that the the statutory orders of the Ministry Food were obeyed by customers, retailers and wholesalers. Investigators discovered that farmers and smallholders were the main source of producing food for the black market.
The Labour Party MP Joseph Clynes described the black market as "treason of the very worse kind" and others in the House of Commons called for the government to introduce new punishments for this offence. As well as "long terms of penal servitude" one called for the use of the cat-o'-nine-tails on the offenders.
(1) John Howell was the son of a shopkeeper living in a Welsh mining community. After the war he wrote about how his father worked closely with local farmers in the black market.
I remember the black market during the war very vividly. You used to be able to kill one pig, and you would have your rations deducted accordingly, but people always used to kill two and hide one. The local butcher would come and kill the pig, and the food inspector would come to check up on how many you'd killed. We used to hide one side of bacon under the shop window, all wrapped in muslin; there was a false floor there. It was the best bacon I've ever tasted.
(2) East Grinstead Observer (16th September, 1944)
Dr. Frederick Ridley of Mudbrooks Farm, Forest Row, was found guilty of adding water to milk for sale. Dr. Ridley was fined £15 and £3 3s. costs. There was a further milk prosecution when Matthew Madge of Brockhurst Home Farm, East Grinstead, was summoned for selling milk to which water had been added.
(3) East Grinstead Observer (28th August, 1943)
A well-known East Grinstead resident, Bernard Richardson, of Half-Way House, North End, and proprietor of the Elite Cafe, London Road, has been fined £5 with £10 guineas costs, for supplying false figures to the Ministry of Food and gaining more food points than he was entitled to. William Harry Leppard of 47 Cantelupe Road, East Grinstead, said he was employed from February 1st to 6th by Mr. Greatorex, the East Grinstead Food Control Officer, to keep watch on the Elite Cafe and enter in a book the number of customers. On February 1st there were 153, 2nd there were 161, 3rd there were 157, 4th there were 155, 5th there were 141 and on the 6th there were 126. Miss Molly Fry of the East Grinstead Food Office estimated that the defendant was only entitled to 828 points, whereas on the number of meals he is purported to have served the Food Office issued him with 2,150 points. The magistrate, Louisa Martindale, fined Bernard Richardson £5 with £10 guineas costs.
There was one well-known London butcher who required a tip of two shillings and sixpence for supplying his customers with black-market meat, and did an excellent trade. On one occasion I remember standing in the queue outside his shop, a half-crown ready in my hand; in front of me was a woman with a small boy who demanded, 'Mummy, why do you have to pay extra when you buy meat from this shop?' We both laughed, and she remarked ruefully, 'I wonder how we are going to bring our children up to be honest after the war when we behave like this.' Two and six was a lot of money in those days, and Henry, our obliging butcher, was able to start up a shop of his own after the war on his black-market proceeds.
(5) Ethel Robinson lived in Liverpool during the Second World War. She wrote about her war experiences in Jonathan Croall's book, Don't You Know There's A War On (1989)
There was quite a lot of black market going on - in eggs, butter, meat, bacon, and that sort of thing - for those that could afford it. I don't blame them, if they had the money. Of course the rationing was a bit of a bug really, but on reflection it was good for us. They do say it was a very healthy time. I used to cook a lot of my own stuff. You only got meat once a week, and I used to use a lot of dried egg and spam, a lot of stuff that came over from America, and was horrible. We used to have a lot of chips, but then potatoes were rationed, so you couldn't have a lot of that. But we didn't starve, and we used to improvise a lot, making pies and things, much more than you do now.
(6) Angus Calder, The People's War (1969)
In the spring of 1941, the chairman of the North Midland Region Food Price Investigation Committee, Sir Douglas McCraith, announced that cans of soup, sold by manufacturers at six shillings and sixpence a dozen, were reaching the public at fourteen shillings and sixpence a dozen, having passed through the hands of six middlemen, one of whom had bought the goods twice. "Speculation is rampant; goods are changing ownership many times like stocks and shares without even leaving the warehouse." The trivial fines imposed by some magistrates for proven cases of profiteering were, he added, a matter for ridicule. Other notable abuses included the canning by smart operators of dried beans, prunes and peas, for sale at large profits; and the peddling of worthless 'substitutes' for common foods now rare. Mixtures of flour, salt and baking powder were sold as 'milk substitutes' at five shillings a pound; 'onion substitutes' might be no more than 'water and a smell'. The existence of a 'black market' was little disputed. Mass Observation found, indeed, that a surprising number of people were willing to admit quite freely that they had bought scarce goods through it.