From early July 1939, Frank and I would walk to his school in south Tottenham. We did this every week-day throughout the summer holidays waiting for the evacuation. Every day, we would assemble with all the other children, until the headmaster would announce that this day was not the day.
It being the summer holidays, no schooling was done and the children would spend a hour or so in groups, playing or talking. On such an occasion, I was shown a saccharin tablet and a tiny piece was broken off for each of us to taste. I thought it was awful and have never taken saccharin since.
Without notice, on Friday September 1st, we were marched down to the railway station, at Tottenham Hale, where we boarded a train which took us north into unknown territory.
The train stopped at Ely where we were prevented from leaving the train. Ladies came along the train bearing buckets of ice-cold water and ladles from which they doled out a ration of water into enamel mugs.
We arrived in Mildenhall around lunchtime, but all we had to eat was in a carrier bag which had been issued to us when we left Tottenham. In it were bars of chocolate and boiled sweets and a packet of Smith’s crisps. There were also some canned vegetables and corned beef.
It would take us until the early hours of the morning to find a bed for the night, but that’s another long story.
It would be two months before we were finally settled in a “billet”.
For over four months, there was no rationing. We were living with local people and our “billet” had a family comprising a farm worker husband, an ex school-teacher wife and a son about the same age as me.
I do not know what sort of farm the husband worked at, but there was no sign of product from the farm reaching our table.
Every Saturday, we would have brawn for lunch. I had never had brawn before and did not know where it came from, but due to my up-bringing, I ate it and enjoyed it with the exception that there was not enough of it.
The rest of the meals provided by our landlady Mrs. Mortlock, were nourishing, but of small portions. We had a variety of meats with “two veg”, but soon after eating our meals, we were hungry again.
Years later, I took the trouble to find the recipe for brawn and, having read it, I decided that any brawn I wanted, I would buy from a delicatessen. Brawn has been a favourite since medieval times when it was served traditionally at Christmas. The original recipes would have included wine and ale in the ingredients. The original meat was that of wild boar which must have been wonderful.
Here is the recipe
Half a pig’s head and two pig’s trotters, which have been in brine for 24 hours. 1 sliced onion, 1 sliced carrot, 1 stick of sliced celery, half a pint of dry cider. A bunch of bay leaves, thyme, parsley and celery leaves, six peppercorns, a teaspoon of salt, freshly ground black pepper, a quarter teaspoon of grated nutmeg and fresh parsley.
Method : Chop the head into manageable pieces. Place in a large pot with the trotters, onion, carrot and celery. Add the cider, herbs, peppercorns and the salt. Cover with cold water. Bring to the boil, skimming often. Reduce the heat and simmer for 2 – 3 hours, or until the meat is very tender. Remove the pieces of head and allow to cool. Then strip the meat from the bones.
Drain off the stock and boil until reduced by half. Add the meat to the stock, season with salt and pepper and add the nutmeg. Simmer for ten minutes.
Wash a suitable dish or mould in cold water. Pour in the meat and stock cover in foil and leave overnight to set. Turn out on to a plate and serve.
When we were served with the shop-bought brawn, it was accompanied by brown bread, in fact a small Hovis. Mrs. Mortlock would sit at the end of the table armed with bread knife and bread board. Having got to the last three-eighths of an inch of the loaf she would pick it up, turn it sideways and say “I wonder if I can get another slice out of that”. Although we did not starve, we were not well fed.
We were never joined at the table by Mr. Mortlock, but we were able to observe what arrived on his plate when he ate his dinner alone. It was enough to feed both myself and my brother.
After a while, my parents found out where we were and sent us pocket money. With some of this, I was able to go into the village market place and buy a bar of Rowntrees “Aero” chocolate. This was October 1939 and it was the first time I had seen it. “Aero” had been introduced into the North of England in 1935 and it was so popular that they extended their distribution area to the whole of England. It just took a long time to get to Mildenhall. It became a favourite of mine.
Sugar, which had been imported from the West Indies, became rationed. Much of East Anglia, which had grown sugar beet since the First World War, increased production and in the whole country, by 1940, some 138,000 hectares were devoted to growing beet for sugar. Sugar beet had been grown in England for several hundred years, but, in later years, it was supplementary to the supplies coming from the Caribbean.
In January 1940 butter, bacon and sugar went on the ration. Sugar remained on the ration until September 1953.
In March 1940, meat was added. In July 1940, cooking fats and tea were rationed. In March 1941, it was Jam, quickly followed by breakfast cereals, cheese and eggs. January 1942 saw dried fruit, rice and canned fruit enter the list.
Some foods such as potatoes, fruit and fish were never rationed.
The allowance for each item was sufficient, although no-one would expect to become overweight.
The ration varied from month to month as seasonal foods became more or less plentiful.
Meat was rationed by value rather than weight, but the price per pound did not vary to any great extent. The declared value for each person’s ration was 1/2d, that is 6p. Sausages were not rationed but they were not easy to find. Offal was originally unrationed but sometimes formed part of the meat ration.
Here are some examples of the allowances for each item of food per person:
Milk: 1800ml occasionally dropping to 1200ml. Powdered milk was available in packets and the ration was one packet every four weeks.
Jam: 450g every two months.
Eggs: 1 fresh egg a week, if available, but often only one every two weeks.
Ham or bacon 100g.
Dried eggs: 1 packet every four weeks.
Sweets: 350g every four weeks
In recent years, I have read a number of books and seen television programmes concerning wartime rationing in the United Kingdom. Most of these publications and broadcasts have contained information that is completely foreign to me and I lived through the war.
I have read on the internet that shops ran out of food and housewives had to wait until a shop had a certain item in and then they would all rush round to that shop and get in a long queue. Sorry, never heard of that in World War Two. My mother told me that that is what happened in the First World War. During World War Two, shops were allocated an amount of rationed goods according to the size of their clientele. My mother used only one butcher in Tottenham, West’s, in the High Road. The Co-op was where she bought dairy products and canned goods. I do not recall us being without a rationed item because the shops had run out.
I recently saw a drama set in London in 1947 in which a shop is showing a sign saying “No Potatoes”. This had nothing to do with the War, it was due to one of the hardest winters in modern history.
It is possible that queues formed outside shops who were selling non-rationed foods that might have been temporarily unavailable.
Snoek. I am told that this was introduced into Britain just after the war and that it came from South Africa. It is said that the taste was so awful that the idea had to be abandoned. There is a rumour that it came back a few years later as cat food.
Whale meat, also introduced after the war. I did not see any whale meat.
One article claimed that people could go into a restaurant and be served horse meat in the guise of beef. First of all, it would have been against the law to offer horse meat as beef steak. Secondly, I would suspect that they would have tasted the difference. Although few people would have tasted beef steak at that time, they did eat beef and would know very well what it tasted like.
(Now, in 2013, we have the meat crisis in which horsemeat has been liberally mixed with beef and, in some cases, completely replaced beef in such dishes as lasagne and meat pies. The reason that people would not taste any difference is that the ready-cooked meals would be laced with beef extract).
I did not see any snoek, or whale meat or horse meat, I do not, nor ever did, know anyone who had seen them or tasted them. I did not know of any butcher that sold them and the population certainly did not have to rely on them for food.
The big success of the period was the introduction of “Spam” which soon became a favourite and probably remains so to this day.
Eggs began to arrive as a powder in cans or cartons and with this one could make omelettes that tasted remarkably like fresh egg omelettes. The powder could be used in most cases where eggs were included in the recipe.
There was also powdered milk that could be used in any recipes where milk was required.
It is generally acknowledged that we ate well, that is to say a balanced and healthy diet. We had the “National” loaf eventually which used less refined flour and was brownish rather than white. It tasted good.
Fresh vegetables were not on the ration and, for the most part and, allowing for the seasons, were plentiful.
Next chapter: Chapter 13: Christmas at Trulock Road