Crisis? Worse In The Old Days (6 February 1975)
Grim warnings of economic disaster are in the air. “Tighten your belts” is one call; “Save energy” is another. We older people do not face the prospect in any mood of complacency. Yet we are fortified by the knowledge that we have come through similar periods of short commons in the past.
My own experience began with the first world war. I was aged six when it began and ten when it ended, so my memories of the domestic scene are somewhat fragmentary. I remember, however, that the necessary large-scale rationing did not come until it was nearly too late and that it was a period of great shortages if you didn’t have the money to buy your way out. Not that I was conscious of suffering much. For breakfast I could rely on having a dish of oatmeal porridge, made tasty with a spoonful of black treacle. For dinner I sometimes had “real” meat, and sometimes just corned beef. For tea I sometimes had spare army jam – a rare treat.
Butter seemed a problem in our household. A substitute, spelled “margarine,” which nobody knew how to pronounce and few relished, came on the scene. My mother and a neighbouring woman once tried to make their own substitute by pressing haricot beans mixed with other ingredients through a piece of muslin and I had my ear boxed for laughing at the resultant mess.
More seriously, I contracted “Spanish flu,” from which thousands died. I was taking a long time to recover. “What he needs now is plenty of eggs and butter,” said our doctor. “And where shall we get them?” asked mother. “Ah, where indeed?” he sighed, escaping through the door.
Then there was the slump of the late 1920’s and the 1930’s. At one point in the period 22 per cent of the “working” population were unemployed and they and their families had to exist on the dole and soup kitchens – a proportion we are nowhere near approaching yet. Possibly even more people were living on subsistence-level wages. The memory of those dire years when a job was a job is not yet expunged.
Then came the second world war. It was a case of “here we go again.” For five years I was in the army and did not fare too badly. I particularly enjoyed breakfast and did not miss one, for I rediscovered that a large helping of hot porridge set me up for the day. There was no black treacle nor any other trimming. But I watched my Scots pals put salt on the “parritch” and was instantly converted. Besides which, porridge was the one thing army cooks seemed quite unable to spoil. Mind you, we had regular “meatless days” and also occasional “breadless days,” when we gnawed and sucked at ageing army biscuits to consume them before they went bad, but on the whole I ate reasonably well.
Civilians, however, were rationed down to bare essentials, not only as regards food, but as regards clothing and fuel and other things too.
This was particularly hard on the womenfolk, coming on top of their war work, fire watching, billeting problems, street collecting, the volunteer “manning” of canteens and all the rest of it. They emerged jaded, dowdy, but indomitable, the unsung winners of the war.
We ex-servicemen did not fully appreciate this until we were demobbed and found rationing still in full force and women still queueing for the extra little bit of offal on the side. Some controls were not lifted until 10 to 12 years after their inception. Some controls were actually tighter after the war than during it.
Rural folk were commonly supposed to be better off through being able to produce a little bit extra for themselves. They paid for it, however, by being unable to join queues for other items. Fish was a case in point. There was so little it was quite impossible to ration it.
Fishmongers simply doled out the smallest usable bits to town queuers until the delivery ran out. Thus I found General H. Blount at a meeting of the Newport Pagnell RDC in 1946 stating that some villagers had not seen a bit of fish since 1939. Now that the position was becoming easier, he sought some means of direct supply.
On TV the other day I heard a narrator refer to the “Golden Age of Edward the Seventh.” He was kidding himself. The nearest the bulk of the people have been to a golden age has been in the past 20 years. People used to be much worse off. The difference is that they knew how to enjoy what they did have.