The Spirit of 1940

When NAH and I were on holiday in Cheshire last November, we visited the National Waterways Museum at Ellesmere Port, one of three centres celebrating the heritage of our canals. On the day we visited, the museum was holding a wartime weekend, so there were lots of additional activities to show the role canal folk and the canal network played during WWII.

Food was a central feature and whilst the pictured typical 1930s garden behind the canal workers terraced cottages was a little lacking on the Dig For Victory front, this wasn't the case in the museum's cafe, where we both decided to pass on the spam fritters and have corned beef hash instead.

It got me mulling over my Incredible Edibles strand at the time and whether we might need to return to those days of rationing if we fail to meet our growing demands for food when the cost of importing around 70% of it (which is what we do at the moment) becomes economically unviable. I'm currently reading the government's Food 2030 Strategy (more in another post) which of course doesn't include this nightmare scenario, but I'd still like to know more about rationing and the wartime diet my parents experienced.

Tomorrow (15th January) there's an opportunity to do so because Yesterday (formerly UKTV History I believe) is showing a programme called Ration Book Britain at 5pm which commemorates the 70th anniversary of food rationing starting. Valentine Warner will cook some of the dishes found in wartime cookbooks, such as Woolton Pie (a vegetable pie, named after the then Minister for Food) and eggless sponge cake for his mum plus Marguerite Patten, who originally developed some of the recipes.

This is the first of six shows under the banner The Spirit of 1940 and Yesterday have also launched a companion website. As well as more from Valentine Warner, there's also a blog, where a mystery person is spending a month living off wartime rations. I'd be fine with my weekly 2oz tea ration (I'd donate mine to NAH as I can't drink the stuff), but I'm not sure how I'd cope with my alloted portion of butter and bacon (2oz and 4oz per week respectively). The blog is already building into a useful set of resources and recipes.

As well as these goodies, Yesterday are asking for help in compiling an online library of stories and memorabilia from WWII. This could be in written or picture form and scans of any precious documents are accepted rather than sending the originals. I'm going to have a look at the family recipe book we have downstairs: it dates back to NAH's great grandmother's time and has been added to by successive generations. There might just be a wartime recipe to share. We also have a gardening book dating back to the 1940s which shows how to convert your garden onto a Dig For Victory footing which I'll send in if I can get our scanner to work!

If you or members of your family have any WWII experiences to share (not just rationing or food growing), Yesterday would like to hear from you. You can send your memories in any format by email and the best will be chosen to display on the website for all to see. Getting involved is easy, you can either visit here or email your stories to

Yesterday can be found on: Sky 537, Virgin 203, Freeview 12.


  1. Ellesmere Port Boat Museum brings back many memories for me VP - when I worked for Cheshire County Council many moons ago we had a number of training days there :) Missed the programme but maybe there is a repeat. Will have a peek at the website.

  2. P.S. I haven't missed the programme have I - got mixed up with yesterday and tomorrow and thought that it was today - if that makes sense :)

  3. Hi Anna - I have exactly the same problem with the channel's new name: the number of times I've read the programme entry in the Radio Times this week and thought shucks I've missed it only to realise it's not been broadcast yet. I'll try and make it a bit clearer in the post - thanks for pointing it out :)

  4. What a coincidence - I've been thinking about this quite a bit myself as East End WI has been making jam for the forthcoming Imperial War Museum Ministry of Food exhibition. Their blog is rather neat -

  5. Hi VP, fascinating stuff here! Imagining what it must have been like during the war, not just the rationing either has always held my imagination. We were not born then, but remember my grandparents and parents talking about it. Apparently there was a shortage of chocolate, and my family had some sort of connection and were able to get a couple of bars. I can see from whence my addiction developed, genetics!

  6. what is vegetable extract? my mother's family were farmers (& a banker) & my father's family had access to orchards. so ww2 was never really a part of my personal history. i also am worried about the fragility of (the u.s.) food supply, should disaster strike. so far, not many have pulled their heads out of the sand to think about such things....

  7. I'm just old enough to remember rationing. I even had my own ration book, which was blue. My parents books were brown, I think. As a very little boy, I never recall being hungry, but perhaps that was because my parents kept poultry, so we were never short of eggs or meat. But I do remember the miserly allocation of sweeties. I think my parents let me have two toffees per week.

    As for future rationing, I think it almost inevitable. As it is, we have to double yields which are already unsustainably high. I don't see how else people will be weaned off the excessive quantities of meat currently consumed.

  8. I do so love my copy of 'Dig for Victory' (which I got for Chrimbo 2years ago) and somewhere I know the family have recipes and ration books etc but I haven't any contact with them anymore.
    My Papa's back garden was always an alloment, a hang back to the war. I'm getting excited about homemade perserves this year etc..This series sounds very interesting - much look into it and the website, thanks VP xx

  9. Last time I visited Bletchley Park the canteen there did an interesting war-time style meal, which was - if I remember correctly - spam-heavy!

  10. This made me smile as we're having Corned Beef Hash for tea tonight!

    Himself recently went to a conference at Bletchley Park. They got taken round the buildings (where they had the Enigma machine and the really big de-encrypter machine running for them)and had a wartime luch. Seems like it's all coming back round again!

  11. Colleen - marvellous and thanks for the link. I've put it in as a direct one now :)

    Frances - aaah, perhaps that's why everyone thinks so highly of chocolate these days: it's because our parents were deprived of it during the war ;)

    Petoskystone - it's Marmite and other similar foodstuffs such as Vegemite. I did a piece here if you're interested.

    Nige - yes as well as Dig for Victory, everyone was encouraged to keep chickens or even a pig. There were leaflets about keeping rabbits for food as well. So in the future we'll all be encouraged to do the same I reckon as well as growing as much stuff ourselves. However, the bulk will still have to come from our farmers and I can't see how they'll be able to produce more on less land. I suspect there'll be a shift from the meat industry, but we can't turn over all the land to veg production as a) some of it won't grow veg that well (hill farms for instance) and b) we will need animal manure to help fertilise the land. This is straying into my Food 2030 post BTW.

    Carrie - you're welcome. I did a lot more preserving this year - the River Cottage Handbook on the subject is great if you haven't got a reference book already.

    The Idiot Gardener - I remember that from our visit to Bletchley Park too!

    Nutty Gnome - Yum. I'm a big fan of Bletchley Park and they need all the visitors they can get. I suspect if we lived a bit nearer NAH would be volunteer with the Enigma machine restoration as he's an electronics and electrical engineer. Here's my account of our visit a couple of years ago if anyone's interested.

  12. What an interesting post and an interesting program to watch.

  13. As a vegetarian I'll trade you my allotted bacon and spam for some strawberries :-)

  14. Joane - it was fascinating - I hope to add some snippets to my 2030 food post.

    EG - of course, let's have some good old bartering just like they did back then!


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