Getting Along in the Lean Forties

Snapshots and films from the 1940s give the impression that most of the population was lean. Arguably this was because of the way we lived, devoid of the technology which came later. Manual work including house chores was taken on with the proverbial ‘elbow grease’ still in fitting with the Victorian era. The horse and plough was still a common sight in the countryside, and in working areas housewives did the washing by hand, scrubbed floors and vigorously tackled the thousand and one jobs for home and family without the resources of the press-button age which we now take for granted. Only the rich could afford cars, so we also did much walking then.

During the war, food rationing contributed to our slimness. In some ways we seemed more healthy then. The common aches and pains we hear of now were not so prevalent, and we didn’t need ‘exercise’, for every day we exercised without knowing it. We had no need for dieting books, for it was all there – in the ration book.

We did need the nourishment to live the way we did, however, and the Ministry of Food was keenly aware of this. Although there was a war on, standards attributed to health care in the 1940s were generally good. In the light of food rationing, much advice was put out by the media on how to cope. We grew accustomed to the regular ‘Food Flash’ features at cinemas, in newspapers and on the wireless. The radio doctor broadcast regularly, and his rich, soothing voice gave advice on the best ways to treat our ills and medical disorders, often related to the lack of vitamins in our wartime diet. The Ministry of Food distributed informative leaflets about the essential vitamins A, B, C and D, and how these were best allocated given the very limited variety of food available.
We all knew what ‘Dig for Victory!’ meant, and many of our flower beds were turned over to the production of vitamin-rich vegetables. In their spare time folk were busy turning over the soil in their gardens and grumbling about the nasty thick yellow Middlesex clay which lurked beneath the topsoil only a spade’s length down. The problems were overcome and the soil improved with the help of horse manure (collected after the horse-drawn delivery tradesmen had been), soot from our open fire chimneys and ashes from the coals and logs.

Some sports and recreation grounds were turned over in the pursuit for those health-giving vitamins. The large Kodak works ground • in Harrow was completely transformed into a huge allotment and others followed. Even bomb sites were converted into allotments. Vegetable patches, chicken runs and even pigsties appeared on every spare bit of land in London and the suburbs.

In my part of Harrow in Hampden Road a street trader appeared with horse and cart one Sunday in 1942 loaded with all manner of goods in the quest for self-sufficiency – cheap garden spades, forks, rolls of chicken wire mesh, sticks and tacks. He was on to a good thing. He could even supply the chicks. “Cocks for table and hens for the eggs” was his slogan. “Place your order now. Give yourself time to erect the chicken runs and I’ll be back with the chicks next Sunday!”

To top it all he’d even drawn up a plan, for just one penny, detailing how best to erect a chicken house and run. If you asked him nicely he’d even come along and erect one for you for next to nothing!

I took on such a job with the assistance of my brother: between us we built something which resembled a chicken house and run, and within a few weeks we were experts. The trouble was, when it came to the slaughter none of our family could do
it. A kind neighbour did the nasty work, however, and there were two lovely chickens, ready for the Christmas table – a luxury to behold in those days!

We didn’t know what we’d let ourselves in for, though, for they still had to be plucked. We tried it on the kitchen table: there were feathers everywhere, but two hours later the task had been completed. It was all in vain, however, for when it came to eating the chicken we remembered how they were the day before – alive and healthy in our chicken run. We had become too attached: they were like pets! We forgot the idea, got rid of the remaining cocks and just kept the hens for the eggs.

Special priority was given to children and pregnant women, and extra coupons were allotted in their ration books. Extra milk was supplied for schoolchildren, and each of us was given a third of a pint-sized bottle for consumption at school. Our dinners would be garnished with raw cabbage, carrot and turnip gratings to cover those crucial extra vitamins.

As always, money helped. As far as we youngsters were concerned it wasn’t just the clothes that advertised wealth, but the size of the belly as well! If one had the extra pennies, almost anything could be bought from the infamous ‘black marketeers’ and what commonly became known as ‘under the counter’ goods. Some people did very well out of the war, thank you!

We never missed the opportunity of making a few pennies, of course, for those extra goodies kids like and what our parents were unable to afford in those war-torn days. Building a chicken house or two meant a deposit for a new bike or some of those ‘under-the-counter’ sweets and chocolates!

Peter Carroll