The Lean Forties

When you look at snapshots and films of the 1940s it’s immediately apparent that most of the population was lean. Arguably this was due to the way we then lived, devoid of the technology which came later. Manual work, even house chores were taken on with the perverbial ‘elbow grease’ still in fitting with the Victorian era.

The horse and plough was still a common sight in the countryside, and housewives hand-washed, scrubbed floors and vigorously tackled the 1,001 jobs for home and family without the resources given to the press-button age now taken for granted.

Only the rich could afford cars so we did much more 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. We didn’t need any special exercise, for every day we exercised without knowing it. We had no need for dieting books. It was there – in the ration book.

But we needed the nourishment to live the way we did and the Ministry of Eood 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
emphasis was put out by the media on how to cope. We grew accustomed to the regular ‘Food Flash’ features in cinemas, newspapers and on the wireless. The radio doctor broadcast regularly, and his rich soothing voice advised the best way to treat our ills and medical disorders, often related to the lack of vitamins in our wartime diet. The Ministry of Food distibuted informative leaflets about the essential vitamins A,B,C and D and how best allocated given the very limited 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 where I lived were busy turning over their gardens and grumbling about the nasty yellow Middlesex clay which lurked below the top soil, only a spade length down. But the problems were overcome and the soil was improved with the help of horse manure, collected after the horse-drawn delivery tradesmen had been, the 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 convert-
ed into allotments. Vegetable patches, chicken runs and even pig sties appeared in 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 in 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 the table and hens for the eggs” was his slogan, “Place your order now, give you 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 the price of a penny, detailing how best to erect a chicken house and run, or ask him nicely and he would even come along and erect one for you for next to nothing.

I took the job on 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 that when it came to slaughter, none of our family could do it. However, a kind neighbour did the nasty work and there were two lovely chickens, ready for the Christmas table, a luxury to behold in those days. We didn’t know what we had let ourselves in for, though. They still had to be plucked and feathered.

We tried it on the kitchen table – feathers everywhere. Two hours later the task was completed, but it was all in vain: when it came to eating 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 their 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 were given a third 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, it was the size of the belly! If one had extra pennies almost anything could still be bought from the infamous ‘black marketeers’ and what commonly became known as ‘under the counter’ goods. Some 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, Devon