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WW1 at Black Country Living Museum

Food in World War One

At the outbreak of World War One people nationwide were subject to price hikes and food shortages.

See below for local memories and newspaper reports about food shortages, price rises, rationing and growing your own, from in and around the Black Country.


Food Shortages

At the start of the war, there was a fear of food shortages but the real shortages didn’t hit home until 1915, these initial prices and shortages were a knee jerk reaction to the announcement that Britain was at war.

It seems the main cause of early food shortage was that farmers, suppliers and shop keepers were holding back stock; maybe they believed that they would need their produce past Christmas 1914 or they were just taking the opportunity to profit from the situation.

In August 1914 the Government was considering introducing legislation to tackle this problem. There had been many cases of unreasonable holding of food stuffs around the country where there had been great hardship especially among the poor.  Board of Trade was granted powers to act if foodstuffs were being unreasonably withheld from the market.  The Board could take possession of such foodstuffs paying a reasonable price for the goods, to ensure their availability to the people. The newspapers were full of pleas not to buy in excess and not to hoard food.

In 1917 Germany introduced unrestricted submarine warfare, which affected the food supply being imported into Britain. This made food shortages a serious problem and by 1918 malnutrition was seen in poorer communities. The Government introduced compulsory rationing in 1918.

  • 1914, local newspaper report

Brierley Hill company, Marsh and Baxter were reported as distributing 10,000 hams /media/ww1/library/140729_230_marsh&baxter.jpga day. Due to the demands on goods wholesalers had largely been depleted of stock. A reporter visited the company and saw that they were very busy packing hams ready for transportation at the rate of 1000 an hour. On Wednesday over 7000 hams were packed and on Thursday the total was up to 10,000. Marsh and Baxter were the largest ham curers in the UK; in normal conditions they stocked up to 100,000 hams and enormous quantities of bacon. Pigs at this time were in short supply.


Growing your own and keeping livestock

/media/ww1/library/140729_230_garden.jpgTo combat food shortages and price hikes, people were encouraged to grow their own produce and keep their own live stock in their own gardens, allotments and other areas of land.

By 1917, radical gardening advice was promoted through local newspapers about the growing of celery on a small, wartime garden plot. It was argued that it took up too much space, used too much manure and occupied the ground for too long. It was not comparable in food value to beetroot.

People should grow food, not luxuries. Celery is low in food value and could be   dispensed with.Celery is the only salad crop that consumes more calories eating it than it supplies’

In 1918, The Local Parks Committee were asked to consider removing flower beds and growing vegetables instead. This was in addition to the practice of growing potatoes on park land.

/media/ww1/library/140729_230_preservefood.jpgMrs Adams, Walsall, remembers 'They started allotments in different places to grow food. That’s naturally how we kept going. We had nothing else; we had no other hope for anything. It was a terrible war. I know times were hard and I wouldn’t like to live through it again’

In the 19th Century many Black Country families kept pigs. Most pigs were kept in sties in the backyard, but there are some known cases of rather more unusual housing, like pigs kept in cellars. To avoid inappropriate pig housing and to improve overall sanitary conditions, local government imposed rules and regulations on the keeping of pigs. In 1916, Government regulations were relaxed because of the war.

Edith Lowe, Walsall, remembers 'We always had a pig in the sty and we had chickens, we fed the pigs 'bits of food that were leftover'.

Price Rises

The reaction to the early food shortages and price rises was variable throughout the country, some calmly met to discuss the issue, to maybe press the government to do something.

Others reacted violently with riot like conditions, windows smashed and police interference. Local newspapers made reports of this happening across the Black Country.


  • August 1914, local newspaper report 

  At High Street Cradley Heath, White’s Provisions Store windows were             broken, apparently by people incensed by the raising of food prices. A crowd had gathered and at 11am a number of stones were thrown at the windows. Police arrived and were able to move the crowd back, but they would not disperse.

  • August 1914, local newspaper report

    There were disturbances in both Dudley Port and Quarry Bank with an infuriated mob out of control and a number of arrests. Men and women were "infuriated beyond control in consequence of the advanced prices of food stuffs". A shop in Dudley Port was looted, leading to arrests for theft and rioting.

The Dudley Port victim was Thomas Edward Smith of the Post Stores. During the incident damage was caused to baking ovens and flour was split across the premises. Smith stated he had raised his prices because his suppliers had also raised theirs.

  •  August 1914, local newspaper report

In Quarry Bank between 2000 and 4000 people gathered to protest against the rise in food prices.Joseph Goodwin's shop was looted, windows were smashed and goods stolen. Foodstuffs to the value of £100 were damaged. A number of arrests were made and Goodwin gave evidence of constant threats and stone throwing.

  • 1915, local newspaper report 

A Gornal dairyman received a large fine for watering down his milk. Both the retailer and the cow keeper denied adding water,. The dairyman had initially refused to supply a sample of his milk to the inspector, but when it was tested, and contained a high water percentage. The dairyman received a large fine in consequence of his refusal.




By early 1918 ration cards had been distributed and shop owners were asked to send details of tea, butter and margarine stocks to the Food Control Committee.

Ration cards were tied to a retailer and could only be transferred to another shop once they had run out.  The Food Control Committee could transfer cards if they believe that retailer had too many customers.

Extra rations for ‘arduous workers’ were granted (18 May 1918) but this allowance for ‘arduous work’ caused a few anomalies. A postman qualified, but a post woman did not! In fact, only two women in Walsall qualified, compared to 900 men. Adolescents faced a similar problem between the sexes with a distinction between boys and girls.

Local man, Arthur Smith, remembers at the age of 9 years old ‘Everything was rationed… you had to stand in a queue. If a shop was opening up in the town that would sell to anybody, butter or marg, people used to stand in the queue’



Download our Black Country Rationing Timelime



With thanks to M.Pearson, Black Country Society for additional research

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