Food shortages 100 years ago

Jennifer Ayto

Rationing in 1917
Hertfordshire Mercury 15 September 1917
Meat rationing 1918
Advertisement - Hertfordshire Mercury August 1918
Advertisement - Hertfordshire Mercury 12 October 1918

An exceptionally cold winter and hot summer have not made it an easy growing year.  Farmers are warning of thin carrots and small potatoes (with the potential consequence of a shortage of crisps!).  Spare a thought for life in Britain during World War 1 when home grown was crucial.

The challenges were recorded by Theodora Wilson of Rivers Lodge, Harpenden.[i]  Writing in 1918, she noted that they were fortunate with their kitchen staff with Mrs Freeman “from up the common, an  excellent cook and manager” and “Welch who was most ingenious in making up a joint of apparently hopeless scrag of mutton and of inventing tasty vegetarian and egg dishes…..  Rhoda[ii] and I are more than satisfied with bacon and fish and plenty of vegetables but it is not always so easy to arrange for Mother and Aunt Phoebe who cannot change their habits so readily“. [Her mother and Aunt were 76 and 86].

Apart from the older generation expecting meat, Theodora thought that the rations were quite ample and very nice for ordinary people although she thought that the allowance of meat was inadequate for the agricultural labourer and gardener.  She recorded how her household managed as “Everyone talks of recipes and dodges now-a-days and a week’s menu is really an interesting item and probably will be more so to future generations so I will give the sort of thing which we have at home in a household of seven people“.


Rolled loin or neck of mutton, occasionally round of beef – about 4lbs generally cooked on Saturday and served cold – sometimes with greens and potatoes.  Fruit pie and milk pudding and often oranges or other fruit for dessert and coffee.  For supper we usually have hot fish pie – occasionally eggs either baked or cold anchovy – milk pudding and stewed fruit and often custard or chocolate mould.

Mrs Freeman makes excellent date cakes of which we can generally send one to Denis[iii] once a month – also ginger bread and sponge cake which keeps us going for teas”.


“On Monday we generally have a good thick soup and no meat except for the elders and possibly suet pudding and cheese and a delicious egg dish for supper done up with savoury rice”.


“Possibly a wonderful stew of the odds and ends of the mutton with plenty of vegetables and dumplings and fish for supper”.


“Say a vegetable pie with rich gravy made of “marmite” and every possible vegetable inside a good substantial crust and a milk pudding and for supper some savoury egg dish and probably cold bacon on the table and milk pudding and fruit”.


“We can generally have the remains of the cold Sunday joint – sometimes a bit of steak made into a good pudding pie and fish – sometimes delicious tinned herrings in tomato sauce for supper”.


“Friday is generally another day of soup and suet pudding and on Saturday if we don’t begin the new hot joint we often have a most delicious and satisfying meat roll of scraps of meat or bacon and herbs done into a roly poly and served with gravy or sometimes we have some rashers of bacon and potatoes which Dr Russell[iv] says is perfect food“”.

There are some surprises.  Fish was available, even in land-locked Hertfordshire, and oranges.  However, it was produce from the garden that underpinned the diet and 1918 was not a good year:

Rhoda and I find the sugar ration ample and with honey, sugar and treacle to help in cooking we saved sugar for making jam and marmalade.  This year we put in a claim for sugar for jam making but now alas we fear the lack will be fruit.  We may have some good raspberries and a few gooseberries and cherries but the plums and apples and pears will be a failure. 

I hope that we shall have a good crop of marrows this year as that and rhubarb will have to be our staple for jam making and the rhubarb must not be too much pulled this season as it was transplanted in the autumn….. Last year we bottled a good deal of fruit – boiling without sugar and we had in consequence a good supply all through the winter of our own pears and cherries and plums and enough strawberries to have a pie of our own fruit on Whit Sunday this year tho’ it was too early to pick our own fruit.  We also successfully preserved runner beans which were a great help for our vegetable pies together with magnificent parsnips and carrots which we kept going nearly all through the winter. 

Now we have been sowing and plotting out our vegetable garden so as to give us the best crops this year and as little trouble as possible for we now fear that Streeter will have to join up somehow in the army.  He has passed grade one and is 45 and though we and the Rosemary hospital commandant are appealing they don’t seem to think there is much chance of getting him off.*  I only hope he will be able to get into the RAMC somehow for he is well qualified for this and would make a valuable stretcher bearer in an any hospital.  His boy passed A1 and is now out in France in the firing line tho’ he is barely nineteen“.

Apart from producing meals with scarce meat and vegetables there was also a shortage of cereals.  Theodora recorded in 1917 “We are all on our honour to keep carefully to rations – 4lbs per head per week of all cereal food and ½ lb sugar.  It is quite a business on a Monday morning to portion out the bread and flour – rice and oatmeal and maize for the family consumption – (more so when expecting visitors)”.

In 1918, flour continued to be in short supply.  The Hertfordshire Mercury reported  on 16 February that the bakers of Hertford and Ware had loyally declared that they would take up the Ministry of Food’s suggestion to add potatoes to bread, not more that 30 lbs of potatoes to 280 lbs of flour

Whilst Theodora, a mature woman, could be positive about the delicious meals that were prepared under the circumstances, a child’s view was recorded by Mrs V M Wheatley who recalled walking with her mother to the Home and Colonial in Maidenhead Street, Hertford to buy  “½ lb margarine (which was horrible) and 1 egg“.

There was an alternative to margarine.  The answer was to make the scarce supply of butter go further.  The Hertfordshire Mercury published a recipe on 2 February 1918:

How to make potato butter:   Boil and sieve and add 2 oz of butter to 14 oz potato plus a teaspoonful of salt.  Beat with back of spoon and if to be kept for a few days, add a preservative.  The appearance is improved by addition of some butter colouring.  It does tend to dry out so store in greaseproof paper.



Theodora’s journals have been published by the Harpenden and District Local History Society.  More information is here.



*Further information on the VAD hospital at Harpenden can be found here.



















[i] HALS/DE/X1032/8, Journal, 1911 – 1918, written by Theodora Wilson of Harpenden.
[ii] Younger sister.
[iii] Denis – her brother (on active service).
[iv] Director of Rothamstead research station
[v] HALS/ACC4701- Box2 – Hertingfordbury WI.



This page was added on 22/08/2018.

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