Pontypool in wartime: the start of rationing

Adolf Hilter has many things to answer for, but, as a nine-year-old boy, I never forgave him for messing up my holiday in 1939. Not everyone had paid holidays in those days but my family, most years, managed  a holiday, by train of course, to one of the traditional holiday spots.

In August 1939 we were spending two weeks in Weymouth. The weather was lovely but the news from Europe wasn’t. Germany had annexed Austria on 12th March 1938 and from then on it was all downhill. By August 1939 the British Government were openly talking about the possibility of war with Germany and what they would have to do if it happened. One thing on the cards was the probable bombing by the German air force of the main British cities in the south of the country. Consequently, during the last week of August the news bulletins on the wireless were talking about the government commandeering trains to evacuate children from the cities to the countryside.

My parents were most concerned about this and feared that we might be denied a train to get us back home. Therefore they decided to cut short our holiday by three days and to return home. Hence my intense dislike of Adolf Hitler. One of the things we took home with us was a 7lb tin of tea with a sealed top to prevent contamination from a gas attack.

We didn’t have long to wait to realise we were at war. I remember the day so clearly and, in my mind, I can see the picture in our dining room that Sunday morning. All the family were there and I remember the speech by the Prime Minister on our wireless as he said:

“I am speaking to you from the Cabinet Room at 10, Downing Street. This morning the British Ambassador in Berlin handed the German Government a final note stating that unless we heard from them by 11 o’clock that they were prepared at once to withdraw their troops from Poland, a state of war would exist between us. I have to tell you now that no such undertaking has been received, and that consequently this country is at war with Germany”  (if you wish to hear a recording of this speech, click here:  

http://www.bbc.co.uk/archive/ww2outbreak/7917.shtml

Being so young I didn’t realise the implications but I know a hush fell on the whole family.

At first people were fairly optimistic about the war and I heard many adults saying, “Oh, it’ll be all over by Christmas.” How wrong they were! The first thing I remember which affected me was walking down School Lane one evening with the rest of my family to George Street School and being given a gas mask in a little cardboard box. I clearly remember the panic which struck me as a man put one over my head. It had a terrible smell of rubber and I felt as though I could hardly breathe. I was very glad to remove it and return home. By playing around with it for a while in the house I soon got used to putting it on and being able to breathe fairly well. Soon after this the Government discovered that Germany had developed a new form of gas, so we had to return to George Street School where the wardens taped an extra part to the bottom of the mask to filter it out. After all this preparation we didn’t get a single gas attack. (* Please see additional note below)

We were told never to go anywhere without our gas masks and the little box hanging by string over everyone’s shoulder became a common sight. However, this fact is often misinterpreted in dramas about the war on television. Only last week I saw a scene with a group of elderly people all with the little cardboard box slung over their shoulders. Soon after we started carrying our gas masks, covers of all sorts were on sale in the shops and many people knitted or sewed their own box covers. This was really a necessity as a cardboard box would not have lasted long when we were out in the rain.

When the war started our merchant shipping was scattered all over the globe. Our merchant fleet was huge in those days and our ships earned a massive amount of money for the exchequer as they freely sailed all over the world, particularly amongst the countries of the British Empire. Consequently, as they had no Royal Navy escorts, they were easy targets for German warships and U-boats; we suffered huge casualties and a lot of food and other goods intended for the home market never arrived. Because of this the coalition government under Winston Churchill decided to introduce a system of “fair shares for all” food rationing.

My clothing ration book at the end of the war. I’ve kept it ever since.

As the gas masks arrived so sweets disappeared. Ration books were issued to everyone, firstly for food products but later for things like clothes and furniture. Butter, bacon and sugar were the first items to be put on ration in January 1940. Meat and preserves followed in March and margarine and cooking fats in July. Cheese was added the following year until, eventually, just about everything was rationed. We were required to register, with a particular shop of our own choosing, for our main food and, each week, the grocer would cut out the relevant dated coupons from our ration books. He would then have to exchange these coupons at the Post Office for vouchers to  purchase more food for the following week. Ministry officials were employed to check these coupons on a random basis. Although the war lasted only five years, rationing continued for 14 years.

The only fruit available was that grown in our own country, such as apples, pears and tomatoes. Items like oranges and bananas were not on ration, they were simply not available to the general public, though some children and expectant mothers could obtain them.

The things that my friends and I missed most were sweets. For these my family registered with Emma Truman who ran a stall in Pontypool market on Saturdays; she also had a shop on the upper part of George Street. By putting all our rations together we managed to fill a small tin with boiled sweets each week, and Emma was generous enough to sometimes put in a few extra sweets. At its lowest the sweet ration was down to two ounces per month so that we were reduced to buying things like cough sweets at the chemist’s.

One good thing about rationing was that we were all very healthy and certainly had no worries about being obese.

* Additional note:  It’a amazing how many TV dramas get the gas mask idea wrong. One of the first things we did when we had our neat little cardboard box was to write our name on the box in large letters. Some artistic people even decorated them with drawings. You can imagine the confusion in schools if all the pupils hung their gas masks in the cloakroom without any names. Not very hygienic either! In the BBC “Upstairs Downstairs” drama in February 2012, they show the cook wearing a gas mask even before war was officially declared. I suppose that might have been possible in London, but the version she is wearing is the long version of the gas mask with the added filter which was not issued until about six months after  war was declared.
Another consideration was, of course, the weather.  A number of dramas on TV show people carrying around those neat little cardboard boxes even in 1942 etc. One of my favourite dramas, “Foyle’s War”  always makes this mistake. After carrying around a little cardboard box every day for a few months you can imagine what the British weather would do to it! Therefore people started making covers for the boxes or bought covers in the shops where they were readily available in all sorts of colours.

evacuees with gas masks

Children carrying their gas masks. The brown boxes were kept dry
by putting them in waterproof carrying cases.

Although this shows a slightly different model, this gas mask
clearly shows a shorter filter 

This is the gas mask worn by the cook in “Upstairs Downstairs”.
Notice how much longer the filter is.

 In this wartime poster the extra filter can be clearly seen
as it was affixed with white tape. 

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One Response to “Pontypool in wartime: the start of rationing”

  1. Someone Says:

    wow
    I think it is cool you kept your ration book… wow. I am speechless

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