British Ration Week Episode 7: Black Markets and Luxuries


Hi guys, thanks for tuning in to another evening of the British ration project here on InRangeTV. I have been waiting for this all week. This is a lamb pasty with gravy, and… I’ve been looking forward to this since the day we picked up the lamb chunk. Not a whole lot of lamb, but it was our one piece of actual solid meat that wasn’t ground beef or offal. Looking forward to this. But first I wanted to have a quick discussion of luxuries and the black market during World War two in England. So, luxuries of course primarily come down to things like tobacco and alcohol. And they were treated… Basically, they were taxed and not rationed. So there was no government restriction on me buying myself a bottle of scotch, or a bottle of gin. But it was unlikely to be a very common occurrence, the price of this sort of thing went up dramatically during the war. It was also taxed dramatically, the British government imposed basically a luxury goods tax – – that was anywhere from 33% to as much as 100% of an item’s retail price. And that would also apply to things like beer, wine and spirits. So in addition to that, distilling was pretty heavily regulated during the war. Of course distilling requires grain. And the government was going to pretty great efforts to make sure that there was enough grain – – for people to be making bread and eating. And the idea of taking a whole lot of grain and condensing it into a little bit of alcohol – – for someone with a substantial amount of money to buy during the war… No, that didn’t go over well in most corners. There were actually some efforts during the war to literally prohibit the sale of alcohol. A lot of people who were prohibitionists or teetotalers saw this as a really excellent opportunity and, not cynically; well, maybe some cynically… But many in full honest conviction thought:- “This is a great time to stop wasting our limited resources on useless things like alcohol”. That didn’t come to pass of course. Lord Woolton actually rejected this outright, suggesting that when the British worker was being asked to – – produce more and harder than ever, the idea of denying him a beer at the end of the day would pretty much result in anarchy. So, that didn’t happen, you could still buy your booze but it was going to be taxed pretty heavily. Same thing with tobacco. Now as for the black market. This is an interesting point because a lot of what you read online would suggest that there was in fact a huge black market. The reality is pretty different. The black market existed but it was really quite limited. There were of course organized criminal gangs that took advantage of any sort of very regulated limited trade scenario. And you know, if they had been involved in smuggling things like alcohol without paying excises before the war… Well, they’ve got networks set up, and they’re in a perfect position to try and exploit – – imposed, strict prices on foodstuffs and importation of foodstuffs. And this happened to a certain extent. It was pretty vigorously prosecuted by the government. The penalties for violating the rations were pretty darn severe. By the end of the war you were looking at a couple of years in prison, potentially a £500 fine. Remember that this is in a time when a restaurant meal was capped at the equivalent today of 17USD. A British canteen meal would cost you 9 pence and you’re looking at a £500 fine. In addition, they would also fine you up to three times the value of whatever goods were involved in the crime. So, a really, really heavy motive not to break the rations. Now, what did exist really, and really can’t be stopped is a somewhat pervasive gray market. And the reason that you see a lot of reference to a widespread black market is, – – this comes from individual personal accounts and a lot of what people at the time considered black market, – – cheating the rations, was really a pretty mild form of gray market – – that one really has to expect and that the government wasn’t particularly concerned about. Yes, they did enforce this sort of thing. But what the government was primarily concerned about is that there was not the establishment of – – an organized large black market that would actually cause fundamental problems for the rationing system, – – and they were completely successful in preventing that. What did happen was this little kind of gray off-the-record thing. So, if someone had raised their own pig they might cheat a bit with the butcher on the scales when – – they weighed it and reported the weight to the government. Or they might slaughter two pigs if they had a farm, but only report one. Selling some eggs on the side if you had your own chicken. Bartering coupons back and forth with other people. All of these things were prohibited. But they happened and it really kind of is a mark of the honesty of the British populace at the time that this – – to most people was considered “the black market”. Well I’m sorry, that’s an incredibly vanilla black market. So yeah, all in all… It’s really quite remarkable how little black market actually did develop during the war. It says a lot to the equity with which the rations were imposed and the British populations willingness as – – Woolton would say at the end of the war – or rather as Woolton would say when he left his post. Because by the way he left his post in 1943 to take over the Ministry of Reconstruction. At that point the food ministry was a well oiled and well running machine, – – and they were able to leave it his successor without too much trouble. Anyway, as he would say it was really a testament to the British populations willingness to – – suffer a bit of privation for the good of the country and the war effort. And with that, unfortunately, I don’t get any Scotch because it’s not available to me in our rationing scheme. But I do get some of this lamb pasty. Man, that’s like the first chunk of legitimate actual meat that I have had in a week! That’s quite good. It just says something about the rations that I’m looking at this as a decadent meal because it has – – actual chunks of meat and it has butter or margarine that went into a crust, and gravy on it. Yeah, it’s really good. Well, we are almost done with this project, this is my sixth day on British World War II rations. So we have just one more day, and then we’re going to wrap it up. Hopefully you’ll join me for the conclusion. Until then, thanks for watching.

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