Second World War tanked tea time

Ruth Griffiths

Early in the summer of 1940, calamity struck Great Britain … tea was rationed! The backbone of British culture, “a nice cuppa”, was threatened.

At the outset of the Second World War, shipments of almost everything were torpedoed or delayed by the war raging across the English Channel. The government issues ration books to every person. Most food, if it was available in the shops, needed a coupon from a ration book along with the purchase price.

At first, tea had not been rationed but by July 1940 adults were limited to  two ounces of tea each week, which would allow a person about three cups of tea daily. From July 1942 children under five received no tea ration and people over 70 were granted an additional allowance from December 1944 onwards. Tea rationing  ended in the fall of 1952.

Most tea drinkers thought the ration wasn’t enough. Many households drank tea at every meal, as well as in early morning, for elevenses (a morning break time) and sometimes during the evening.

A war-time publication suggested homemakers make the most out of their tea ration: “Instead of pouring away any remaining tea after breakfast, fill the pot with sufficient boiling water. Allow it to stand and strain off into a Thermos flask. This will be excellent for your elevenses and save not only tea but labour as well. The same can be done after the evening cup of tea. This will then be ready for the early morning cup or if you have to get up for an air raid.”

The British depended on tea for warmth, energy and solace. To limit the amount of tea available was deeply disturbing. But the Brits soldiered on and on and on. Tea was rationed until 1952.

Tea was also rationed in Canada. The Canadian government began a ration program in January 1942 beginning with gasoline. Over the next year, sugar, coffee, tea, butter and meat were also rationed. Canadians may have grumbled about food shortages, but on the whole they were willing participants. Rationing ended in Canada in 1947.

In the United States everyone was issued a series of ration books during the war. The ration books contained removable stamps good for certain rationed items, such as sugar, meat, cooking oil, and canned goods. A person could not buy a rationed item without also giving the grocer the right ration stamp. Coffee was rationed in the U.S. but I can’t find mention of tea rationing there. During the recent pandemic, Canadians were surprised by shortages of some foods. Having grown accustomed to an unlimited supply of a vast variety of food items, Canadians were unprepared to pivot their purchasing. The generation that lived with rationing during the Second World War could teach the rest of us a thing or two about making do and going without.