FOOD AND RATIONING
The outbreak of war saw an immediate increase in the price of some foodstuffs, although there were disputes over what caused these, while some alleged profiteering. Shopkeepers blamed panic buying. Although the initial panic buying subsided, price inflation became a constant feature of the war. Sugar prices were to be a particular problem. Most of Britain’s sugar supply had come from Germany. Farmers in various parts of the county began to experiment with growing beet for themselves, sending it to Bristol for processing. While they found it quite possible to grow the crop, however, the expense of planting and lifting the crop proved prohibitive.
Local traders continued to find themselves subject to accusations of profiteering and sought to defend themselves by blaming their suppliers. In May 1915 members of the Abertillery Grocers and Master Bakers Association complained about the “huge dividends” made by Spillers of Cardiff, the owners of the flour mills, since the war started. The bakers pointed out that since August 1914 the price of flour had risen from 28 shillings per sack to 50 shillings. The Chairman of the Master Bakers stated that he had ordered goods from Cardiff and was charged extra for the war risk. He indignantly posed the question “Where is the war risk between Cardiff and Abertillery?”
Blaina Co-op reported that in the first year of war food prices had increased by at least 30%. Prices continued to rise throughout 1916. In November 1916 an Argus survey revealed that in Newport, a box of groceries that would have cost 10/5d in July 1914 now cost 21/9d. It particularly noted an “extraordinary rise” in the price of potatoes. Dealers in Newport had previously imported large quantities of potatoes from Ireland and Belgium, relying on the competition to keep the prices down. In November 1915 they were paying £3.50p per ton. By November 1916 they were paying £12.50 per ton. When milk vendors in Abertillery and Blaina began to charge 6d a quart, there were accusations of profiteering and some local farmers threatened to withhold supplies to the vendors and turn their milk into cheese instead.
In November 1916 there were protest meetings against high prices in Abercarn, Aberbeeg and other industrial centres in the valleys.
Wages for some workers were rising more than rapidly enough to cope with the rise in prices. In January 1917, a Munitions Tribunal was told that a first at Ebbw Vale Steelworks earned an average of £9 9s per week, and in some weeks earned up to £15. Many others were, however, left in a desperate situation.
The problems grew ever more difficult during 1917. Rogers’ Bakery in Abertillery claimed that when it sold bread at 9 ½ d per loaf instead of the 11d agreed by Abertillery Bakers’ Association, it had received letters from the millers threatening to withdraw supplies of flour. While the price of bread was increasing, the quality was deteriorating, leading the editor of the South Wales Gazette to comment that the bread was “hard and crusty and dry and ‘sawdusty’.” He went on to point out that there had been no sugar in his household for a week.
In March 1917, police had to be called in to control queues in Aberbeeg when it was discovered that only one shopkeeper had supplies of potatoes, while in Llanhilleth none at all were to be found. In April the government cut the supply of beer by 50%. Newport Brewers Association responded by raising prices to 7d a pint. The Western Valleys Miners’ Council calculated that in the first three years of war prices of basic foodstuffs had risen by 110%, while miners wages had only increased by 46%.
Local councils responded by supplying allotments while slides advertising the importance of food control were shown in cinemas. In August 1917 sugar rationing was introduced and the following month the government fixed bread prices at 4d per loaf.
Queues became commonplace over the winter of 1917-18. In January 1918, it was reported in the South Wales Gazette that food queues had become “daily sights” in the valleys and that there had been no cheese for a month. The Gazette complained of “outsiders” coming into Abertillery to “try their luck” and cited the example of a lady who had come into the town “in quest of margarine and butter” but had the misfortune to be knocked down by a greengrocer’s cart. This “outsider” had come all the way from Llanhilleth!
Shortages extended beyond foodstuffs. Even in the mining valleys, those who did not work for the collieries were finding it extremely difficult to obtain supplies of coal. Almost all the coal that was being produced was going into the war effort, while shortage of trucks meant that many pits were idle for periods of time.
Efforts to control prices predictably angered many tradesmen, who felt they were being unfairly accused of profiteering while at the same time being prevented from keeping their businesses in the black. In November 1917 milk vendors in Abertillery withdrew deliveries in protest against the local food committee’s decision to set the price of milk at 7d per quart. Local butchers threatened to follow suit. The “strike” left people without milk for a month, and resulted in a rush for condensed milk and local farms being “besieged”, before a deal was struck with the vendors now being allowed to charge 7 ½ d per quart. Grocers threatened to follow suit because they were frequently being threatened by people demanding that they hand over additional foodstuffs. In Abercarn traders complained of “hooligans” and “raiding of their shops” . Mr E Bevan, a well known Abertillery grocer, declared that it was “really dangerous to have food in a shop today”. In January 1918 rationing of butter, margarine and tea was introduced by local food committees in most of South Wales. Meat rationing followed the next month.
While this went some way to alleviating the problem, difficulties remained, particularly in the valleys. There were occasions when, for example, cheese, described by a Miners’ Agent as “the staple food of the coal miner”, was being advertised in Newport, but was unobtainable in the valleys. The same applied to jam, another important component of the typical miner’s diet. One Abertillery grocer reported that he had only one pot of jam for each of his 1300 customers in the last three months.
In May 1918 the South Wales Gazette reported that the Ministry of Food was asking people to accept a change in their eating habits by consuming frozen meat. Many people regarded this innovation as unpalatable and refused to buy it. One staple of the diet that was still available, at least intermittently, was fish and chips. In June 1918 a fish and chip proprietor from Abertillery claimed exemption from conscription on the grounds that he alone could run his business since it involved carrying 70 stone of fish a week and, when fish was unavailable, up to two tons of potatoes.
An enquiry into the food situation in Abertillery heard reports that miners were doing a full days work on just a chunk of dry bread and a few potatoes. George Barker, the Miners Agent, reported that as a result the miners “did not have the same vitality as they had before the war and were unable to do the same amount of work”. He blamed the influenza outbreak that had swept the county in the summer of 1918 on the shortages.
A SHOPKEEPER CONDEMNS PANIC BUYING (LETTER FROM MR E BEVAN OF ABERTILLERY TO THE SOUTH WALES GAZETTE 14TH AUGUST 1914)
Last week has been the most trying week in the lives of the grocers … They have been credited with raising the prices of some articles of food unnecessarily to the people. It is the mad rush of the public for these articles that is the cause of the increased prices … On Wednesday morning, the first morning of opening after the holidays, people were ordering twice, four, six and even ten times their ordinary quantities. In the afternoon I tried in Bristol, Cardiff and Newport to buy fresh stocks but failed, as they had been cleared out that morning by the rush from other towns that had opened business the previous day. I at once began to restrict the quantities bought, but this was soon overcome by several people who sent the second and third time for goods by a different person. Had the prices … remained normal there would have been none left for anyone purchasing on Saturday … Some have asked … “Why is it the price is varied at the (independent) grocers’ and not at the (Co-operative) Stores?” … It is, sir, because the Stores can regulate their members where a grocer has no control over his customers … The prices ruling today are not war prices but panic prices ..
A FOOD QUEUE INCIDENT (LETTER TO THE SOUTH WALES GAZETTE 21ST DECEMBER 1917)
Last Friday I had the pleasure (!) of standing in a queue at the Maypole Company Ltd … After standing for a considerable period of time, a huge female specimen of Darwin’s ‘missing link’ pushed her way into the queue ahead of a hundred ‘poor souls’, many carrying babies. When I asked this ‘monstrosity’ to take her turn, she made the air thick with –well, thunder and lightning.
CHASING FOOD SUPPLIES IN ABERCARN (SOUTH WALES GAZETTE 25TH JANUARY 1918)
Seeing a wagon on Tuesday morning carrying a consignment of cheese from the railway station, and the rumour spreading quickly that it was going to the Star Supply Company in the High Street, a large crowd soon began to follow the wagon to have a share of the commodity. On arrival at the Star Stores it was found, to the disappointment of the anxious crowd, that the cheese was destined for another part of the district, and the wagon drove away at a good speed, the crowd making its way in the same direction.