From the Archives: Food rations and self-sufficiency at Jodrell Bank

Britain queues for food in wartime London, 1945. wikicommons

For many of us, the experience of shopping for food during the coronavirus lockdown is an unsettling one. Long queues, empty shelves and the frustration of still not being able to get hold of any self-raising flour; not something we’re accustomed to in the 21st century and it is forcing us to adapt our approach to shopping and cooking.

Of course, within living memory these sorts of restrictions were a fact of everyday life. World War II rationing, which continued in some form until 1954, impacted the entire country – housewives and radio astronomers alike.

In the Jodrell Bank archive at the University of Manchester Library there is a fascinating folder titled ‘canteen dormitory, 1947-1953’, which charts Bernard Lovell’s struggle to feed the growing numbers of staff and students on site at this time. As the Jodrell Bank Experimental Station (it didn’t yet identify itself as an ‘observatory’) grew it was increasingly difficult to cope with the ‘meagre allocation’ of food, and in one letter to the Macclesfield Food Office, dated 22 January 1952, Lovell complains that he has had to stop providing meals for the students who had come down from Manchester. Hard times, especially since the students were usually the ones doing the hard, physical labour around site!

Jodrell Bank Experimental Station ration book coupon, August 1950. University of Manchester Library (JBA/JBM/1/6)

There was some good fortune though; Jodrell Bank at this time was also home to the University’s experimental botany fields, and gardeners and physicists shared the canteen facility. In a letter from May 1950 E.G. Warne, who was in charge of the botany grounds, assures Lovell that by autumn he will be able to supply the canteen with vegetables ‘at what is really a nominal price’, and until then suggests ‘the omission of a vegetable other than potatoes from lunches and dinners’, rather than reducing the overall quantity of food as ‘there might be complaints about inadequate meals’.

This chimed with the general advice at the time, to grow your own and ‘dig for victory’. Our times are of course different and we can’t easily grow our own toilet paper in our back gardens, but this spirit of self-sufficiency and generosity out at Jodrell Bank is something we can learn from.

Hannah Niblett, Heritage Officer