Sweets, rationing and World War II
By the late 1930s the F. W. Woolworth Threepenny and Sixpenny Stores enjoyed a dominant market share. It seemed there was no way to compete with them. 1939 saw the opening of the 750th shop. The firm still had a postbag full of recommendations for new towns. Rival retailers found the prices hard to beat, especially as the firm had steadily built its ranges of confectionery to stimulate impulse purchases as customers called to buy from the staple ranges of homewares, toiletries and gardening.
The have-a-go culture had encouraged the Buyers to broaden the offer and expand the range. For example the sweet department had been extended to include tinned fruit, cream to go with it, and, to complete the picnic, tinned tuna fish! The food ranges consisted virtually entirely of special opportunity buys - but stores could always be relied on for tinned peaches and cream as an alternative to pic'n'mix sweets.
The Buyers could not claim credit for the high sales of the tins. The reason was more sinister.
The diplomatic situation in Europe had prompted re-armament and war preparations. Gas mask drills accentuated the worries and encouraged 'canny' shoppers to pack their cupboards with as many tinned foods as possible, in case of future shortages. These hoards later provided birthday teas and wedding gifts at the height of the War.
By Christmas 1939 stocks were low, as many suppliers converted their factories to make war essentials. Despite this initially only three food groups, sugar, bacon and ham were rationed.
Within days of the outbreak of War, the British Government asked for help from Woolworth Chairman, William Stephenson. They asked him to help them make sure that the RAF had enough planes to repel the Germans, in the role of Head of Aircraft Production at the Air Ministry. The job gave the firm a hotline to the very heart of Gonvernment.
Stephenson and the store chain's Food Buyer Bill Lacey persuaded the powers-that-be not to ration ice-cream, biscuits and chocolate. In exchange stocks would be reserved for the stores in the towns and cities facing the worst bombardment. It was hoped that the initiative, and a similar venture for patriotic comics and jigsaw puzzles, would help maintain public morale.
Lacey experimented with new food products that were nourishing and could be produced cheaply. Symingtons Powdered Soups and Table Cremes (Blancmanges using artificial sweeteners) were hurried to the shelves and sold for sixpence under a 'just add water' banner, long before the advent of the cup-a-soup generation. He also secured stocks of whale meat and snook. These took the place of earlier deals on tuna fish, salmon chunks and pork luncheon meat. Customers remember that they tasted rubbery and somehow 'wrong' - even after following the instructions to soak the whale meat in vinegar overnight. Despite the shortcomings, most customers still considered them preferable to the alternative, horse meat.
Despite the decision to ration the sales of sugar in January 1940, as late as the summer Cadbury's were still able to advertise that their teatime biscuits were available in 'all Woolworth stores'. Sweet rationing was introduced in 1942. The new rules, which were only lifted in 1953 a full eight years after the end of the war, gave an allowance of seven ounces (200 grams) to everyone over five years old.
Many of the stores' older colleagues and customers have fond memories of the steps that Woolworths staff took to redistribute sweet coupons. Many adults didn't eat sweets and would hand in their coupons to staff 'for the little ones'. Two retirees from the Camberley store remember that no child was ever sent away with nothing, thanks to the generosity of their elder clientele.
The 200g ration was the equivalent of just one sweet a day for most products in the Woolworth range. Despite the small quantity, by 1943 sweets were in very short supply, and having coupons did not guarantee that people would be able to find any to buy.
Woolworth's role in sharing out the ration, and finding a little extra for children, served to grow the sense of community. It may partly explain the strong emotional bond that many customers still feel with the brand.
In Jersey and Guernsey invading German soldiers were surprised to find chocolate on sale at Woolworth's, months after supplies had run out in their shops at home. Colleagues remember that the soldiers respectfully joined the back of the queue and waited their turn, paying in pennies and saying a polite 'zank you very much'.
Everyone expected that as soon as the Allies won the war - as they surely would - rationing would end. But the reality, as you can read in our 1950s gallery, was that shortages and rationing got more severe in the late 1940s. Sweets remained rationed until 1953. When the restrictions finally ended, it seemed that every adult and child in the land joined the queue at Woolworths to stock up!
Fast links to related content in the Woolworths Museum
Pic'n'Mix and Sweets Gallery