Popular Morality and the Black Market in Britain

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Drawing upon diaries, letters, memoirs, opinion polls and Home Intelligence reports, this essay argues that during the Second World War the majority of participants in Britain’s black markets in price-controlled and rationed foodstuffs accepted the need for economic control and supported the principle of ‘fair shares for all’ while contesting the application of this principle in their individual cases. Paying close attention to accounts of black market dealing in food, which are found in replies to a self-report survey conducted by the independent social research organisation Mass-Observation in 1948, this essay sheds light on popular notions of distributive justice and everyday moral reasoning in 1940s Britain. The self-limiting behaviour revealed in these replies, and the moral stances that underpinned it, contrasts starkly with the experience of civilians in Nazi Occupied Europe and goes someway to explaining the comparatively small-scale of black market dealing in wartime Britain. Encouraged by the right-wing press and the Conservative Party, traders and consumers questioned the need for economic control after the war ended, weakening moral inhibitions to black market activity and making illegal dealing in meat easier to justify. Ministry of Food officials fought an increasingly desperate battle to maintain a high-level of compliance with food rationing against a background of mounting public disquiet and growing reluctance on the part of the police and the courts to enforce the regulations. As soon as the economic situation allowed, the government decontrolled foodstuffs, fearing that continued state interference would undermine public respect for the law.
Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationFood and Conflict in Europe in the Age of the Two World Wars
EditorsFrank Trentmann, Flemming Just
Place of PublicationBasingstoke
PublisherPalgrave Macmillan
Number of pages23
ISBN (Print)1-4039-8684-3
Publication statusPublished - 2006


  • black market
  • rationing
  • price control
  • britain
  • second world war

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