A History of the Ministry of Information, 1939-46

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2nd June, 1942 .


This memorandum is based upon detailed reports from Regional Information Officers, and includes comments made by the Honorary Secretary of the Citizen's Advice Bureau at Portsmouth. Several of the R.I.Os regretted that the complexity and extent of the problem and the limited time at their disposal did not allow the preparation of more comprehensive reports. It should, therefore, be borne in mind that this summary, though covering the more general aspects of the question, does not claim to be complete.

No attempt has been made to assess the results of workers' shopping difficulties, the most notable of which are generally said to be absenteeism and bad timekeeping.

An analysis of the shopping problem is complicated by several inconstant factors. Not only do hours and conditions of work vary, but there are sometimes differences between the working hours of different departments in the same factory; these hours, too, may change from week to week according to the amount of overtime which may be done. The opening and closing hours of shops also vary from Region to Region, and may even do so within the same town.

In order, therefore, that this complicated problem may be summarised as clearly and as briefly as possible, this report is arranged under the following headings, the first four of which (A - D) formed the questionnaire that was sent to the R.I.Os:

A. Are factory workers' shopping difficulties increasing or decreasing?

B. Are they general throughout each Region, or only local?

C. What are their chief causes?

D. What attempts, if any, have been made to solve them?

Action taken by the shops.

Action taken by the firms employing the workers.

Action taken to do the workers' shopping for them.

Action taken by official bodies (Chambers of Commerce etc.)

E. Conclusions.

The extent of the problem.

Suggested remedies.

A. Are factory workers' shopping difficulties increasing or decreasing ?


The position has not materially altered of late.


Difficulties are constant in many areas, and are increasing in several. In only one town is a decrease reported.


It does not appear possible to say definitely whether workers' shopping difficulties are increasing or decreasing, but they are reported to be widespread and of varying intensity.


The termination of the early closing order which was in force during the winter has brought some improvement, but it is anticipated that the return of winter will see a renewal of most of the difficulties.


The problem seems to be constant in this Region, without marked fluctuations.


Shopping difficulties appear to be increasing in most large towns.


Shopping difficulties appear to be constant in the larger towns, increasing in Wiltshire, and decreasing in Somerset, Devon and Cornwall.


Where shopping difficulties exist, i.e. in industrial areas, they appear to be constant without marked fluctuations.


It is said that “Inasmuch as more foods are rationed, workers' shopping difficulties have eased a little, but complaints have by no means died down”.


The volume of complaints has declined in this Region, and workers' shopping difficulties are thought to have decreased slightly during the past few months as a result of increased rationing and the longer daylight.


Shopping difficulties are said to be on the increase in some areas.


Workers' shopping difficulties do not seem to be decreasing except in cases where organised effort has been made to ease the position.


The position in Northern Ireland is said to differ considerably from that in England, by far the largest number of war workers being employed by three firms in Belfast. The greatest number of women workers are employed by James Mackie & Sons, Ltd, whose chief woman Welfare Officer reports that the shopping problem hardly exists, except in a few cases. It is pointed out that there has been no call-up of woman power in Northern Ireland and that most women war workers are young and live at home with their parents, who have time to do all the shopping necessary.

B. Are they general throughout the Region, or only local ?


Difficulties of women war workers are “probably less extensive in this Region than in others, as the employment of women in factories is less”, and “in large parts of the Region the problem cannot be said to exist”. Shopping difficulties are not, however, confined to women, and men absenting themselves from work without leave have given shopping needs as their excuse.

The problem is said to be greatest in Darlington and on Teeside.


Workers' shopping difficulties appear to be general throughout the Region, and are classified as follows:

Constant Increasing Decreasing Non-Existent
Leeds Shipley Rotherham Doncaster
Sheffield Wortley Harrogate
Hull Huddersfield
Penistone Keighley
Castleford (except for food)


Shopping difficulties appear to exist all over the Region but the problem varies in intensity in different areas.

The worst districts are said to be Leicester and certain small towns in Leicestershire, Stamford in Lincolnshire, and Derby.


The problem appears to be general in towns or areas where there are factories, but variations occur according to what adjustment of shop and factory hours has taken place.

Among towns in which difficulties occur are:

Cambridge Luton
Welwyn Garden City Chelmsford
Letchworth Norwich


Shopping difficulties appear to be general rather than confined to particular localities.


Shopping difficulties seem to be fairly general, but the following local conditions are indicated:

Constant Increasing Decreasing
Slough Basingstoke Petersfield (and other smaller places)
Reading Oxford
Banbury Aylesbury
Portsmouth Weymouth
Southampton High Wycombe


In this Region “problems are localised because industrial centres are far apart and the areas between are largely agricultural”.

The places reported as still having the most obvious difficulties are:

Chippenham Bristol (not so much the city itself as Filton, where the Bristol Aeroplane Company is situated.


Shopping difficulties appear to be confined to industrial areas, though they are said to be general throughout Flintshire.


No indication was given in the report from this Region as to the places in which the problem is particularly acute. Shop-keepers are, however, said to be particularly unco-operative in the following places:

Worcester Wellington
Newcastle-under-Lyme Stourbridge


“The difficulties appear to be greater in the cities than in the less congested areas”.

The worst areas seem to be: Birkenhead, Liverpool, Manchester.


Shopping difficulties are “general throughout the Region to the extent that shopping is a slower business everywhere, owing to shortage of staff and goods”.

Great difficulties are reported in Glasgow (and district), Edinburgh and Dundee.


Shopping difficulties are described as being “fairly general throughout the Region”.


Such minor shopping difficulties as exist in this Region appear to be confined to Belfast.

C. What are their chief causes ?

The chief causes of workers' shopping difficulties, and various aspects of these difficulties, may be summarised as follows:-

i) The mid-day closing and the early evening closing of shops

According to reports from ten Regions, “the main cause of the difficulty appears to be that the short hours during which shops are open coincide with the hours in which many married women workers are at work”. The long hours worked in some factories - in some cases from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. - mean that the workers are not able to get to the shops at all until Saturday afternoon, when goods in short supply are usually unobtainable.

ii) The irregular and inadequate supply of commodities to retailers

The fact that so many commodities - and particularly food - are in short supply, and are delivered to the shops at irregular and unspecified intervals, results in:-

1. Goods being sold out before workers can do their shopping. (The best cuts of meat are an oft mentioned example.)

2. Queues: in most cases workers have neither time nor energy to wait in queues.

3. Frequent calls at shops to see if the required goods have come in.

4. The late delivery of certain foods, and particularly fish, means that they do not appear in the shops until after the workers have reached the factory. In most cases such foods are sold out by the late afternoon.

iii) The Order restricting retail deliveries

Restrictions in the delivery of goods, whether as a result of the Order or of the shortage of staff and petrol, mean that most goods must be called for, even if ordered in advance.

iv) Transport difficulties

Transport deficiencies are already a matter for complaint in several Regions, and reports from four Regions indicate that they aggravate the shopping problem for those workers whose home is far from their place of work. Thus shortage of transport involves long waits with resulting loss of time which might have been spent in shopping.

v) The isolated position of many factories

The isolation of many factories, far from shops - or at any rate from the shops at which the workers are registered - makes shopping more difficult by reducing any margin of difference between the closing times of factory and shop. Thus “a woman who ceases work half an hour before the shops close may have only ten effective minutes for shopping, which is not sufficient time for the making up of - say - a grocery order”. In the same way, when “factories are far from the shopping centre, the hour's lunch break does not allow for the eating of a meal and undertaking any journeys involved”.

x) Being paid late

Some workers are paid so late on Friday that their wives cannot shop until Saturday, when the shops are crowded and the best things gone.

D. What attempts, if any, have been made to solve shopping difficulties ?

Before enumerating the various efforts which are being made to solve workers' shopping difficulties, some mention should be made of those factors which have been instrumental in reducing the size of the problem - though not primarily introduced with that object.

1. The extension of rationing. “Every new article which is rationed decreases shopping difficulties”. There is some indication that an extension of outright rationing is more helpful than the inclusion of more commodities on points.

2. The termination of the early closing order which was in force during the winter, together with the longer hours of daylight.

3. The introduction of factory canteens and British Restaurants.

4. The wider introduction of the three shift system, in which, however, the morning shift appears to be the least popular from the point of view of shopping.

Attempts to solve the workers' shopping difficulties may be classified for convenience under four main headings:-

Action taken by the shops

i) Remaining open longer in the evenings : In cases where the public have been aware of it, this seems to have been a success (the Co-operative Stores in several towns in the North Midland Region, cake shops at Stroud in the South Western Region, and Rotherham in the North Eastern Region).

In some places, however, the experiment is being regarded as a failure by the shops, on the ground that insufficient numbers are making use of the facility. (Basingstoke, Portsmouth) Against this it is claimed that not enough publicity had been given to the scheme: this is confirmed by enquiries among workers in nearby factories, many of whom had not heard of it. (Letchworth, Bristol)

In the London Region some shops are said to stay open late one evening a week, for workers only.

A scheme whereby Luton shops should remain open later on Friday evenings and close all day on their early closing day, is said to be “awaiting Home Office sanction”.

ii) Remaining open at mid-day : Where shops which at one time closed at mid-day now remain open this is said to have been greatly appreciated by workers (Portsmouth, Stamford). In Swindon, however, little advantage was taken of this facility, possibly - it is suggested, because workers remained unaware of the change.

iii) Unrationed goods reserved for workers : This seems to be much appreciated as it enables workers to secure some of those goods in short supply which usually go to non-workers. In Castleford window bills are displayed informing workers of this facility. In Basingstoke, Messrs. Marks & Spencer reserve supplies of biscuits between 12.30 and 1.5 (sic) for workers who present specially coloured cards issued in the factory.

iv) Orders left at the shop in the morning and called for in the evening or next day : This is another practice which appears to be very helpful and to have been adopted more by the small shop than the large store, though in both cases it is limited by shortage of staff.

Action taken by the firms employing the workers

i) Allowing the workers special time off for shopping : A large proportion of firms have thought it advisable to arrange what may be described as some form of “organised absenteeism”, whereby the workers are allowed time off from work, in which to do their shopping.

This arrangement takes various forms, including:-

(a) Women workers allowed to leave early one night a week , usually on Friday. In a few cases they can leave early two nights a week. (Pye's and Short's at Cambridge: R.N. Armament Depot at Petersfield: unspecified factories in Yeovil: factories in the North Western Region)

A less generous variation is reported from an “important war factory in South Wales” employing several thousand men and women, where permission is given to workers, “in an emergency, to leave at about 5 - 5.30 p.m. instead of at 7 p.m. for purposes of shopping - but at the workers' own expense”.

(b) Extended dinner hours : Some firms (North Midland Region) allow extra time in the middle of the day on certain days of the week. “Where the dinner hour is from 12 - 1 p.m., the worker can shop then and can feed afterwards when the shops are shut”. According to the report from the South Eastern Region, “the practice of allowing time off on one morning a week is claimed to have been the most satisfactory arrangement so far”.

(c) All or part of Saturday morning free : Several firms in Scotland are said to let their women workers off at 11 o'clock on Saturday mornings, with good results. With one firm work is optional on Saturday morning, and most married women take the morning off for shopping. (Itshide Rubber Works, Petersfield) Free Saturday mornings for married women are reported from the North Western Region to be “a reasonably satisfactory solution”.

(d) Reports from the London and the Midland Regions mention women workers being allowed “ special time off for shopping ”; in the case of the Midland Region “large factories often allow one hour per week per women on certain days of the week.

It is pointed out that in many cases managements “would be only too willing to help workers as much as possible, but it is not possible to allow them so many hours a week off, as a great many of them are on ‘production lines’ where their absence for even a matter of hours would hold up all those workers on that particular line”.

ii) Reorganisation of working hours : This has been undertaken in several cases so that workers' free time shall not always coincide with the periods when the shops are either crowded, closed or sold out. This takes two main forms:

vi) Factory opens hairdressing department : Women workers' difficulties due to the shortage of hairdressers are mentioned in three reports, and in the North Midland Region “some large firms have started a hairdressing department, with excellent results”.

Action taken to do the workers' shopping for them

  1. W.V.S .: Schemes whereby members of the W.V.S. have undertaken the shopping of women war workers are mentioned in reports from four Regions, in only one of which is it said to have met with any success. In the other three Regions the scheme seems to have petered out, either owing to “there being no demand for the service” (Aylesbury), or because of the “difficulties of the money and of favouritism in the shops” (Northern Region). In Salisbury where “W.V.S. personnel visited factory premises to collect workers' orders to be taken to the shops, insufficient demand led to its discontinuance”, possibly because “non-essentials or luxuries such as silk stockings, chocolates and fancy cakes, where the items the W.V.S. were asked to obtain, and they did not find that such demands justified the waste of their time over queuing”.

  2. Neighbourly shopping : This is usually unorganised and consists of friends or neighbours taking in parcels and laundry as well as doing workers' shopping. Though evidently widespread, this does not appear to be an entirely satifactory solution owing to difficulties where choice has to be made (points, etc.), and to the fact that “the shopper has temptations in connection with goods in short supply”. The report from Scotland says that “sometimes these arrangements[Text Missing] break down as the housewives occasionally begin to feel jealous of the high wages the women workers receive in factories, and believe that they are being taken advantage of”.

Action taken by official bodies (Chambers of Commerce, etc.)

These may be summarised under two heads:-

i) Chambers of Commerce, and of Trade : In a number of towns the Chamber of Commerce or the Chamber of Trade have attempted - not always with success - to promote co-operation between the firms and the retail trade for the improvement of the workers' shopping conditions. Thus, in the winter of 1940-41, the local Chamber of Commerce arranged that four large multiple stores in Basingstoke should keep open late for a fortnight “to test the position”, but it was found that the amount of business done did not cover overhead expenses. “In Reading, Oxford, Southampton and Portsmouth (among other places) the local Chambers of Commerce have attempted to co-operate with the factory managements in providing facilities for workers' shopping”, apparently with only limited success. Similar efforts are reported on the part of the Chambers of Commerce in Leeds, Swindon, Bristol, and in parts of Devon and Cornwall. The Worcester Chamber of Commerce have sponsored a scheme by which workers are given with their pay envelopes a special card on which to write their shopping orders. These cards are then collected and sorted into “respective packages for the individual food stores”. These cards are then sent to the stores where they are treated as invoices: the orders are made up, pa. [Text Missing]ed and delivered at the factories on Thursday or Friday afternoons where they are claimed and paid for by the workers. It appears that this scheme, which has been devised with the co-operation of the Ministry of Labour Welfare Panel, is not yet in operation.

ii) Meetings and Committees of a number of local interests : These are mentioned in three Reports and do not appear to have met with much success so far.

Derby : “In Derby an Advisory Committee has been set up, composed of representatives from the retail trade, the Chamber of Commerce, local industries, Trade Unions and Ministry of Labour, at the behest of the latter. So far little of practical value has been done, apart from Marks & Spencer and Woolworths agreeing to reserve certain foods in short supply, and the Co-operative Stores arranging to keep open mid-day. The problem appears too large for these half-measures, and it seems that shops are adamant about extending their hours.”

Greater Manchester : “The Lord Mayor of Manchester called a meeting to deal with the shopping difficulties of war workers, which were alleged to be causing substantial absenteeism among married women. As a result of the meeting a Committee was set up consisting of the Ministry of Labour and representatives of other Departments, and of the traders, traders' assistants and welfare workers. On a seven to six vote the Committee recommended late opening of shops. Up to the present the trade and its assistants have not taken steps to implement this majority decision and the matter appears to be at a deadlock. Similar steps were taken at Crewe with equally unsatisfactory results, and Heywood reports a similar situation”.

West of Scotland : “The Ministry of Labour convened a meeting of West of Scotland Works Representatives - under the Chairmanship of the District Commissioner - to go[Text Missing] into the whole problem. The advantages of the two or three shift system were discussed and the disadvantages of attempting to shop in the early morning or during lunch time were brought forward. Suggested solutions which were rejected by the meeting included delivery of goods in bulk to factories for distribution: priority certificates or cards (it was felt that the administrative difficulties in a large industrial centre like Glasgow would be insurmountable): shops in factories: Sunday shopping: and the later closing of shops. The three best methods of tackling the problem were considered to be the order system, shopping by proxy (probably with the help of Civil Defence Services and the [Text Missing]W.V.S.), and ad hoc adaptation of factory hours. A press statement following the meeting declared that agreement with retailers was expected to the first and second proposals”.

E. Conclusions

(i) The extent of the problem

Workers' shopping difficulties appear to be constant and fairly widespread in most Regions. Where shopping difficulties are reported to be slight or non-existent this usually indicates that the place is a comparatively rural area with no industries; where an improvement in the situation is reported it seems to be due to seasonal factors such as longer daylight and improved supplies, or to an extension of rationing. Purely local improvements, however, have in some cases resulted from special measures undertaken for this purpose, either by factory managements or local shops.

Reports from three Region suggest that “a renewal of the major difficulties that existed throughout last winter is anticipated again next winter” (4), when “the difficulties will be still greater” (6); while “if no energetic steps are taken now, an ugly situation may face the North Western Region next winter”. (10)

(ii) Suggested remedies

While it does not come within the scope of this report to suggest methods of dealing with workers' shopping difficulties, it may be worth while summarising those measures which are reported to have produced local improvements and whose wider adoption is advocated:-

Action on the part of the shops

1. Compulsory late closing of shops on certain evenings, with permission to open later in the mornings or to close on certain afternoons.

2. Compulsory mid-day opening of shops.

3. Reservation of unrationed goods in short supply for workers.

4. The staggering of shop hours, or the introduction of some system of shifts in shops.

Action on the part of the employers

5. Workers to be given time off from work to do their shopping, either in the form of Saturday morning off, being allowed to leave early one evening a week, or being given some time off during the day once or twice a week.

6. Workers to be paid earlier in the week - say, on Thursday.

7. Introduction of the three shift system.

8. Introduction of the five day week for married women workers.

9. The adoption of the “C” Plan in essential works.

10. The installation of shops in factories “for the sale of groceries, provided transport facilities are also provided to get the goods home”. (This suggestion is only made in one report and it appears that it would be regarded at the most as a poor substitute in the cases where work on a production line would make “organised absenteeism” impracticable.) The installation of hairdressers is suggested to meet what appears to be a rather widespread problem, not only for women. The installation of cosmetic shops is also suggested.

Joint action by shops and employers

11. Priority shopping permits for workers, entailing various privileges including the right to take precedence in crowded shops, and to shop after hours when non-workers would be excluded from the shops. It is also suggested that special badges or armlets should be issued to workers, but a report from one Region (4) states that “a system of war-workers' badges had been found to fail”.

Ministerial action

12. The extension of food rationing. There appears to be some preference for registration rationing rather than points rationing, as being more helpful to married women workers because “it [Text Missing]copes with shop crawling”.

13. An increase in the number of canteens and British Restaurants, the latter to be compelled in every case to remain open at mid-day.

Sunday opening : With reference to a suggestion which is sometimes put forward that Sunday opening of shops would help workers to shop, the R.I.O., Eastern Region, writes: “Sabbatarian principles apart, it is generally held that Sunday is not a day when women wish to shop. The housewife-factory-worker regards Sunday as her one chance of putting the house in order, and of cooking enough food to last for several days. Sunday opening would involve a re-adjustment of this habit, and only a sporadic demand for this facility has been met.”

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