A History of the Ministry of Information, 1939-46



Early in 1942, the Consumer Needs Department of the Board of Trade asked the Wartime Social Survey to make regular monthly inquiries into shortages of various consumer goods. The Department was interested in particular commodities which were in short supply, mainly articles for domestic use and articles of clothing - these commodities were all of a practical non-luxury type, and shortages were likely to be causing the public considerable inconvenience and difficulty.

The objects of the proposes inquiry were to find out how many people had tried to buy the articles concerned during given periods and to what extent difficulty had been experienced. By considering the results of several surveys together it would then be possible to see whether the situation was worsening, improving or remaining about the same, and perhaps to make adjustments in supplies so that less difficulties were experienced if the position became very bad in particular areas. That there should be shortages was of course inevitable, but if information of this type were available it might be possible to ease the situation in regard to particular commodities and to prevent it from becoming altogether hopeless.

Accordingly inquiries were carried out at regular intervals. The information was collected for special administrative purposes but as it may be of some general interest an attempt has been made to sum up the results of the inquiries in this report. An account of the methods used to collect the information is given below, and when trying to draw conclusions readers should bear in mind the limitations which have been stated and the fact that these methods can yield only approximate results.

Most of the articles in which Consumer Needs Department were interested were for household rather than for individual use, and it was decided that the information needed could best be obtained by interviewing samples of housewives. The clothing items concerned would of course, be purchased in many cases by people who were not housewives, but it was unlikely that purchases would be made or attempted by other members of families without the housewife’s knowledge and so information about these items could also be obtained from housewives.

A sample of about 3,000 housewives was accordingly interviewed each month. At first housewives were asked simply whether they had tried to buy each of about thirty items, whether they had succeeded. In April 1943 certain changes were made in the questions. The main questions were similar to those asked before, but some additional questions were asked.

It was recognised that inability to buy an article could result from no such articles being available in the shops, from only the wrong type or size being available, or from the prices being too high. Information as to why housewives could not get what they wanted was therefore sought and informants were asked why it was that they could not get the article required.

Similarly, information as to whether housewives were satisfied with the articles they bought and their reasons for being dissatisfied, would also be useful.

The list of thirty items was changed from time to time according to the requirements of Consumer Needs Department. To keep the interview of a practical length, it was necessary to limit the list to about thirty items, and accordingly when new shortages began to be felt, and information was wanted about them other items of which the position appeared to be fairly satisfactory were dropped and these were replaced by the new items.

The results of each inquiry were tabulated separately, and it the beginning, of each month Consumer Needs Department received tables showing the results of the lnquiry made at the beginning of the previous month. Results were available within four weeks of the time at which interviewing ended.

For nearly two years inquiries were made monthly. At the beginning of 1944 however, reorganisations of the Survey’s work and staff, and increasing pressure of work from other Department, made it impossible for the Shortages survey to be carried out monthly as before, and it was agreed with Consumer Needs Department that the inquiry should be made every two months instead. However, housewives were still asked about their attempts to purchase in “the last four weeks” as it was felt that if the time was extended to “the last two months” this would be too great a tax on the housewife's memory and accurate replies could not be expected.

The survey was continued every two months for a year and was then discontinued as the end of the war approached, and the need arose for a new type of survey which would deal with shortage problems from a different point of view.

In the present report some of the results of inquiries made between April 1943 and January 1945 are given. As some of the questions and many of the commodities were changed at the beginning of this period it was thought best to exclude the results of the inquiries made prior to April 1943.


The Method of Selecting the Sample

The Shortages inquiry was in the first place carried out by the Wartime Social Survey's Regional Organisation. This organisation consisted of twenty-three trained investigators who lived and worked in selected areas of Great Britain and were placed so that all the main centres of population and a selection of areas in which the population is more scattered, could be covered. Subsequently the Regional Organisation ceased to exist and was merged with the Survey's ordinary mobile staff who continued to carry out the Shortages inquiry.

The population sampled for this inquiry was the population of housewives in Great Britain. The Northern and Eastern areas of Scotland however, were not visited, nor was North Wales. The population in these areas (with the exception of Edinburgh) is widely scattered and including them would have entailed a large amount of travelling for the sake of only a few interviews. Interviews were however, made in rural areas in the South Western area of Scotland and in various parts of England, the proportion of interviews made in rural areas in the whole sample being proportionate to the population living in such areas in the whole of Great Britain.

In planning the sample the Ministry of Food's population statistics were used, and appropriate numbers of interviews being allotted to each of twelve regions. Towns and rural areas were selected so that the correct proportion of interviews were made in large and small towns and in the country.

The population was further stratified by Economic Group, appropriate numbers of interviews being made with housewives in the upper, middle and low economic classes.

Previous inquiries made by the Wartime Social Survey had yielded information as to the approximate proportions of housewives in three age groups, under 35 ,35 to 50 and over 50, and these proportions were used in controlling the sample for the Shortages inquiries.

Each investigator was given a quota sheet showing how many interviews she should make with housewives in different towns and areas, in four economic groups, and in three age groups, and was given instructions as to how the housewives should be selected.

The first stage in selecting the sample was to find out in which sections of the town housewives in different economic groups were likely to be found. Investigators then visited streets in different areas, selecting houses at random and not visiting more than five or six houses in the same street.

The economic group was assessed with reference to the occupation of the chief wage-earner of the family. If the economic group of a housewife in a particular street was not as the interviewer had expected when deciding to make calls in that street, she was classified in the group to which she did belong and further interviews were made in various streets until the required quota for each economic group was made up.

In controlling the age distribution of the sample, the investigator had nothing to help her in deciding which house to visit. Accordingly investigators were not asked to keep exactly to the age quotas given, but to treat them advisedly so as not to depart too far from the numbers given

If housewives were out at the first time of calling, investigators were not required to call back but found a housewife of the appropriate economic group and age elsewhere. This method means that housewives who go out to work and are out all day are likely to be under-represented in the sample. This limitation in the sample is, however, known and stated and does not in any case affect the main purpose of the inquiry which was to compare one period with another, since the same method of sampling was used in every inquiry. Of the housewives interviewed about 15% went out to work. It is estimated that at this time about 30% of all housewives were workers.

Analysis of the samples are given in Appendix I. of this report.

The Method of Interviewing

Housewives were first given an explanation of the purpose of the inquiry and were then asked whether they had tried to buy each of the items listed in the last four weeks. Investigators were told to remind housewives constantly of the period concerned and so far as possible to make sure that purchases attempted previous to this period were not included.

The housewife was also asked whether she has succeeded in getting the article. If she had not succeeded she was asked at how many shops she had tried for it and the answer was classified as “one or two shops” or “three or more shops” The purpose of this question was partly to check the accuracy of the housewife’s reply to the first question and partly to measure the extent of difficulty experienced by housewives in their unsuccessful attempts to buy what they wanted.

Further, housewives who had been unsuccessful were asked why they had not succeeded, whether they had been unable to find any article of the sort wanted in the shops, or whether there had been some other difficulty. Answers were classified “None in shops”, “Only wrong type available” or “Price too high”. In later surveys more detailed questions were asked when only the wrong type of article was available, and replies classified “Wrong size” and “Wrong colour” as well as “Wrong type” for other reasons.

Those housewives who had succeeded in buying the article they were looking for were asked whether or not they were satisfied with the purchase, and if they were dissatisfied the reason for dissatisfaction. Reasons for dissatisfaction were classified “Poor quality”, “Price too high”, “Wrong type” and later “Wrong size” and “Wrong colour”.

In the case of articles of clothing, and articles for which priority dockets were needed (sheets and blankets), coupon or docket difficulty was also counted as an answer. If the housewife had not succeeded in buying what she wanted, in some cases it was because she found she needed coupons or dockets, or more coupons than she had anticipated, in order to buy the article, and on finding, this out, had decided that she would not or could not buy it. If the housewife had succeeded the number of coupons required was sometimes given as a. reason for dissatisfaction with the purchase.

A few additional questions relating to particular articles were asked occasionally from time to time, but the main part of the interview consisted in the questions given above.

A specimen questionnaire form is given in Appendix II.


Analysis of Result

Forms were returned by investigators to the central office every few days during the inquiry, and these were then checked to make sure. there were no discrepancies in the information given. If errors wore found the forms were returned to the investigator to be corrected if possible, and if this could not be done for fresh interviews with other housewives to be made instead of them

The information was then transferred from the forms to punch cards and the results tabulated mechanically.

Analysis of answers to the main questions, “Did you try to buy?” and “Did you succeed?”, were made by five region groups and by two economic groups. The answers to other questions were counted in total only.

For the regional analysis the twelve Ministry of Food regions were grouped as follows. The three northern regions, “North-East,” “North-West,”• and “North” formed one group. The “Midlands”, “North Midlands”, and South Wales formed another. The number of interviews made in Wales in a representative sample of 3,000, was not sufficient for results to be given separately for Wales, and it was thought that Wales could be grouped more appropriately with the Midlands than with any other region. A third region group covered the whole of the south of England, except London, and East Anglia. In this group the Ministry of Food regions, “South”, “South ’West”, “South East”, and “East I and II” were included. It was thought best to put East Anglia with the South rather than with the Midlands, since like the South, this region is largely agricultural and the bulk of the population is scattered in small towns and villages. London was considered as a separate region, and results for Scotland were also given separately.

In considering the results for Scotland, it should be noted that only the south western area was covered. This area contains more than half of the whole population of the Scotland.

Although in controlling the sample, four economic groups were used, results were tabulated in two groups only. The higher economic group as shown in the results covers some 25% of the population and includes families of which the chief wage earner had a wage rate or salary of more than £5 per week. The lower group consists of families whose chief wage earner had a lower wage rate, and families who were dependent on state or other small pensions for their income. This group covers the remaining 75% of the population.

The Dates at which the Inquiries were made

Inquiries were begun either in the last or the first few days of a month. It was not found possible always to start on the same day of the month. Interviewing on one inquiry took about a fortnight, and so the whole period covered in an inquiry is about six weeks, i.e. from four weeks before the day on which the first interviews were made to the day which the interview was made.

In this report results are given under month headings, the month named being that in which the centre of the whole six weeks' period came. This is always the month to which the greater part of the material refers, although most of the interviewing was carried out during the next month.

It should be noted therefore that results are not related exactly to the month named but mainly to that month and partly to the following month.


No comparison is made in this report between the proportions of housewives buying commodities at different periods, which indicate the supply position, and the production figures published recently, in the Board of Trade Journal. Such comparison should not be made because of the varying lengths of time elapsing between production and distribution to retailers, the variability of retailers’ stocks, and the fact that not all the goods produced for the home market were for retail distribution.

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