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May 2016: Black Market Britain, 1939-1955

Mark Roodhouse. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013. 288 pp. £65 (hardcover).

Reviewed by: Adrian Smith, University of Southampton

Five years ago I asked the campus cafe´ to provide a civilian’s rations for a week c. 1941, and to cook a Ministry of Food recipe. My students stared in astonishment at the mountain of sugar, asking how one individual could consume so much. They then swiftly polished off a Woolton Pie, declaring it a first class vegetarian dish. I soon sensed a fresh scepticism re the austere nature of life on the Home Front. More recently my Catholic mother mentioned a bookie’s runner taking bets from her blitzed office in wartime Coventry: here was someone whose moral code dictated that she turn up for work on the morning of 15 November 1940 (not surprisingly an astonished fireman sent her straight home); and yet she saw nothing wrong in a weekly flutter on the horses. Neither, incidentally, did it cross her mind that taking a bottle of whiskey through the customs at Holyhead constituted a serious transgression. Both anecdotes demonstrate how with the passage of time dominant tropes and widely shared assumptions can so easily be subverted, such that no aspect of the British war effort can be taken for granted. The popularity of the Woolton Pie and the distaste for an abundance of sugar illustrate changing diet, and confirm the central argument of David Kynaston in Austerity Britain that, for all the superficial familiarity of life seventy years ago, society really has changed quite significantly. Yet, ironically, although critics of secularism and prevailing social mores berate relative morality as a post-1960s phenomenon, examples such as my mother’s relaxed view of legal constraint challenge our notion of mid-century Britain as a conscience-driven, uniquely lawabiding nation.

This elementary point lies at the heart of Mark Roodhouse’s dense study of how the British people coped with being denied the little things that made life worth living across the course of the 1940s. Rationing continued into an era of rising affluence and aspiration, but an accelerated easing of controls late in the decade meant a diminishing return upon related criminal behaviour. Organised
crime, from the pooling of dockside pilfering through to gangland hijacking of fuel tankers, constituted the most damaging element of the black market, but not the most high profile. Then and now the black market is synonymous with the ‘spiv’, or the ‘wide boy’, with his pencil-thin moustache, zoot suit, and multipocketed trench coat. Here is an image which, courtesy of popular culture (not least Ealing comedies and Dad’s Army), remains as rooted in the national psyche as the phrase ‘fell off the back of a lorry’. The ubiquitous nature of black market parlance suggests that everyone was seeking to ‘wangle’ some ‘dodgy’ goods. Yet as Roodhouse makes clear, most people’s acquaintance with illegal trading was not via a street corner spiv. Attitudes towards spivs were ambivalent, so that in the cinema they could be portrayed as lovable rogues whereas in big cities they were the focus of anti-semitic attacks. Most spivs were gentiles, but the prominence of the Jewish community at every level of retailing, and within the clothing industry, encouraged a malign myth that Jews were reaping disproportionate rewards from black-market trading.

Spivs were essentially an urban phenomenon. Their disproportionate significance as the most resilient symbol of the black market signals Roodhouse’s contention that, for most of the adult population, moral relativism 1940s-style was displayed via the ‘grey market’. His book could accurately be called Fifty Shades of Grey had not another study of pain and desire previously claimed the title. For most people evasion of rationing controls entailed the misuse of coupons or the purchase of goods from ‘under the counter’ when dealing with local traders. It was small-scale law-breaking, and very few could claim never to have flaunted the regulations. The authorities secured a remarkable level of consensus by justifying a bafflingly complex system of rationing on the basis of ‘fairness’ rather than patriotic exhortation; while both collective and individual behaviour was moulded by a populist concept of ‘fairness’. Needless to say respective understandings of what was ‘fair’ often clashed, but Roodhouse illustrates how the local constabulary, many magistrates, and even some judges, often turned a blind eye to what was technically illegal because the letter of the law flew in the face of what the community deemed to be demonstrably ‘right’. The police, busy fighting wartime crime but nevertheless enjoying an unprecedented level of popularity, resented a Whitehall requirement to work closely with inspectors who were largely indifferent to local circumstance. ‘Fairness’ was of course dictated by circumstance, both immediate and external; so, for example, someone receiving illicit petrol in 1946 would not have done so a year earlier out of respect for seamen risking their lives to supply Britain with fuel. Indifference to official controls grew in proportion to a shared sense that they were no longer necessary, or, if introduced belatedly like bread rationing, were wholly unwarranted. Efforts to clamp down on both black and grey markets became that much harder the more extended the passage of time since the war. In consequence Attlee’s Labour government attracted more frequent accusations of heavy-handed behaviour than had Churchill’s wartime coalition.

Black Market Britain is based upon Mark Roodhouse’s doctoral thesis, and bears all the hall marks of sustained and intensive intellectual inquiry. This review scarcely touches upon the myriad of topics covered. The monograph is such a pioneering and wide-ranging historical and sociological survey that it is hard
to imagine any future investigation surpassing it – this surely is the nearest thing to a definitive statement. Ironically, precisely because it endeavours to cover so much, Black Market Britain is no easy read. In an ideal world it would provide a rich seam of material for Dr Roodhouse to draw upon when producing a lighter and more entertaining volume for a wider audience. Given OUP’s pricing
policy no doubt the author would make a second book available only to loyal readers and at a knock-down price, assuming of course that we asked nicely and told no-one.

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