Dr Henry Irving, Leeds Beckett University
Is the toilet roll shortage a chapter or a footnote?
The last few days have involved a lot of discussion of what ‘future historians’ will make of the UK government’s response to Covid-19, but there has been far less of the practical decisions that those working in the future will inevitably make.
Social and cultural historians writing in 2120 are unlikely to be as vexed as we are about the failings of government outlined in recent newspaper reports. It is more likely that they will want to discuss possible reasons for differential mortality rates, the proliferation of thank you rainbows, and the awkward games of chicken played out between delivery workers, joggers, dog walkers, and shoppers.
I also expect them to discuss toilet roll. But, at the risk of complicating this further, if I had lived through the Second World War, I would have expected ‘future historians’ to now be talking about batteries not ‘Blitz spirit’.
The social and cultural significance of batteries emerges clearly from the wartime Home Intelligence reports compiled by the Ministry of Information (which, thanks to the hard work of my friends and former colleagues at the University of London, are free to search at moidigital.ac.uk). These trace a growing shortage, beginning with complaints about the availability of high tension batteries for radio sets in August 1941.
As complaints mounted, the Home Intelligence division moved the battery shortage into its list of ‘Constant Topics of Complaint’. They explained that the grumbles were motivated by both anxiety that listeners would be cut off from instructions in the event of an invasion and a fear that rumours would spread unchecked without access to the news.
A survey undertaken by BBC Listener Research at the beginning of October found that one in four listeners had battery operated sets, and two third of these listeners had experienced difficulty getting batteries. The situation was especially acute in rural areas with limited access to wired electricity. By November, Home Intelligence reported that the battery shortage was the single most persistent complaint on the home front.
The government responded by issuing a press release reassuring the public that the matter was in hand. The notice – published as a brief announcement in most national newspapers – explained that the production of high tension batteries had been expanded and rural areas would be given priority for distribution. It promised that there would be adequate supplies for the whole country by the end of the year.
When set against a backdrop of mounting criticism, the government’s response appears designed in part to play down the severity of the problem. If so, their strategy became unstuck when new reports fed into Home Intelligence concerning the availability of torch batteries, particular the popular ‘No. 8’ size. Here, shortages had been exacerbated by a suspiciously large number of complaints about dud batteries (so many that the Daily Mirror believed unscrupulous manufacturers were running a ‘pitch-black market’ to fleece consumers).
Although rogue traders were criticised, Home Intelligence reported that the government was given the shortest shrift. The evidence used to justify this conclusion has not survived, but the final reports contain a handful of verbatim examples hinting at what they believed were the main issues. One complaint, included in the report produced on 29 November, noted that ‘It is downright swindling on the part of the Government to take the money for the licence, and then not allow batteries to be made’.
It was more than a consumer issue. While batteries were hardly the most exciting product, the shortage exposed the vital role they fulfilled in 1940s Britain. The lack of high tension cells left individuals isolated from news and information at a critical juncture in the war, while deficient torch batteries increased physical risks during the black out. Practical issues like these were a key determinant of ‘Blitz spirit’. As an aside, the number of traffic accidents had increased dramatically as a result of lighting restrictions, with deaths on British roads peaking at 9,196 in 1940 (the equivalent of one death for every 200 registered vehicles).
As significantly, the shortage also highlighted weaknesses in the government’s management of the war economy. Indeed, despite their promise that stocks would return to normal, complaints continued throughout the winter and into the New Year. According to the Home Intelligence report produced on 15 December, this was ‘extremely serious from the point of view of public morale’. Apparently not too serious, though, as the situation was allowed to repeat itself the following year. As Home Intelligence noted on 22 December 1942: ‘The Government is blamed for “failing to foresee and plan for this need”’.
The battery shortage of 1941 has been confined to the footnotes of the Second World War, but it contains arguably more relevant analogies for our Covid-19 lockdown than the notion of ‘Blitz spirit’. Its history should also make us think about how ‘future historians’ will operate. We do not know whether the toilet roll shortage will become a chapter or a footnote. But it’s likely that a similar process of experience, interpretation and reinterpretation will ultimately determine how we are viewed today.
About the author: Henry Irving is a senior lecturer in public history at Leeds Beckett University and is Communications Officer for the Social History Society. He was Research Fellow on the project ‘A Communication History of the Ministry of Information, 1939-46’ and has written about the Ministry of Information’s activities on the Home Front in Simon Eliot and Marc Wiggam (eds), Allied Communication to the Public During the Second World War (London: Bloomsbury, 2020).
He has written about the links between Covid-19 and the Blitz for History and Policy.