Black Market Britain 1939-1955

by Mark Roodhouse

Britain's underground economy flourished during the 1940s and early 1950s thanks to rationing and price control. Producers, traders, and professional criminals helped consumers to get a little extra on the side, from under the counter, or off the back of a lorry. Yet widespread evasion of regulations designed to ensure fair shares for all did not undermine the austerity policies that characterised these years and its vital role in securing compliance with economic regulation.

In Black Market Britain, Mark Roodhouse argues that Britons showed self-restraint in their illegal dealings. The means, motives, and opportunities for evasion were not lacking. The shortages were real, regulations were not watertight, and enforcement was haphazard. Fairness, not patriotism and respect for the law, is the key to understanding this self-restraint. By invoking popular notions of a fair price, a fair profit, and a fair share, government rhetoric limited black marketeering as would-be evaders had to justify their offences both to themselves and others.

Black Market Britain underlines the importance of fairness to those seeking a richer understanding of economic life in modern Britain.

'Black Market Britain, 1939-1955' was runner up for the 2013 Royal Historical Society/History Today Whitfield Prize. The judges' citation reads:

"Britain's experience of rationing during the Second World War presents challenges to the historian, who seeks to tread a path between patriotic myth and the folklore of the black market, and also for the economic theorist, forced to contemplate a world where rational calculations of individual self interest are only part of the picture. Mark Roodhouse's Black Market Britain draws on a range of hitherto under exploited sources to build up a vivid and convincing picture of the way in which citizens came to terms with war-time rationing and price controls. An implicit but clearly understood 'moral economy' allowed consumers to exploit loopholes in the system, creating a socially acceptable 'grey market', while largely shunning the genuine 'black market', which remained on the fringes of British society. The result is a richly textured analysis of the gap between legality and popular conceptions of justice, and of the survival under pressure of communal norms of fairness and reciprocal obligation."

Mark Roodhouse is a Lecturer in Modern History, working on the economic and social history of modern Britain. He is currently writing his second book about organised crime in mid-twentieth-century Britain.

Black Market Britain: 1939-1955 is available to buy from Oxford University Press