Australian history

The shortage of goods during COVID-19 recalls the 'tea panic' of 1942

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The shortages during this time, of toilet paper for instance, are not unprecedented (image by TerriC).

The recent and alarming reaction of sections of the public to a perceived threat of commodity shortages is nothing new, either globally or in Australia.

Our experience of the uncertainties and shortages that came with World War II illustrates this point. Then, the focus was not toilet paper, but something much more important: it was tea, then the national drink.

Prior to 1939, Australians were the world’s second-highest consumers of tea per capita. Tea provided two early lessons for the Australian Government. First, was how not to suddenly reduce the supply of a popular commodity. Secondly was how not to communicate public policy.

Three weeks after the outbreak of war, the British Government requisitioned approximately 80 per cent of the tea produced by India and Sri Lanka, around twice Britain's normal needs. This simple action contributed to an immediate global shortage of tea. On Friday 9 October 1939, the Australian public was informed by an official notice stating that the price of tea would increase by threepence a pound. The minimum weekly wage that year was around £4.1s.

Panic buying resulted across the country. In Brisbane for example, grocers were unable to meet consumers’ demands for tea, with some wholesalers refusing to supply it, no doubt seeking to delay meeting these orders until after the price rise. Retailers in all parts of New South Wales sold out of the precious leaves by mid-morning and began sending urgent telegrams to their suppliers requesting more stock.

According to the Sydney Morning Herald published later that month, the cause of the rush was simple. Suggestions that panic buying of tea in grocer shops had been caused by how the official announcement had been made. In other words, the messaging was confused.

For the Government, the question of whether to ration tea or fix its price was a vexed and emotional one. The waters were further muddied by variations in the product according to its source, type and even blend, and the fact that it could not be stored indefinitely. As the war progressed and the Japanese captured traditional sources of supply such as the Netherlands East Indies (now Indonesia), price variations increased across Australia.

Traditional alternative suppliers such as India and Sri Lanka could not meet global demand and prices soared. As the war dragged on, the Australian Government was forced to subsidise the product. For example the estimated cost to the Commonwealth was £2.4 million and £2.1million in 1943/4 and 1944/5. The shortage of shipping did not help and few Australian consumers realised they had been paying some of the lowest prices (the average price in October 1939 was 2/6 per pound) in the world for their tea.

 The fall of Malaya and the Netherlands East Indies in 1942 severely affected the import of tea, then a staple of the Australian diet. Without warning, it was announced on Saturday, 28 February 1942, that the Commonwealth had seized all tea stocks in Australia, which was equivalent to less than two months’ supply. Every person who had more than 227 kilograms of tea was to provide the government with details of how much they held.

Retailers were ordered to sell tea at the current price and supply regular customers with half their normal requirements. Generally, retailers refused to sell tea to other than regular customers and restricted sales in accordance with Government regulations. Immediately after the start of rationing, the incidence of theft and pillage of tea grew exponentially — particularly in coastal cities and on the wharves.

Government advisors adopted a hard line. While it took the view that tea was a very important commodity, it was not a vital foodstuff. The Government believed that stocks could be controlled informally by what was known as the Tea Control Board, a trade organisation specially established to oversee the distribution, sale and pricing of tea. But by July 1942, tea supplies began to dry up and a coupon system had to be introduced by the Rationing Commission. This limited supply to one ounce (28 gms.) per person per week, later raised to 45gms., enough for three cups per day. People living in remote areas could send their coupons by mail to obtain their tea ration.

Then, as now there was hoarding and profiteering. Tea would regularly feature in complaints and letters to newspapers throughout the remainder of the war.

Dr Michael Tyquin is a consulting historian and author of A Bit on the Side: Price Fixing, Rationing, Profiteering and Black Markets in Australia and Britain, 1939-1945.

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