The black market was a response to rationing that was introduced during World War Two. While illegal, the black market became a driving force in the Home Front especially in the cities - for those who could afford the prices.
The activities of German U-boats in the Atlantic greatly restricted the amount of food that came into the country. Therefore the government had to introduce rationing so that everyone got a fair share – primarily of food. However, this led to a gap in the market, which was filled by those involved in black market activities. While cigarettes and alcohol were never rationed they were in short supply. Both these commodities were invariably acquired via the black market. The Ministry of Food investigated complaints against those suspected of being involved in the black market and the penalties for those caught could be severe – a fine of £500 and a possible two years in prison. The government also required offenders to pay three times the value of what they had been caught selling on top of the fine. By the standards of the time, a fine of £500 alone should have been a major deterrent let alone a prison sentence. However, these did not put off many of those involved. Their customers had no reason to inform the government, as they themselves would lose out if the only way to acquire what they wanted was through the black market. Therefore, the government fought a never-ending battle with those involved in the black market and possibly one that they could not win despite appointing 900 inspectors to enforce the law.
“You’d probably hear that there’d be some sugar about somewhere, if you could find your way to it, which had ‘fallen’ off the back of a lorry. Pheasants ‘came’ out of trees too.” (Jennifer Davies)
People most associated with the black market were commonly known as ‘spivs’. This was thought at the time to be ‘VIPS’ back-to-front. However, some believe that it came from a horse racing background or from the London Police who had SPIVS – ‘Suspected Persons and Itinerant Vagrants’. ‘Spiv’ was also the nickname of Henry Bagster, an infamous London crook from the start of the century.
In numerous post-war films and in the 1960’s/1970’s sitcom ‘Dad’s Army’, spivs were frequently portrayed as loveable rogues. There is little research to ascertain just how accurate such a portrayal was. However, it is probably a mythical one simply because so much money was at stake and the profits made by those involved in the black market could be great. The main source of food for the black market came from farmers. They got more out of the relationship than if they provided the government with all their food. Within towns and cities the blackout helped those involved in the black market, as it was easier to break into warehouses undetected. Docks were another source of illicit goods.
However, as might be expected in wartime when everyone was expected to ‘do their bit’, the activities of the spivs and their suppliers were not well received by all. A Member of Parliament called their activities “treason of the worst kind” and there were Parliamentary calls for the maximum five-year term in prison to be increased.