The outbreak of war brought with it economic uncertainty and one of the Prime Minister’s first acts was to set up a National Relief Fund under the patronage of the Prince of Wales in order to alleviate any financial distress resulting from the war. At the same time, Lloyd George assured businessmen that that government would “enable the traders of this country to carry on with business as usual”.
“Business as usual” became the mantra of civilian Britain as shops, businesses, manufacturers and farmers sought to adapt to wartime conditions, all the while aiming to keep up supplies and avoid redundancies. Consumers meanwhile, were encouraged to spend, but to do so prudently. Panic buying and hoarding food was strongly discouraged and an Act of Parliament, hastily passed on 8 August, gave the Board of Trade the power to seize any goods being hoarded for the purposes of profiteering at a later date. Large stocks of goods previously imported from Germany, such as sugar, were bought in bulk from other suppliers and the Government guaranteed that merchant ships transporting imports and exports would be insured.
Before the war, Germany had exported a large number of goods to Britain, notably toys. The nation was exhorted to buy British and companies began taking over manufacture in areas previously dominated by Germany — a cartoon by Dudley Tennant in The Bystander in 1918 shows three “Made in England” toys walking past a group of German toys imprisoned in an internment camp! Elsewhere, clothing manufacturers advertised practical clothes at “wartime prices” sold without profit in order to keep shop workers employed.
The initial fears of unemployment were quickly reversed, when the numbers required by Lord Kitchener’s volunteer army soon began to deplete the labour force and create vacancies in the workplace, many of them filled by women. Magazine illustrators delighted in portraying the novelty of women at work. Another popular theme was the stereotypical fat-cat profiteer. Shipbuilding, coal, iron and engineering industries saw an upsurge in profits (as did farming), an unavoidable by-product of war, but criticised nevertheless.
Businesses displayed their patriotic credentials in a number of ways; some companies such as Waring and Gillow, the furniture manufacturers, turned to aircraft production during the war. Lyons’ Corner Houses donated profits to the Star and Garter Fund when they opened a new branch in Oxford Street, and almost every business and organisation in the country financed an ambulance or soup kitchen to travel to the front.