The Arsenal Canteen – Christmas 1915

Early last June, Lady Laurence obtained permission to start a branch of her canteen for munition makers in the big Arsenal at Woolwich, as she had done in many of the other large munition works. The object was to supply the men with tea and cake in the afternoons, and also in the early hours of the morning, as there are men at work all night. The great difference between a military canteen and this one is, that we go to the men, not the men to us, to buy the food. In my innocence, when I thought of the Arsenal at all, I imagined it as a vast factory, and did not realise that it was more like a town, with roads and railways running through it. Naturally a man could not walk a mile to buy a piece of cake! Perhaps the easiest way to describe the work is to take a typical afternoon in August: it is on a rather different footing at the present time.

Shortly after two o’clock the helpers begin to arrive, having satisfied the police at the gate as to their identity-tickets, and report themselves at the kitchen (or depot as it is officially called), to the lady in charge for the day, who allots the various duties. In the kitchen itself are cake cutters (they generally slice up four and a half hundredweight of cake), washers-up, and, most heroic of all, tea-makers. Theirs is not an enviable lot, especially in summer, for the heat from the gas rings and the heavy urns to be handled, make it resemble a stoke-hole. Still, they keep remarkably cheerful, even when milk runs out, or someone lets the water from the copper (commonly known as Gertrude), gently flow over their floor. The rest of us are employed in the open, two or three on each “trolley” as it is called, the same being in private life nothing more or less than the hand milkcart with which everyone is familiar in the streets. Volumes could be written on the little ways of these vehicles; how some have a bias to left, some to right, &c. &c.! However, to work!

Our first duty is to find from the trolley officer to which number we have been allotted, receive from her the slip of paper on which is written our destination and time of starting, and then start loading up. As a. road runs between the kitchen and the open space on which the trolleys stand, everything has to be carried across to them, so that this process takes some time. Tin mugs, and so many dozen mineral water bottles go first, the amount carried varying according to the “shop” which is the trolley’s destination. In rotation, each number fetches its tea, tipping the contents of the urns into the big churn, which sometimes carries as much as twenty gallons. The cake is cut into generous slices, “plain, plum or seedie,” and packed into various sized wooden boxes, which are stacked on top of the kuola, ginger beer and their brethren are put behind the churn. There is often a good deal of time to wait while all this is going on, and in spare moments we sit round on empty mineral boxes, knit and discuss the affairs of the Empire.

Each trolley is timed to arrive at four o’clock, so as that time draws near, one by one they set off, according to the distance they have to go.

If it is our fate to go to one of the factories where boys are employed, the first ten minutes will give one a very good idea of what a football scrum must be like, at any rate to an outsider. The trolley and workers disappear, and all that is to be seen is a closely packed group of hungry humanity. The greatest difficulty of the person who is doling out cake is to discriminate as to who has appealed longest for cake, and who has elbowed his way in by mere force. “Two plain, please miss,” “four currant and a still lemonade,” “one seedie” (and tenders you half-a-crown). The tea-server has almost as strenuous a time, for her part entails stooping, and ever y one wants his mug filled at once. If the truth be told, though, give a “trolley-lady” her choice, and her selection will always be such a beat as this, for there is immense satisfaction in feeling that one has done some real work, and sold out. About 4.30 all the mugs and empty bottles have been collected, and back we trundle to the depot to reload for our next round. I have not mentioned the railway lines and trains which, to me, are the characteristic features of the Arsenal, but they are everywhere. No longer do I feel the same awe for an engine, familiarity does not in this case breed contempt, but a kindly forbearance for their snortings and hootings. “Mind yer back, miss!” comes a shout from behind, and Carnarvon, or Mary, or some such personage puffs on his way with perhaps a truck or two behind. I have even known the day when a goods train was across our path, and uncoupled to let us go on!

The second round is very much the same as the first, but the sale is not so great in most places, and soon after six most of the trolleys are back. Then comes the cleaning, and no shirking of it is allowed, though people’s ideas on the subject are apt to vary. The big churn has to be lifted out and thoroughly rinsed with hot water, and all the brasswork to be polished. Happy the person whose trolley is painted all over!

As may be gathered, the work was apt to be a little damp on a wet day, and for part of the summer, the Arsenal seemed to make a speciality of thunderstorms. However, when one goes prepared, no harm is done, and very often the men try and find us a dry corner.

This is what took place up till September, when the Government cut down our selling time to half an hour, 5.30 to 6, and our coffee-stalls were built in various parts of the Arsenal. At present there is one area in which there is no stall, so the trolleys still go, but in all probability they will be built by Christmas. In a way, a good many of us will be sorry, for though the work was hard and tiring, one felt that a good deal had been done, and that like the workmen we were working at full pressure. Still, there is evidently a need for the canteen, and incidentally, more workers, especially for the night shift. I have never been able to go myself, but I believe the work is just the same, except that a motor goes to some of the far away parts. There is certainly no monotony about it, and one can get a good deal of amusement from it, and there is never any discourtesy, even when supplies run out, which I think is a pretty good tribute to fifty thousand workmen.