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By Harriet Steers on

‘Defending land and sea? Come get your free tea!’

National Railway Museum volunteers reveal how charitable movements run by 'lady volunteers' brought comfort to troops fighting in the First World War.

While volunteering at the National Railway Museum, we have been tasked with finding information about the over 20,000 railwaymen who served and fell during the First World War.

Our research led us to an interesting story regarding how volunteer movements based in British stations brought comfort to those fighting for King and Country. We’ve already heard about the Soldiers and Sailors Canteen at York Station, but our research has found that this was a nationwide movement.

Thousands of men waited around for hours at the London termini from the early stages of the war, whether going on leave or waiting to be dispatched to the South Coast and then onto the front line. Stations also received sick and injured men from ambulance trains. The War Office had to decide how to cope with this influx of men, the solution came to be rest rooms for soldiers, sailors and allied troops alike.

Volunteers at Euston Station serving refreshments to soldier’s c. 1915
Volunteers at Euston Station serving refreshments to soldier’s c. 1915

One of the first rest rooms in London was established at Euston Station, after learning of one in Boulogne (it was argued that the UK shouldn’t be behind France in such matters.) Tea, coffee, cocoa, Bovril, buns, cakes, sandwiches and soups were provided for the men with refreshment bags also being offered for those about to endure a long journey. Cigarettes were also provided by the ladies, as a means of calming the nerves or staving off boredom, this form of comfort is discussed further in another blog by one of our volunteers.

According to the LNWR Gazette, Volume 4 (found on the open shelves in our archive and library centre Search Engine) these were all offered as a way to avoid intoxication from the Railway Bars, as ordered by Kitchener himself.

Up to 600 men could be seen in one day at Euston, with a place to sleep set up at platform 12, where 18 beds had been placed being accessed between 10pm and 7am. It wasn’t just Euston that saw success, with Waterloo proving the most successful in the capital. Up to 25,000 men visited Waterloo on average during the week, and 8 million in total passing through the Rest Room in the five years it was open. So how were these rooms so successful?

These services ran solely on volunteers, many being women of aristocratic status, 250 volunteers working at Waterloo. Not only were the volunteers essential, but there was a huge reliance of Railway companies for the accommodation, and local businesses for money and food. A great deal of fundraising went on to raise support, with concerts being a popular choice, one held at the Coliseum helped bring in £4000 to the cause for Waterloo, a staggering amount which contributed to the hot drinks and snacks but also to games provided and literature for men to read.

Ladies serving Sailors and Soldiers at Paddington Station c.1914
Ladies serving Sailors and Soldiers at Paddington Station c.1914

It wasn’t just Euston and Waterloo that had these rooms for those in need of comfort, they were also present in Charing Cross, Victoria and Paddington Station.
There were reports of Royal visits to the railway stations in early 1915, with the Railway Gazette (April 2nd, 1915 issue) noting the visit of Queen Mary at Victoria Station, and King George V at Liverpool Street Station. They inspected the buffets on offer, and visited the volunteers and thanked them for all their work.

The work of well-meaning ladies was not always well received during the First World War, these women had not experienced and could barely imagine the horrors of the fighting front. As written in The Roses of No Man’s Land by Lyn Macdonald some visits from ‘well-meaning’ ladies actually gave the opposite effect to injured men in hospital. Rifleman Bill Worrell, talks of women offering cigarettes, then ‘…trying to save their souls’ by the selling of religion. These visits were not enjoyed, with those that could walk hiding in the recreation rooms, and those that were bed-bound pretending to be asleep.

Those who were unable to fight and stayed at home did encounter hardships that are sometimes overlooked in First World War histories. Zeppelin raids from 1915, caused the deaths of over 500 civilians with cities such as Nottingham and York being targeted. These attacks are discussed in more detail in another of or blogs.

Wounded soldiers on a station platform
Wounded soldiers on a station platform
A postcard from Owen Willis describing the help offered by the volunteers.
A postcard from Owen Willis describing the help offered by the volunteers.

This postcard from the archive of Owen Willis (kindly reproduced with permission from his family) documents the work of Red Cross ladies who met ambulance trains offering ‘cigarettes. Matches, chewing gum and bags for souvenirs ect’. Our ambulance train exhibition, opening 7 July this year includes more fascinating information on wartime stations.

Find out more about our First World War programmes here, or visit our online database.

One comment on “‘Defending land and sea? Come get your free tea!’

  1. Very interested as writing a life of the novelist Jean Rhys, who as Gwen Williams worked at the Euston canteen for a commander she calls Mrs Colonel in her memoir, Smile, Please. Her grumble is only that Mrs Colonel has a fetish for not cleaning out the frying pan used for fry ups, as she believe it improves the taste. I’d love to identify ‘Mrs Colonel’

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