During the First World War hundreds of thousands of servicemen passed through York Station on their way to or from the battlefields. These soldiers and sailors would have been hungry and tired, waiting at the station for connections. The existing buffet at the station closed every day at 5:30pm, and there were reports in the Yorkshire Evening Press of poor service being delivered to soldiers.
The ‘Ladies of York’ take action
So, the ‘Ladies of York’ decided to do something about this problem. On 15 November 1915, a Soldiers’ and Sailors’ Canteen was established on platform three (now platform one).
It was made up of two carriages donated by the North Eastern Railway, and served tea, coffee and food to servicemen in uniform – for low costs. Run by volunteers, it was open twenty four hours a day, seven days a week until it closed on 23 May, 1919. During this time it served four and a half million soldiers and sailors – an average of 18,000 per week. In its first year of opening it spent £7,630 on tea, coffee and food – that’s about £330,000 today. In 1917 the average spent on mugs was £12 per week – about £596 today.
A friendly face
The women of the canteen didn’t only provide sustenance for troops; in many cases, they were a much needed friendly face. A cup of warm tea and a kind remark would have gone a long way for many of these boys, who had likely been away from home for a long time. In some cases, women running such canteens are thought to have written back to the families of soldiers they met, reassuring them of their safety.
A tiring job
These women worked tirelessly at all times, and their efforts were recognised by a passer by, who wrote to the North Eastern Railway Magazine about his experiences:
“A READER having occasion to make a night journey, comments on the busy aspect of York station in the small hours. Service men predominate but civilians of both sexes awaiting train connections help to swell the numbers. Arriving trains disgorge not only sleepy passengers, but incredibly large quantities of parcels, newspapers and mails. But what struck him most was the unselfish service given by the ladies at the soldiers’ and sailors’ canteen where business was very brisk indeed.” NER Magazine, November 1918, Vol. 8 No. 95.
A holiday needed
You can imagine what a difficult job this would have been for the women – to remain positive and welcoming at all times of the day and night whilst most likely seeing awful things, especially when the ambulance trains came in. However, they most likely felt it was their duty to help their boys fighting for their country. Nevertheless, when the canteen closed on 23 May 1919, Mrs Morrell, chair of the committee, remarked how all of the volunteers needed a holiday – and I think they definitely deserved it!
The National Railway Museum is now looking for information from people who may remember their relatives telling them about the Canteen, volunteering for it, encountering it on the station, have pictures of it or any other evidence. If you or anyone may know someone who recalls this get in touch at: firstname.lastname@example.org or 01904 685 750.