British industry, and for that matter the military also, have used canteen tokens since at least the latter quarter of the 19th century. Their precise method of use varied considerably. In some instances, workers received such tokens from their employer’s as a concession as part of their terms of employment. In other cases, their issue, by the employer (or his representative), was as an incentive (in the form of a free or subsidized canteen meal) when requesting staff to work overtime. At some industrial establishments (at least in the mid to late 20th century) the management also issued apprentices with an allowance of canteen tokens to help subsidize their wages while training.
In most canteen and refreshment token schemes, the company management issued their workforce with the tokens. These were typically circular and of metal or coloured plastic. They usually carried a denomination of value on one of their sides (i.e. 1d, 2d, 3d etc.) or an indication as for what they could be exchanged for when presented at the work’s canteen for (i.e. good for one packet of cigarettes, half a pint of Cocoa etc.). In addition to a mark of value some canteen tokens (but by no means all) bear the word “CANTEEN” in their obverse legends.
A Great War period penny token exchangeable in the work’s canteen of the National Shell Filling Factory No.4 – Georgetown at Houston, Renfrewshire
In company operated works canteens once the tokens had been exchanged for some form of refreshment, by the employees, they were collected and accounted for before being re-issued by the work’s management to the workers. In works canteens operated by either private catering contractors or charitable organizations (e.g. the Y.M.C.A or Y.W.C.A. in the case of some munitions factories during the Great War) once “collected in” the tokens would be exchanged between the canteen operators and work’s management before they re-entered circulation. Depending on the exact nature of the token scheme, the value of the tokens exchanged in this way also formed the basis of payments claimed by the canteen operators from the work’s owners in the form of legal tender.
During the Great War many factories in both the private and National Factory System sectors established their own Works’ Canteens. While employee welfare provisions were highly welcomed additions to the British factory system, and arguably one of the long term work place benefits to come out of the legacy of the war, the works’ canteens were also seen as a benefit to the employers. Prior to this many workers chose to take their meals at local public houses close to their workplaces. The inevitable movement of staff off the work’s premisses, plus the almost inevitable consumption of alcohol in these establishments, was viewed by employers as being counter productive to maximising long term work place efficiency and safety.