The Development of Munitions Factory Canteens During the Great War

A view inside of Munitions Workers’ Canteen (believed to be in the Leeds/Bradford area) during the Great War (Artist : Flora Lion c. 1918).

Although factory canteens were one of the most successful parts of the workers’ welfare platform introduced during the Great War they were not initiated by the Welfare Department of the Ministry of Munitions. The move to introducing factory canteens came early in 1915 as part of Lloyd George’s “prohibition” campaign.

Traditionally, factory workers in Britain took their lunch in pubs close to their place of work. The concept of providing canteens in factories began with the motive to keep workers out of pubs, Lloyd George, whose Welsh chapel upbringing predisposed him against alcohol believed that industrial productivity suffered from workers’ drinking habits. In the interest of maximizing munitions production he maintained that workers needed to be kept sober.

After the established of the Central Control Board (Liquor Traffic) in 1915 appointed a canteen committee was appointed under the chairmanship of Sir George Newman to oversee the introduction of canteens for workers. While the committee expressly recommended that canteens be provided in munitions factories and the ministry believed canteens were very important, it was reluctant to undertake the responsibility of opening and running them itself. Instead most wartime canteens were initiated by independent voluntary organizations. By 1917 the committee had approved munitions factory canteens run by the YMCA (England), the YWCA (in both England and Scotland), the YM&WCA (Scotland), the National People’s Palaces Association, the Salvation Army, the Church of England Temperance Society, the Church Army, the British Women’s Temperance Association (Scotland), the Glasgow Union of Women Workers, the Women’s Volunteer Reserve, and the Women’s Legion.

By 1917 there were thirty-one dining halls and fourteen coffee stalls throughout Woolwich Arsenal; by early 1918, the canteens supplied eighty to ninety thousand meals a day, took in a thousand pounds a day, employed a thousand workers, and processed between twenty and twenty five tons of food per day. Apart from Woolwich  Arsenal, the largest-scale undertakings in catering during the Great War occurred in the national factories, particularly those in remote locations.

His Majesty’s Factory at Gretna had to provide more than just factory meals. Because of its remote location it had to become a self-sufficient township. Central kitchens were built in the middle of the nine-mile-wide development providing twenty thousand meals a day. The complex had its own bakery that supplied the canteens and hostels with five to six thousand two-pound loaves of bread a day, as well as cakes, scones, and pies.

In September 1917 “The Engineer” publication reported nearly a million workers were being provided with complete meals daily in the national factories and controlled establishments alone.  It further reported that the establishment of industrial canteens was a sound business method of increasing the efficiency and productivity of the worker, and therefore, of the factories of the country. Thus the industrial canteen had proved its economic value to employers and would last whereas other welfare innovations would not.

The new Works Canteens were organized hierarchically and were also segregated by the workers’ gender. For example, at the Cardonald National Projectile Factory, there were the “manager’s dining room,” two “staff rooms,” a modest room for chargehands (who oversaw small groups of women workers) plus  separate large dining halls for the “girls” and the “men”. The single most obvious mark of distinction between these ranks of canteens, apart from their size, was that in the rooms for managers and staff the tables were adorned with tablecloths, whereas the workers had to be satisfied with bare board or perhaps oilcloth. If workers were dissatisfied with the food or conditions in canteens, there was usually little they could do; as Mr. Blake, a worker at Woolwich Arsenal, testified to the Women’s Service Committee, the fact that women workers used a canteen heavily did not mean they were happy with it, because, especially in the so-called “Danger Buildings,” they simply had nowhere else to go. Despite some concerns the factory canteen was clearly a beneficial innovation for workers which made life at work significantly easier and less unpleasant. The Work’s Canteen was probably the single most important factor in improving the diet of wartime workers. With adequate wages and the availability of plain but nutritious food war workers were able to eat better than they ever had. The results showed positively in their improved health, despite the strain of the war and their long hours of work.