By December 1915, as many as 8000 men a day were passing through Victoria railway station, either returning home for a brief few days on the 'leave train' or catching the 'boat train' to begin their journey to the Front. That year, there had been letters to the press pointing out that something should be done to offer these men some sustenance at the beginning and end of their journey. One letter to The Times even pointed out the disgrace of men, 'cold and hungry', having no refreshments to welcome them on arrival in the capital. The situation was soon remedied by Mrs (Florence) Kenward Matthews, who had previously manned a trolley of tea and sandwiches to feed refugees from Belgium arriving in London in September 1914.
As Commandant of the Soldiers' and Sailors' Free Buffet, she, along with her Quartermaster, Miss Muriel Perry, set up a catering phenomenon that was to not only feed and provide some comfort to millions of men throughout the war, but was to epitomise the charitable spirit of those remaining on the home front. Operating under the auspices of the War Office and as part of the Red Cross, the buffet provided a hot cup of tea, mountains of sandwiches and generous slices of cake, all of it free. The buffet was staffed by an army of women volunteers, who paid their own expenses and worked in six-hour shifts pouring hundreds of cups of tea every hour, buttering bread, slicing fruit cake or, as The Tatler's gossip columnist Eve described it, 'the worst part' - washing-up. Open round the clock, it was a subject on which the magazines we hold in the archive took much interest, especially in December 1915 when several illustrations and articles appeared celebrating this sterling effort and describing the appreciation of the many soldierly beneficiaries.
'Along the platform, where the leave-train will soon come sliding, stands a row of trestle-tables - four altogether. On each table rest huge dishes, piled high with sandwiches and appetising-looking cake. Dozens of china and enamel cups; several serviceable jugs; vast copper urns, full of steaming tea; a few jars filled with bright-coloured flowers adding a splash of colour to a colourless scene. Behind the trestle-tables stand ladies, clad in sensible dark blue clothes, with the Red Cross badge on their hats, waiting to feed the hungry men who will soon come pouring over the platform in their hundreds.'
Many hours of preparation went into this to ensure refreshments were ready and waiting as soon as trains arrived. Chute describes one girl who had been making sandwiches for five hours solid. Her hand had become swollen from holding and wielding a knife forcing her to be removed from her task and put on to the lighter duties of serving at the counter. Eve, writing about buffet work in her column in The Tatler commented that, 'even the playing-shop part is no fearfully fluffy occupation. Try lifting your arms to pour out tea or something about thirty times a minute for a few hours and you'll see what I mean.'
Buffets at other London rail terminuses soon opened, including Liverpool Street and London Bridge. At the latter, run by Lady Limerick, Queen Alexandra herself took a turn at pouring tea when she paid a visit in December 1915, handing out coffee and cakes to unsuspecting customers for over an hour. When she was eventually recognised, she improved on the occasion by collecting for the buffet's money box and on leaving, announced her intention of returning soon. The event was captured by the artist W. Hatherell in The Graphic for its 25 December 1915 issue.
The fact that buffets were entirely free (though they accepted voluntary contributions in collection boxes), delighted and surprised many of the men who proffered coins, expecting to pay. Margaret Chute, in another article for The Graphic in April 1916 - 'From Battle Front to Buffet' - described one soldier's reaction to the news that he would not have to pay.
'Up to the counter a young shy soldiers pushes his way. "A cup of tea, please, and a sandwich," he says, nervously, while his eyes - hungry eyes - regard the cake longingly. Somebody gives him his tea and a big sandwich - and a smile too. Then he grows very red, fumbles in many pockets, under much kit, and mutters, "How much, please?" Another smile comes over the counter. "It's all free - quite free!" The amazement on his head is almost pitiful. "Free?" he echoes. "Why I - I thought - I - please, miss, may I have a piece of cake, too?" "Of course you may - as much as you like! "And nothing to pay, really, miss?" "Nothing to pay!" Munching his cake he talks to older soldiers who have made many visits to that Buffet. "Yes, it's a fair marvel!" admits one man. Just have as much as ever you can stuff - that's their motto here - and not a farthing to pay! I suppose it's just subscriptions as have kept it going. Costs over a hundred and fifty quid a week I heard one lady say. And all they have is this 'ere box on the counter - and it's not a big 'un, at that!" Shaky, his hand creeps up to the box, and he contributes his mite, from real gratitude.'
Such largesse was difficult to sustain, and there were frequent appeals in the press for contributions in order to keep the buffet going. One suspects that the rash of articles and illustrations around this time a century ago, was part of a fundraising drive to raise awareness and generate donations to keep this essential service going. The Field magazine published an appeal that month stating,
'...it costs over £800 a month at present for food: eighty ladies give their services entirely free; and every troop train is met on the platform with trollies loaded with warm drinks and good food.'
Almost two years later, in September 1917, The Graphic reported that, 'The Soldiers' and Sailors' Free Buffet at Victoria Station which has done such splendid work ever since the war began, is threatened with extinction, the funds being now exhausted. At a weekly cost of £250 about 6000 men are fed here daily, and up to the present, 5,000,000 have been given refreshment free of charge. It would be a national disgrace is the Buffet were no longer able to welcome the returning and speed the parting heroes, and our readers are urged to send their contributions to Mrs Kenward Matthews.'
A week later that year, Eve in The Tatler repeated the appeal. Staffed largely by middle and upper class women, the buffets were a war charity close to the heart of high society magazines such as Tatler. Money also came from theatrical fundraisers; George Robey adopted the buffet as one of his charities putting on matinee variety performances at the Coliseum, generously donated by the theatre impresario Oswald Stoll for the afternoon. Robey even wrote a poem, which accompanied Margaret Chute's April 1916 article. The 56-line poem, entitled, 'A Tommy's Appreciation of Victoria Station Free Buffet' set the scene in London when weary Tommies arrived after a long journey. Robey's verse was steeped in Cockney music hall vernacular:
''Ave you ever struck London at two in the morn?
Lor' love a duck - ain't it cold!
When you're dying for something to drink as is warm,
But it ain't to be bought - not for gold'
Then later on in the poem, an ode to the women who ran the buffet, as well as those who donated to keep it going...
'They're ladies, they are: us, an' REEL ladies, too -
Servin' cawfee and cake to the swaddies.
An' they're there all the night, with a kind word or two -
Lor' - they must have eight 'earts in their bodies.
I've never seen 'eaven - an' don't s'ppose I will -
I'm just doin' MY bit - for the Nation,
An' I ain't seen an angel, but I'd like to bet
That they're just like them gels in the station.
I says to one lady there - "Pardon me, mum,
But who's payin' for all this 'ot drink?"
She says, "Tommy, my lad - it's the Public who pays -
I SHOULD say, those of 'em who THINK!"
Well, whatever they've give - if it's pennies or quids,
As sure as the Lord's up above 'em,
Their names'll be writ in the Good Book some day,
An' all we can say is - "Gawd luv 'em!"
For Florence Kenward, her own considerable efforts spent organising, overseeing and publicising the buffet scheme did not go unrewarded. In October 1917, she was one of a number of women who were decorated by the King at Buckingham Palace for their contribution to the war effort, becoming an Officer of the British Empire. No doubt the news would have cheered many of the men who enjoyed the simple but satisfying comforts, in particular one soldiers, described by Margaret Chute. Having drifted from the leave train without anything to drink or eat for about thirty hours, he declared,
'Talk about medals. If anybody ever deserved one it's the folk what runs this place - saved many a man, they have. And never anything but smiles. Bloomin' marvels, that's what they are!'
© Luci Gosling/Mary Evans Picture Library
Click to see a selection of pictures on railway buffets during the Great War https://www.maryevans.com/lb.php?ref=33695