Our last blog post looked at the Soldiers’ and Sailors’ Free Buffets, designed to offer men arriving and departing from London’s rail terminals with food and drink to ease their ongoing journey. Remaining on the food theme, this time we look at an enterprise that aimed to offer employment to men disabled or invalided by war – the Fortune of War cafes.
In my book, ‘Great War Britain’ (History Press, 2014), I mention the Fortune of War café on Edgware Road in connection with a brief report in one magazine which mentioned how they were serving experimental rock cakes made from potato during a time when the public were being urged to practice food control.
But recently, flicking through a 1917 volume of The Sketch magazine, I found another reference to the Fortune of War café and discovered that the Edgware Road branch was just one of several dotted around London, and that the chain, which was founded by an invalided officer of the South Staffordshire Territorials, Lieutenant J. E. Latham, was run along enterprising lines in order to offer men who could not return to their old jobs an opportunity to forge a new career working within a sustainable business. It was, according to an article in the San Francisco Chronicle, ‘an incident that allows disabled soldiers to snap their fingers in the face of charity and earn a living for themselves.’
Latham began the first Fortune of War café, located on Kilburn Road, ‘just outside the North Western railway station’, in February 1917, with his own personal funds along with contributions from four other anonymous investors, though Latham told an interviewer that two were City bankers and another ‘a gentleman of private means’. By September 1917, one of the investors had been tragically killed in action. Each café cost about £400 to set up, and once a number were established, Latham encouraged the public to invest in shares from £10 upwards. Those who invested £50 or more could nominate a disabled soldier for employment at one of the cafes.
On 11 February 1918, a dinner was held at the Lyceum Club in support of the enterprise. It was a chaired by Miss Jessie Dunbar, who seems to have acted as chairperson and consultant for the cafes (she also wrote a book of food economy recipes in collaboration with Lady Glenconner for the Red Cross). Lady Maud Warrender gave a singing recital; the Duchess of Norfolk subscribed £200. The Times reported on a speech given by Latham in which he outlined his motivation:
‘Men returned daily unable to follow their old employment owing to wounds, rheumatism, and other disabilities. In 1915 he (Latham) had as part of his work to be on duty in London at night, and he frequently found men broken in the war – and broken in pocket, also – congregating at coffee stalls, and this suggested the idea that they might be better employed inside. With the assistance of brother officers the first open-air café was built.’
Latham was quoted in the Detroit Free Press in September 1917, describing his own personal experiences at meeting such men:
‘I used to meet some of these men on the street late at night. They were absolutely penniless and they’d ask me for sixpences for a bed or a bite to eat. Many of them had lost a leg or had a shoulder blown away, but they were not totally disabled, and were able to do some sort of work if they could find a job. Some of them wore decorations – but a V.C. doesn’t exactly get you a job when you’ve been discharged from the army.’
As soon as news spread of Latham’s idea, letters poured in to him at his home at 26 Aldridge Road Villas in Notting Hill offering money and sites for free. But he was determined that the Fortune of War cafés would succeed as a business venture rather than a charity, and within a short time, the Kilburn café was making enough profit to invest in a further site in Edgware Road, next to the Metropolitan Music Hall. Another was opened in Hackney and by February 1918, when The Times was reporting on the Lyceum Club meeting, there was also a branch in Aldwych, occupying the Spotted Dog.
The majority of men employed by the cafes had been privates in the army, with many having backgrounds as farm or manual workers, though some non-commissioned officers also applied to work there. Most of the cafes were run by a team of ten with the staff hierarchy mirroring that of the army – new employees would begin as privates and would be promoted to corporal while a man in charge of each café would be a sergeant-major with subordinates addressing him as ‘mister’. Wages were high – between £2 5 shillings and £2 10 shillings a week and breakfast, lunch or dinner were provided depending on shift hours. Together with the disability pension most men qualified for, it meant they could earn a decent, living wage and take pride in being part of a congenial, thriving workplace.
The cafes themselves were inspired by the pavement cafes and estaminets of Paris fulfilling, according to the Illustrated London News, ‘a long-felt want’ for an affordable but cosmopolitan style of dining destination. Small tables and chairs allowed customers to enjoy a cup of tea and slice of cake in the sunshine after they had been served from a counter. On inclement days, canvas curtains could be drawn around to protect customers from the wind or rain. The cafes sported a smart, dark green livery and had branded tea cups and saucers bearing a lion’s head crest and the words, ‘Fortune of War’. At the Edgware Road branch, on a mirror forming the backdrop to the counter was the inscription, ‘Licensed to see Tobacco and Stamps – Founded for the Employment of Disabled Soldiers and Sailors.’ To the left of this:
‘The fortune of war, be you so bold, Is a mound of earth or a stripe of gold.’
The stripe of gold was of course the insignia worn by wounded men. The mound of earth needed little explanation.
For the remainder of the war, Latham’s Fortune of War cafes continued to do a roaring trade. Marthe Troly-Curtin, writing in her column, ‘Phrynette’s Letter from London’ in The Sketch, 21 November 1917 gave a glowing summary of their success:
‘The Fortune of War cafes, founded by Lieutenant E. J. Latham, flourish in spite of food problems. The disabled men who man these cafes are very happy in their work, and both officers and men buy their tea and coffee – made from the best materials, look you, as Mr Lloyd George would say.’
The comment was accompanied by a charming illustration by Gladys Peto giving an impression of a Fortune of War café with its pleasant outdoor seating area. A less stylised page of illustrations by Samuel Begg in The Illustrated London News also gives us a wonderfully clear picture. How long the Fortune of War cafes lasted beyond the war is less clear. Our digital archive gives us no clues, nor do other newspaper archives consulted, but it would be gratifying to think that Latham’s entrepreneurial spirit had longevity beyond the war years, fulfilling his original vision to provide satisfying employment in a profitable business for men who had sacrificed so much.
© Luci Gosling