Rouen Station Coffee Shop
The Rouen Station Coffee Shop
IWM Women's Work Collection: BRCS 4.13/3
‘Haven’t you paid a visit yet to the best run show in Europe?’, was the remark I once overhead in a tram in Rouen made by one British soldier to another. Imagine my feelings when I found the show referred to was the Canteen at which I was working. The show was called ‘the Rouen Station Coffee Shop,’ and by that name it is known to the many who passed through it during the war. From a very small beginning the Coffee Shop in Rouen Station became one of the largest Canteens in France, where possibly as many men were catered for as at any one stopping place on the lines of communication.
In the autumn of 1914 the D.D.M.S. at Rouen asked Lady Mabelle Egerton (who had come to Rouen with her father in the ‘Sunbeam’ with Red Cross and St. John’s Ambulance stores and parcels for the wounded) if she would provide boiling water at the Rive Gauche Station for the men who would pass through on their way to the front. These men would have dry rations issued to them but no means of making hot drinks. In acceding to this simple request, little did Lady Mabelle realise the task that lay ahead. At the end of a fortnight instead of a few soldiers asking for boiling water, there were hundreds, and sometimes thousands, at a time asking for everything from a cup of tea and a bun to a mouth organ or a toothbrush – for everything in fact which they had forgotten to get a home and thought they might want during the journey or at the front.
Nothing was provided at the start except an empty goods shed and a few tables and forms; no proper fires or lights, only a little charcoal stove and a few oil lamps. But the staff soon procured Soyer stoves and hands to stoke the fires. Later gas was laid on and a counter made, the tables having proved quite inadequate to stand the rush of hungry and thirsty men. At the end of a fortnight by dint of hard work and little sleep a shop was in full swing where buns, sandwiches, cakes, tea and coffee were to be had, also cigarettes, candles, soap, etc., and from the day when the first soldier was given hot water in December 1914 to the end of April 1919, the Rouen Station Coffee Shop was open day and night to the troops. Not a bad record.
Never could anyone wish to work under a better organisation. No effort was too great to provide for the men’s wants and to do everything possible to ease the hardships of the soldiers going up to the fighting line. It was not only the cup of tea and packet of cigarettes handed over the counter, but the spirit in which it was given. Officers as well as men were catered for, and possibly some of them still remember the early morning cup of hot coffee after a long and often cold night in the train. ‘Officers’ Parcels’ containing food for two days’ journey became a feature, and were known up and down the line. Officers in their turn often helped to serve during a rush, and had it not been for their timely aid some of the men would not have been served before the train went on again. As the work increased the staff became more numerous, their numbers being gradually raised from six to thirty, and it would have been difficult to find a staff more thorough, painstaking and punctual. It was this thoroughness that made the Coffee Shop a ‘well-run show’ in the opinion of Thomas Atkins.
On August 20th, 1916, the Coffee Ship that had existed till then in the goods shed was moved to a large hut built by the British Military Authorities. The new building was not so conveniently situated for the trains, but was more spacious and had greater amenities for those who had to wait in Rouen for any length of time. A small shanty was put up on Line11 to provide food, drinks and smokes, and opened whenever troops were entraining there. The Church Army took over the Coffee Shop on June 1st, 1917, as a working concern and continued it on the same lines as before, so its early traditions remained to the end. The Shop records show that it was not unusual for six thousand men to be served in a day, fifty thousand men and three thousand officers in a month, and on many days convalescents passed through on their way from hospital and were fed free – about four thousand a month.
As regards the provisions they were procured locally or from England. At one time a ton of cake a week was consumed and half a ton of bread a day. A thousand eggs were sometimes disposed of before 8 o’clock in the morning, to say nothing of thirty thousand cigarettes, and many cases of tobacco sold weekly etc. Lady Mabelle also had a small store of comforts for the occupants of ambulance trains contributed by people at home and by Her Majesty the Queen, and much pleasure was given and pain eased by the small pillows, handkerchiefs, slippers, etc. provided, as well as by the fresh fruit which was nearly always forthcoming. Many and varied were the things the Coffee Shop staff did for the men besides feeding them. A letter would be written for one man, a broken watch or a souvenir sent home for another, and frequent damage to hands by broken bully beef tins would be repaired, and at the last a farewell and good speed waved to all as the train steamed out. The following, quoted from an anonymous letter sent to the Coffee Shop perhaps sums up in a few words the spirit of the work done there for our men:-
‘Before we went forth to battle or to death, our last impression of women, home and love which came to us in a strange land was in the Coffee Shop at Rouen.’