Yesterday, 25 March 2014, the waiting room on Preston Railway Station was put to good use in an event organised by Preston Remembers, re-creating the inception of the Sailors’ and Soldiers’ Free Buffet on 19 August 1915. This involved an influential group of Preston women, headed by the Mayoress Anna Carmell.
During the existence of the free buffet facility, the management committee had recruited and organised over 400 female volunteers who worked relentlessly in teams for 12-hour shifts serving the servicemen with food and drink in what is now the station waiting room. In those times the room only had wooden benches, unlike the plush modern day ones.
As well as serving in the buffet, the ladies would meet and greet the trains packed with servicemen on their long journeys, and provide them with much needed and appreciated hot drinks and baskets of food. On the opening day of the free buffet they had served 386 men, by January 1917 the average number of men served in a 24 hour period was 3250. In the four years the free buffet was open the volunteer women had served 3 1/4 million servicemen.
The waiting room which was used as a makeshift buffet is adorned with messages from servicemen that are taken from actual letters and notes to the organisers and volunteers to show their individual appreciation of the fine and valiant work in providing the refreshment service. One message reads, “Will you permit a soldier to thank the ladies who carried tea and things along the Scotch train on its arrival at Preston in the weird early hours of tis morning?”
Another reads, “Eh, Lads, have you ever been to Preston Station? That’s the place where they look after you”.
The day was organised as drop-in sessions with the actors of the WoodenSpoons Theatre Company assembling several times throughout the event to explain, to the visitors attending the free buffet, how it all came about and the what they did during the four years in which it operated.
The Harris Museum played a great part in providing all the historical information for the ‘free buffet’ event and facilitating the commemorative printed cups for the day’s refreshments. Much appreciation goes also to Preston City Council for their support in this re-creation in celebrating the wonderful efforts of those women who kept our servicemen going during the very hard times of the Great War.
An interesting fact of the Preston Station Soldiers’ and Sailors’ Free Buffet is that many of the mugs specially produced were handed to servicemen on the trains stopping-off at the station and most of them found their way back long after the trains had departed, sometimes weeks and even months later. Only two known surviving ones exist today and these are deposited at the Harris Museum.
Did you attend the ‘free buffet’ event or have you been to see the Preston Station waiting room with its adornment of messages on the walls? Let us know in the comments.