Comment: The canteen where servicemen could ‘get together, have a meal, enjoy a song, write a letter, and generally feel at home’

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Oh, please, won’t some matronly lady clasp me to her bosom and speak soothing words of comfort.

For not only have the two local Little Chefs now closed but, and may the emotion here be contained, that at Brickhill has been reduced to a pile of rubble.

So where now to absorb the ambience of fine dining; to seek the Sunday solace of a window table, where to leisurely digest the contents of the weekend newspapers, and a plate of scampi – with garnished side salad – and chips.

But these are austere times, and times that have also claimed an end to other favoured haunts, such as Harveys at Stewkley.

Yet during the austerity of WW2 there was one café, or rather canteen, that provided a much needed service without any danger of closing – the YMCA canteen at Bletchley Station.

Nationally, for the benefit of those personnel serving in isolated positions, such as searchlight companies and barrage balloon units, the YMCA operated in excess of 800 mobile canteens.

In addition they ran 1,134 centres in camps, billeting areas, docks and railway stations, and regarding the latter with the co-operation of the Bletchley rail officials they hoped to establish a canteen for Forces personnel at the end of April 1940.

Situated on the north end of platforms 2 and 3 this, at a cost of around £300, would comprise a hut measuring some 60 feet by 12 feet, and with a counter at one end there would be accommodation for games, reading and writing.

As for the canteen equipment, this would include large gas cookers, Ascot water heaters and also the gift of a fridge. The idea for a canteen had been that of Mrs Blackburn, who duly became the organiser, and having during the last war performed a great deal of ‘noble work’ for the troops, her experience would prove invaluable for the present venture, of which Mr W Blackburn, her husband, would be chairman.

Fortunately they would now have ample time to run the facility, for, being presently resident at ‘The Dene’, they had chosen the Woburn Sands district for their retirement in 1939.

Declaring Bletchley to be the draughtiest station in England, Lady Hillingdon officially opened the canteen on April 20, and staffed by over 100 volunteers the premises offered a day and night service. The takings of the first day came to about £2, and with a large mug of tea priced at 1d, and poached egg on toast 4d, during the first fortnight the revenue would total more than £50.

As well as the traditional fare a ‘special’ was put on every day, and by the end of the initial six months a profit of £564 would be made. ‘Socials’ organised by the Bletchley Schools Parents’ Association and the Bletchley Labour Party Women’s Section raised additional funds, and the income was then sent to assist those canteens overseas which were being run at a loss.

Provision was even made for any customers who missed their trains to sleep on the premises.

However, for any railway man trying to cadge a cup of tea, not to be caught napping were some of the allegedly ‘right miserable old devils’ who were employed as serving ladies.

Rather more glowing were the appreciative comments of one serviceman, who described the canteen as “a friendly place where you can get together, have a meal, enjoy a song, write a letter, and generally feel at home.”

For the further benefit of the service personnel the honorary secretary, Mr J Manlove, made an appeal for cards, dominoes, draughts, darts, dartboards and a wireless set, while a more unusual ‘entertainment’ was provided by the aptly named Winston, a kitten who had seemed to adopt the canteen, or vice versa.