Situating the Factory Canteen in Discourses of Health and Industrial Work in Britain (1914-1939)

By Vicky Long

The widespread adoption of canteens within British factories was a product of government intervention during the First World War, reflecting the State’s distinctive war-time objectives. However, this article has sought to dispel the notion that employers discarded such canteens following the cessation of hostilities, while acknowledging the distinctive function of industrial welfare architecture such as canteens in the interwar period. The ideal of industrial health which crystallised over the course of World War I, and which the factory canteen reflected, helps explain why canteens were the lynchpin of interwar industrial welfare scheme implemented by employers. Canteens embodied a holistic, generalised concept of industrial health which emphasised workers’ responsibilities for securing their own health through diet, hygiene and exercise. They marginalised employers’ responsibilities for their employees’ health, and concealed the specific health hazards of the industrial workplace, thus serving effectively as a means of stalling legislative intervention on health and safety issues. Welfare supervisors viewed the canteen as a key ingredient of a person-centred industrial welfare scheme which could counterbalance the sense of alienation believed to result from the subdivision of production processes and the expansion of workforces. Far from transcending the process of industrial rationalisation and consequent depersonalisation of the worker, one might therefore ask whether canteens embodied the ethos of industrial rationalisation, serving to control unruly behaviour while maintaining the human component of industrial production.

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