surprisingly interesting kitchen tiles!

Yesterday (8th October), the Trust’s team of dedicated renovation volunteers were hard at work at Roman Circus House, renovating and decorating the building. Volunteer Neil attacked the floor of our former NAAFI kitchen and discovered an area of what we think are original floor-tiles. These form an area around the chimney-breast, where the kitchen range would have been installed. They are red, heat-resistant tiles. Roman Circus House was built in 1937 as the Regimental Institute of the Artillery (Le Cateau) Barracks at Colchester’s old garrison, to house the barracks NAAFI. The NAAFI – the Navy, Army and Air Force Institutes – is an organisation which provides catering, social and other essential services to the British Services. Roman Circus House was a very well-designed NAAFI: the large kitchen, for example, is a single-storey room with a huge door providing access into the yard, and which was originally directly connected to the servery and to the scullery and store rooms. It would have included a large cooking range below the chimney, and this was, we now think, surrounded by an area of the fire-resistant tiles. It was designed for heavy-duty catering. We have a copy of a 1943 NAAFI recipe book and it includes recipes and prices for a wide range of (war-time) food options, from regulation cups of tea, margarine toast, savoury pie, potatoes, creamed pilchards, and plain salad, to servings of tinned fruit with custard, rock cakes, and treacle tart…

The barracks NAAFI was next door to the barracks dining hall and kitchen, and it provided leisure facilities for the ordinary soldiers and the corporals: they could read publications or write letters in the reading room and play indoor games in the games room. However, the restaurant was the principal room. Here they could partake of light meals, beer and other sustaining beverages; enjoy their ‘NAAFI breaks’ with a cup of tea and a cigarette or cake; buy essential items like razors and confectionery; and even entertain themselves using the small stage, which would probably have included a NAAFI-issue piano, and with NAAFI dances.

Neil was pleased to discover the tiles and, with a keen interest in archaeology, it was nice that he got to do a bit of indoor, modern archaeology along with the renovating… There are ‘archaeological’ traces of the 1937 NAAFI and the people who worked and visited here which can be observed around the building, including layers of old paint on the walls.  There are boot marks on the men’s stairs, where they must have run up the stairs to the games room, and the ‘shadow’ of a stair carpet on the staff stairs. The NAAFI would probably have been run by a manageress with an all-female staff who cleaned the building, laid the fires and kept the kitchen range going, cooked, washed up, and waitressed.

We are now hoping to remove the later floor surface and expose all the fire-resistant tiles, so that we can restore and preserve them. The NAAFI kitchen is being renovated to form part of the Roman circus centre. (Incidentally, Neil also discovered that the NAAFI kitchen chimney is still open to the elements, and so we will have to get it capped!)  We will be re-opening the Roman circus site and centre to visitors in March 2015.

With many thanks to all our volunteers, as always.

The images show Neil admiring the exposed tiles and renovating the chimney-breast.