welcome to the NAAFI!

During the National Heritage Open Days 2012, on 8th-9th September, nearly 300 people visited Roman Circus House, the Trust’s new premises off Circular Road North in the old garrison. This building was formerly the Army Education Centre. It is a very interesting building, but we didn’t know much about its history or the functions of its rooms. Visitors came to the Trust on the two Open Days to look at some archaeological displays and the building, and to see part of the site of the Roman circus in our garden and in the adjacent garden. We were hoping to give our visitors lots of information – but we actually learned something very important, as well!

The building was completed in 1937 (there is a date plaque on the front of the building) and it is very well designed and well built, modern for 1937, and fitted with metal Crittall windows throughout. The rooms are very well finished with fireplaces, picture rails, coving, skirting boards and dados and, upstairs, surviving high-quality hard wood floorboards. Unusually, it has two front doors and a tall chimney in the central position on the facade. The public rooms are large and well-proportioned and lit by large windows, with one room even containing a small stage. The service area to the rear is good, with a single-storey kitchen, service corridor and other rooms.

One of the Open Days visitors was Major Vic Freeman, a retired Royal Engineer Officer with an interest in military buildings and fortifications, who worked in Colchester garrison from 1978 until 1996, first as a staff officer in HQ Eastern District and then as a project officer for capital works in the district. Major Freeman was able to tell the Trust’s Philip Crummy of the original use of Roman Circus House – it was built in the Artillery Barracks (Le Cateau Barracks) as the barracks NAAFI!

Major Freeman provided us with a lot of information about the NAAFI and the garrison. We then acquired the ground-plan of the Cavalry Barracks from the National Monuments Record, which includes the plan of the Regimental Institute. Completed in 1935, the building is identical to Roman Circus House. The Regimental Institute housed the NAAFI for those barracks. The rooms are all efficiently labelled on the plan: kitchen, scullery, office, beer store, unit coal store, NAAFI coal store, etc. Roman Circus House has lost some of its original features but, apparently, the Regimental Institute still retains some, ie the bar and its three archways, complete with shutters, and a serving hatch to one canteen. So, in Roman Circus House, the large room on the ground floor was the men’s restaurant, equipped with the stage, counters and a bar, and the adjacent room was the corporals’ restaurant. The large room upstairs was the games room, with a reading room above the stage. The first floor of the service wing once formed the manageress’s private accommodation. The buildings next door were the Army cook house and dining hall.

Inspired by the discovery that Roman Circus House was the barracks NAAFI, we have been doing some research into the history of the NAAFI. The NAAFI – the Navy, Army and Air Force Institutes – was formed in 1921 from the Army Canteen Service and, during WW2, also ran ENSA (the Entertainments National Service Association). ‘NAAFI’ is the name of the Institute and its buildings, and it is also used in British service talk as a noun for a type of break, ie a “NAAFI break”, which is a short break or tea break. Service personnel could enjoy tea, beer and hot and cold snacks in the NAAFI and also buy their cigarettes.

The NAAFI was central to the lives of servicemen and servicewomen in the British Armed Forces in peacetime and provided a vital service during WW2. It is still an important feature of Service life today. Roman Circus House, as the barracks NAAFI, would have been a focal building in the Artillery Barracks. Later it served another important function, as the Army Education Centre. The building, therefore, stands as a memorial to all the people who passed through its doors during its military lifetime as well as being a visitor centre for the Roman circus.

Many thanks to Major Freeman for his interest and all the information he provided.