Roman Circus House: good news for the NAAFI!

11 Oct 2012
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During the National Heritage Open Days 2012, on 8th-9th September, nearly 300 people visited Roman Circus House, off Circular Road North in the old garrison. This building was formerly the Army Education Centre and is now the offices of the Colchester Archaeological Trust (CAT). It is a very interesting building, but CAT didn't know much about its history or the functions of its rooms. Visitors came to the building to look at some archaeological displays and to see part of the site of the Roman circus in its garden and in the adjacent garden. CAT was hoping to give their visitors lots of information but, as it turned out, they learned something 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 nicely 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 and service corridor.
One of the Open Days visitors was retired Army Quartermaster Major Vic Freeman. Major Freeman was able to tell Philip Crummy of CAT the original use of Roman Circus House - it was the Le Cateau Barracks NAAFI!
Major Freeman provided CAT with a lot of information about the NAAFI and the garrison. CAT 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 canteen, equipped with the stage and a bar, and the adjacent room was the corporals' canteen. The large room upstairs was the reading room. The first floor of the service wing once formed the manageress's private accommodation. The building next door was the Army cook house and dining hall.
Inspired by the discovery that Roman Circus House was the barracks NAAFI, CAT has been doing some research into the history of the NAAFI.
The NAAFI was formed in 1921 from the Army Canteen Service and, during WW2, also ran ENSA.
From Wiki: '... The Navy, Army and Air Force Institutes (NAAFI) ... is an organisation created by the British government in 1921 to run recreational establishments needed by the British Armed Forces, and to sell goods to servicemen and their families. It runs clubs, bars, shops, supermarkets, launderettes, restaurants, caf├ęs and other facilities on most British military bases and also canteens on board Royal Navy ships. Commissioned officers are not usually supposed to use the NAAFI clubs and bars, since their messes provide these facilities and their entry, except on official business, is considered to be an intrusion into junior ranks' private lives ...
In addition to being the name of the Institute, NAAFI is also used in British service talk as a noun for a type of break, i.e. a "NAAFI break" - which means short break or tea break ...'
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 Le Cateau 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. It stands at an intersection between the archaeology of the Roman circus and the modern history of the Army and its community.

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