Emma “Ma” Francis – Canteen worker throughout World War II 

To commemorate the College’s bicentenary in 2023, we’re showcasing 200 ‘Birkbeck Effects’ which capture the incredible stories of our vibrant and diverse community, highlighting their achievements and impact on the world. 

Emma Ma Francis

“Ma” Francis was one of Birkbeck’s unsung heroes, an essential worker during the second world war who made a considerable contribution to sustaining university life. 

She joined Birkbeck’s Fetter Lane premises in 1896, and left fifty years later, aged eighty. When bombs dropped in the vicinity, she was “unruffled,” calmly handing out mugs of coffee and “sardines on toast, with fried tomatoes twopence extra.”  

On 11th May 1941, incendiary bombs started falling on the College. Ma Francis made her way to the College’s kitchen. A “policeman in Fetter Lane tried to stop me,” she later recalled, who told her “Can’t go down there, Ma!” She abruptly retorted, “Impudence. Young man … I’ve got my work to do – you can’t stop me.” And work she did. Although the building next to Birkbeck was a “raging inferno,” Ma Francis made coffee for everyone on a Primus stove and then served 150 people for lunch. She was heard muttering, “Lucky I cooked the joints yesterday!” 


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