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This week’s blog is an
updated version of an article from Volume 6 of the Heritage Bulletin and The
Good Neighbours Fact Sheet on the Voices of Volunteering School Resources pages.
During the Second World War WVS started to develop its work
to help people be active in their communities such as setting up Darby and Joan
Clubs. WVS also realised that they needed to provide services for those who
were housebound or needed help in their homes. Over the years there have been
different schemes before the current service Community Companions. The first
scheme to develop was one which doesn’t really resemble the visiting service
which provides practical help. Home Helps was setup to provide help which would
eventually be given by the NHS after it was established in 1948.
Originally intended to be the Home
Workers Scheme, Home Helps assisted those in need of domestic service for
thirty years. During that time it was an essential part of social welfare in
In 1944 the WVS Centre Organiser
for the City of Oxford, Theresa MacDonald, asked the Local Authorities
permission to pioneer a new scheme, Home Helps. Its purpose was to work
alongside and form an attachment with the Local Health Services. At first it
dealt with maternity as its top priority and then concerned itself with old
people as well as chronic cases. Eventually the Helps took on any cases which
were a health emergency.
As a public health service, Home
Helps took on jobs such as washing, cooking and child care. They were employed
by the Local Authority but administration was in the hands of a voluntary
organiser. The WVS trained the Helps and promoted the scheme, at first very
little formal training was given but later Helps could work towards the
National Institute of Houseworkers’ Diploma.
WVS Bulletin January 1947 p5
In 1946 WVS opened a Home Helps
Department at headquarters in London and used its network to publicise the
scheme. The department also ran residential training for Home Help Organisers.
Different local schemes added their own flare to training meetings including
celebrations such as Christmas, birthday and anniversary parties.
Buckinghamshire went further and held a county rally for its Home Helps.
When the National Health Service
Act (1948) came into force the Ministry of Health stated that Home Helps was
vital to the new service. Many Health Services however wanted to take full
control of the scheme. In some areas the WVS remained very involved with Home
Helps, though over the years many handed over to Local Authorities and paid
organisers. By 1964 only a few WVS run schemes remained in counties such as
Cornwall, Worcestershire and East and West Sussex. Home Helps was finally
wrapped up in 1974 with the closure of the final scheme in East Sussex. However
this wasn’t the end of WVS visiting people in their homes and providing support
From the late 1960s onwards WRVS
tried to get a scheme off the ground to help people who were having difficulty
with running their home. Good Neighbours was originally called Good Companions
and had a number of forerunners and names including: the Home Aid Scheme (in 1967
it was merged with the Home Helps Scheme) and Voluntary Daughters. Pilot
schemes were launched in East Sussex in 1971 and by the end of 1972 the 12
regions had at least one scheme each.
The aim of the scheme was to
alleviate loneliness and encourage people to help others in their local
community. Volunteers did not need to sign up as WRVS members but were assigned
people to help by the organisation who were usually referred to them by Social
Services or Doctors. Good Companions
were drawn from a range of people including men, women with young children,
young people (mostly from the WRVS London Evening centre) and even Darby and Joan
club members. Those who need them as a Good Neighbour were usually older
people, disabled, housebound or anyone in need of help.
Good Neighbours allowed people to
stay independent and continue to live in their own homes. Volunteers would
often escort people on outings, go shopping, collect pensions, send post, mend
clothes, change lightbulbs, cook, and do other odd jobs around the home as well
as taking time to talk to the person they were visiting.
From 1977 to 1985 the service
also ran campaigns with the Department of Health and Social Security to raise
awareness of the needs of older people and the disabled. These campaigns also
included work with the police to raise awareness of ‘bogus officials’ calling
on older people.
Royal Voluntary Service continued
to provide Good Neighbour schemes for older people through the 1990s and into
21st Century which included practical help, home visits and telephone calls. In
March 2019 with the ASDA Foundation they launched funding for Community
Companions to continue the work started by Good Companions in the 1960s and
1970s. You can find out more about today’s Community Companions service on thiswebsite.
Guest post from
Charlotte Tomlinson, University of Leeds.
Why do we volunteer? This is an incredibly
important question for charities in the 21st century. Volunteering
is as significant as it was in 1938 when Lady Reading was asked to found the
WVS, we rely more and more on those people who dedicate their skills, energy
and time to supporting those in need. Today, Royal Voluntary Service currently has c20,000 volunteers who provide much-needed support to older people in
hospitals and local communities in an increasingly ageing population.
As a historian, my own research looks a little
further back in Royal Voluntary Service's history. My PhD project, based at the
University of Leeds, studies the everyday experiences of the women who
volunteered with the Women’s Voluntary Services (later Women’s Voluntary
Service (WVS)) during the Second World War – of which there were more than one
million at its peak. These women came to volunteer in countless different ways,
helping civilians before and during air raids in rest centres and canteens,
knitting for troops and running ‘Make Do and Mend’ classes, staffing Citizen’s
Advice Bureaus, collecting pots and pans for salvage, and much more.
Lately I’ve been trying to understand how and
why these women volunteered, and what this tells us about life in wartime
Britain. Answering the question ‘why do people volunteer?’ can be tricky, but
the rich records held by the Royal Voluntary Service archive give us clues by
detailing how the organisation tried to recruit new members.
In its earliest
years, the WVS focused heavily on recruiting more and more women to help
support those in need, and each centre was encouraged to record its own efforts
in attracting new members. Using the Narrative Reports created in 1938 and 1939,
I’ve been able to build a rich picture of how the WVS recruited its volunteers
Like many propaganda campaigns in wartime
Britain, attempts to recruit women to volunteer often happened on a national
scale. Printed material such as posters and pamphlets were distributed widely
from 1938 onwards, calling on women to enrol at once for Air Raid Precaution
services. Some made broad calls, but
others were more specific, asking women to offer their time as ambulance
drivers or to help with evacuation. Films such as ‘Britannia is a Woman’ celebrated
the voluntary spirit of the WVS, hoping that it would inspire others to sign up:
‘The call is sounded, and women fall in for service in their country’s call’.
(IWM MGH 171). Lady Reading herself travelled extensively around Britain to
speak at public meetings and recruit women for the WVS, covering more than one
thousand miles each month.
Like today, the wartime WVS worked closely with local communities, and at the local level a wider variety of methods were used to recruit new volunteers – the extensive Narrative Reports accessible online today paint a detailed picture of how women were encouraged to join the WVS differently from place to place. In July 1939 in Gateshead, sixty representatives from various women’s organisations in the area met to discuss creating a new WVS centre, whose first job would be to help with evacuation in the event of war. This new centre therefore drew on a pool of women already involved in organisational life.
At the same time in Bradford, Yorkshire, a Mrs Cook attended the Yorkshire Show as a representative of the WVS, attempting to recruit new members from the general public, many of whom had probably never volunteered before. In 1939, the popular agricultural show was held in Halifax, not far from Bradford. The Bradford centre also distributed their own posters, instead of national ones, which advertised introductory meetings for potential WVS members at a local school.
Local efforts often worked alongside national campaigns, too. After the film ‘Britannia Is A Woman’ was screened at the Plaza Cinema in Portsmouth, existing WVS members set up a table to distribute leaflets and talk to cinema-goers as they bustled through the cinema’s vestibule. Similarly, at Leamington Spa volunteers displayed WVS posters after another recruitment film, ‘The Warning’, stressed to the audience that it was ‘the duty of everyone’ to play a part in the war effort. By 1940 Narrative Reports for Lewes, Sussex, simply recorded ‘cinemas usual posters’, suggesting that the practice had become a routine form of recruitment.
The Narrative Reports written by the WVS in York during 1939 are particularly rich records which describe in detail how women enrolled for volunteer work in the city and surrounding area. Over the summer of 1939 the centre organised for notices to be published weekly in the local press, and at the same time existing WVS members canvased potential members on their doorsteps while completing evacuation censuses, and while fitting gas masks.
York’s Narrative Reports also hint at potential barriers for women wanting to volunteer, such as a lack or free time, or not knowing where to enrol:
Narrative Reports, York, March 1939
Furthermore, reports from York reveal that while some methods were very successful, others were less so. In June 1939 the WVS sent a speaker to the Odeon Picture House to give a short talk on the work of the local centres, and this was so popular that she was asked to return to future film showings. In the same report, the centre leaders decided that placing more notices in the local press was ineffective, comparable to ‘flogging a dead horse’!
But sometimes efforts to recruit new members weren’t needed at all. A report from Bath in September 1939 suggests that after war was declared, women became acutely aware of the necessity of volunteers to help the war effort, and often came forward with little prompting from recruitment propaganda:
Narrative Reports, Bath, September 1939
Understanding how the WVS recruited its
members in the early years of the war is just one piece of the puzzle of how
and why women volunteered. Women’s own stories, revealed through their diaries,
letters, memoirs and other sources, give us more clues as to how women saw
their own relationship to volunteering. But the Narrative Reports held by the Royal
Voluntary Service Archive & Heritage Collection are crucial to this overall
picture. They are unique sources, which help us to dismantle the idea of war as
played out on a national level, and better understand how women’s relationship
to volunteering was tied to their local communities too. Through the Narrative
Reports, I have been able to build a picture of women’s lives as they were
lived, through the streets, neighbourhoods and communities of wartime Britain.
Charlotte Tomlinson is a PhD researcher in the School of History at the University of Leeds. Her PhD explores experiences of female civilian volunteers in Second World War Britain and is generously funded by the White Rose College for the Arts and Humanities.
“Voluntary Service is a coloured thread in the fabric of the Nation, and without that thread the fabric is neither as beautiful nor as strong as it should be”.
Lady Reading 1970
are the words of Stella Reading founder chairman of WVS which are very relevant
to the support archives are given by those who volunteer their time and skills
to help with a multitude of tasks. It’s been a while since we updated you on
what our volunteer team have been up to in the archive so here is a quick round
up of all the tasks the team have been helping us with recently.
After completing his work on sorting through, digitising and cataloguing 100s photographs from 1990s and 2000s Pete has started work on photographs
from 1940s, 50s, 60s and 70s. They have all been digitised and are now being
described in detail in the Archive’s catalogue; Pete is working very hard and we often find out a lot of new information through research into the subject of the photograph.
Central Registry Files
These files contain policy documents relating to various
WVS/WRVS departments including Good Companions, Hospitals, One-in-Five, Civil
Defence and Food. Each one is full of pins, staples and treasury tags which
need to be removed. Nora is very busy working through over 1000 files to make
sure they are repackaged to archival standards and preserving the history of
Yes we’re still working on the Narrative Report collection; there are 300,000 pages you know! Although we aren’t digitising the rest of the collection volunteers are starting to work on repackaging reports written in 1980s and early 1990s. Pearl is busy working away on them and discovering new stories while removing rust staples. As she has been since 2012 as Pearl said then “an afternoon in the life of this apprentice archivist is never dull.”
The latest project our volunteers are working on is
repackaging a number of volunteer record cards we hold in the collection. Jean
and Alice have been busy working on a number of areas including Aberdeen,
Cardiff, Midlands and East Dunbartonshire. This isn’t simply an exercise in
putting cards in alphabetical order there is a lot to think about e.g. are the
cards split into a specific order, into centres into WVS cards and civil
defence cards. Jean and Alice certainly have their work cut out for them.
Every year we seem to receive more and more material into
the collection, it’s always exiting to get some new treasure! Jeannie helps us
out with accessions and has been for just over ten years sorting through c240
accessions. The latest material to come in was a WRVS Long Service medal with a
clasp and MBE belonging to Molly Lace Regional Organiser for North Yorkshire.
As you can see our volunteer team are very busy and doing a marvellous
job helping us to take care of this very important collection. We are always
looking for people to join our volunteering team so if you are based in the
Devizes area and interested in history and heritage why not get in touch with
us through our online volunteering opportunities.
“Traditional” skills needed by archivists today include
arrangement, description and an understanding of the importance of original
order. Applying all three skills/theories when repackaging and cataloguing a
series can lead to issues when original order is being kept to but does not fit
with the original order of the collection (you can find out more about
collections and series and their structure here). However this can be easily
solved with some Quantum Archiving (as thought of by our Archivist). In this week’s blog we look at what Quantum
Archiving is and how this has been applied in the Royal Voluntary Service
Archive & Heritage Collection.
Quantum Archiving is similar to the second interpretation of
Quantum theory known as the many-worlds or multiverse theory; where an object
can exist in many states in a number of parallel universes. In archiving, a collection could exist in
many states: analogue; digital or a reconstructed version e.g. in a transcript
to name a few. These formats would be in different places (universes) such as a
store room, a server or a database. Over
the years we have been working on preserving and making accessible the 300,000
fragile pieces of paper which hold the hidden histories of millions of women
and men who have given their time as volunteers to WVS and WRVS between 1938
and 1996 also known as the Narrative Reports. In 2018 we started work on more
recent reports written in 1980s and 1990s however this part of the series is
very different from earlier reports.
By 1980s the geographical structure of WRVS had changed from
being organised into twelve regions following the Civil Defence Corps
organisational structure to the follow Local Authorities restructured in 1974.
This meant WRVS was split into districts rather than centres, thus fewer
reports were produced and less frequently from monthly to quarterly and finally
biannually. As well as writing monthly narrative reports areas particularly
counties wrote annual reports. These reports were usually kept separately in
the archive’s collections from the Narrative Reports however when the 1980s
annual reports for some counties and districts arrived at HQ they were stored
with the Narrative Reports for those areas.
When volunteers started working on the reports carrying out
basic preservation and giving sub series reference numbers they noticed that
sat on top were some annual reports. The team then discussed what we should do
and how they should be ordered. Should they
be classed as Narrative Reports? Should they be moved to the collection of annual
reports? It was decided that the physical order should be kept as the
original order while the catalogue record, reference and description would
reflect the order of the rest of the archive’s theoretical structure e.g.
fonds, series and files. Therefore the annual reports exist in two different states
in two different “universes”; the physical and the theoretical. To further
complicate matters the 1980s and 1990s reports are ordered differently to the
1938-1979 reports. Earlier reports are ordered by region then date then county
then centre but after 1980 they have been ordered by region then county then
centre then date. A slight difference but means that they are physically stored
in their original state but described and referenced as the rest of the series
In conclusion arrangement and description (including
reference) do not always fall in to line in archiving. Therefore a collection
can exist in two different states in a physical and theoretical/digital world. This
example is just one of many and I’m sure we will continue receiving surprises
from the Narrative Report collection which makes us look at the different ways
it can exist.
the start of a New Year and perhaps for some the start of some New Year’s
resolutions. If one of those is researching a new project or discovering
something new we can help. In this week’s blog we provide a guide to using our
online resources to research the history of Royal Voluntary Service.
From an in-depth
analysis to a short overview of the history and origins of some of the charities most enquired about services.
fact sheets can be found on the Royal Voluntary Service website and include
- Hidden Histories of a Million Wartime Women - kickstarter updates
- Welfare work in
hospitals 1938 - 2013
- Origins of WVS
- WVS Housewives'
- One in Five
school resources pages Voices of Volunteering you’ll also find brief overviews
of many services including among others:
- Books on Wheels
- Clothing Depots
- Good Neighbours
- Lunch Clubs
- Services Welfare
two sets of school resources available from Royal Voluntary Service, firstly
there is The Army Hitler Forgot these
resources are for teachers of Key Stage 2 and Key Stage 3 classes, focusing on
the Home Front, drawn from the Royal Voluntary Service Archive
and Heritage Collection. Titled The Army Hitler Forgot, the
activities and pages lead school children on a journey from recruitment, to
awards for bravery and the tragic consequences of war. The resources are
available free for all. Visit The Army Hitler Forgot.
mentioned above we have the Voices of Volunteering resources; these resources
are for teachers to use with students age 14+ studying Citizenship, PHSE,
English language and History or who are involved in extracurricular activities
such as the Duke of Edinburgh Award. Titled Citizenship
and Service, the activities and oral histories illustrate to
students the significance of volunteering through the volunteers’ own eyes and
how volunteering has adapted to the changing needs in society. The resources
are available free for all. Visit Voices of Volunteering: 75 Years of Citizenship and Service.
There is a
very handy list of some of the collections held in our Archives which you can
find on the Archive & Heritage Collections page.
As you are
already doing you can keep up to date with the Archive and find out about the
history of the Charity in this blog. An archive of these blogs is also available
on the right of the page. There is also access to the six volumes of the Heritage Bulletin printed between 2010 and 2012 which provide a variety of stories about
WVS and WRVS.
or not Social Media can be a fantastic resource for research and finding out
about what we hold in the collection that may not be found on the main website
pages. As well as a number of Facebook and Twitter posts we have also created a
small number of vlogs and videos on YouTube and podcasts and oral history clips
- The Hidden History of a Million Wartime Women
- A history of Uniform
- Three Heritage Bulletin Blogs
- Two 80th Anniversary Films
- Coloured Thread
- Archives and Motives
- Women in Green on the Silver Screen
- Clothing Store (Oral History)
- The Gift of Time
- Bromham Hospital Fire (Oral History)
been through our extensive collection of secondry sources and finding aids you
may want to look at some primary material. ArchiveOnline is a fully searchable catalogue
contains listings, many with preview images of a selection
of historical material housed in our Archive & Heritage
Collection. It is also the gateway to our digital, downloadable version of all
419 issues of the WVS/WRVS Bulletin from 1939-1974, over 60 Oral Histories and the 84,000 pages of the
WVS Narrative Reports 1938-1945.
also a guide available to help you use our extensive catalogue; Guide to searching the Archive Online.
Why not have
a go at running a search and see what you can find! We searched for New Year
there were 497 results including this 1963 New Year message from Lady Reading.
Enquiry Service and visiting
Of course if you are in need of help or can’t find what you are
looking for you can contact us through our enquiry service. Also if you are a
researcher and are interested in visiting the Archive & Heritage Collection
the collection is open by appointment only the first Tuesday and Wednesday of each month, 10:00-16:00 (closed for
lunch between 13:00-14:00). To ensure we can provide a high standard of
service, access is by appointment only and we ask that these are made at least
a month in advance. You can find more information here about this service.
We hope this brief
outline of what we can offer has given you food for thought and some New Year’s
Year from all of us at the Royal Voluntary Service Archive & Heritage
The Second World War started (in Europe) on 1st September 1939 nearly 80 years ago. WVS had been established just over a year; not long after the start of the war it was Christmas. As I was thinking about writing this blog to go out the week before Christmas Eve I wondered what the WVS were up to at this time of year. I could have chosen anywhere but one of the first documents to jump out at me was a programme of Christmas activities from Rickmansworth WVS 1939. Looking at the Narrative Reports from the area for December 1939 to 1944 you can clearly see that just because it was Christmas WVS work didn’t stop. These are just a few examples of activities in Rickmansworth, taken from the Narrative Reports.
WVS Rickmansworth, like all other WVS centres in Evacuation zones, during the war organised various entertainments for children and adults who were a long way from home just after being evacuated in September 1939. Activities included film showings, dancing, gymnastics, games, singing and parties. Over the years activities changed, in 1941 the Evacuee Club held an exhibition of needlework including clothing such as frocks, dressing gown and children’s clothes. In 1942 the WVS held two parties for under-fives which was considered a great success as you can see in the extract below from December that Year.
Of course the WVS didn’t just spend December running children’s parties they also had other duties to perform. Activities included salvage in 1941 they campaigned to collect paper from houses driving around using the loudspeaker on the WVS Van. Knitting also continued during the season of good will in 1941 47 pull overs were knitted for the Merchant Navy and members began knitting gum boot stockings for Russia. In 1942 they received an urgent request for sweaters and socks for Malta; 114lb was distributed to knitters for the job. Work with the Red Cross also continued in 1941 they had the Russian Red Cross sale for Mrs Churchill’s Fund and the WVS were able to raise £210 (c£8262.74 in today’s money). In 1942 a WVS party made soft toys and raised £59.16.8d (c£2,354.23 in today’s money) for the local Red Cross group. As you can see many activities were business as usual for WVS of Rickmansworth.
Supporting the Armed Services based in Hertfordshire was a large part of WVS Rickmansworth’s work in 1941 and 1942 with a variety of activities in December of Both Years. In December 1941 The Troops Hut was completed with electricity and lino installed. It also had a radio gram and ping pong table. The WVS opened the Hut on Christmas day for 200 men who spent the evening playing games. In Both years WVS held a concert for the RAF Benevolent Fund in 1942 they raised £18.10.0d (c£727.91 in today’s money) for the fund. Looking after the services didn’t just include the Army and RAF there was also the Home Guard to support. In Both years the Home Guard were on exercises and WVS served tea to them from a mobile canteen. Another Service provided by the WVS all year round was camouflage nets. WVS’s role garnishing camouflage nets began in the early years of the war but the scheme wasn’t official until June 1943. Rickmansworth WVS were already working on this before it became official and included other work for the services in this role as you can see from this Narrative Report Extract, December 1942.
This week’s blog has focused on WVS Rickmansworth’s work during the Decembers of 1939, 1941 and 1942. Unfortunately in our Headquarters collection of Narrative Reports there are not many for this area in Hertfordshire and we haven’t been able to look into the Christmases of 1943 and 1944. It is more than likely that these missing reports were written and one of the quadruplet copies arrived at Headquarters. However in 1970s Region 4 was heavily weeded as all regions had different rules for what was kept at that time we have less information about local offices in the Home Counties and East Anglia areas. Although this is the case for Rickmansworth you can see from just a few reports how much was going on during the Second World War and how much time the women of Rickmansworth were giving to help people keep up moral at this time of year.
Reading a number of articles, social media posts and calls
for papers once again archivists seem to be obsessed with the idea of identity.
The Oxford English Dictionary gives two definitions “The fact
of being who or what a person or thing is.” And “A close
similarity or affinity”; synonyms include: character, originality and
specification. Previously in this blog we have explored what archives are, what is an archivist and how that has changed in 20th century. There are
many topics which could be explored surrounding archives and identity; Archives
themselves are the keepers of identity for particular communities, groups or
organisations. In this week’s blog through the Royal Voluntary Service Archive
& Heritage collection we’ll explore how a charity’s identity can be
projected by its archive.
In Charity Archives in the 21st Century Matthew
our Archivist described Charity Archives as holding “the collective memory of
this vitally important part of our history” in reference to philanthropy and
charitable work in previous centuries when volunteering started to develop in
the form it takes today. So what do charity archives tell us about identity in
terms of the charity, the nation and in case of RVS in particular the character
Of course this isn’t the place for an in-depth discussion on
identity so these are just some examples of identity in archives; the whole blog is a refection of parts of Royal Voluntary Services identity and many more can be found in the archives and the work it does today. The
development of WVS to Royal Voluntary Service can be traced through its
documents but also the items of clothing it holds. Since the rise of the
teenager in the 1950s part of people’s identity has been their clothing, their
unique style. Looking through our extensive collection of uniform and how it
has changed over the years you can see why WVS was referred to as the ‘women in
green’. Over the years styles changed but not the colours showing how
recognisable the WVS and later WRVS wanted to make itself through a physical
identity and that it was an organisation that moved with the times. Along with
other organisations in the 1980s and 1990s it moved towards more casual wear.
In 2004 WRVS changed its brand identity completely losing the red and green and
going for orange and purple; a physical representation of the twelve year
transition from crown service to charity. However during 75th
anniversary celebrations WRVS became Royal Voluntary Service and went back to
red and green identifying with its roots and heritage. While the archive
represents the identity of the charity it also epitomizes the identity of a
Our archives do not just signify the identity of the charity;
it represents the story of welfare for a nation. WVS was founded at a time when
the nation was preparing for war but also at a time when ideas about how to
care for society’s most vulnerable were changing. The poor houses and work
houses were disappearing but there wasn’t yet the provision of the welfare
state and the NHS but they were on their way. The Records of the Royal
Voluntary Service’s Archives show how WVS bridged the gap through 1939-1945
with clubs, feeding, clothing exchanges, welfare foods and many others.
Posters, Photographs, Narrative Reports and documents on policy all demonstrate
the identity of Great Britain as a philanthropic nation with many people
wanting to give their time to help those in need. Today Royal Voluntary Service still enables
people across Great Britain to give their time to help others.
A prime example is work in hospitals particularly Trolley Shops,
this year some hospitals are celebrating 70 years of having a trolley run by
our volunteers. WVS covered a whole range of hospital services during the
Second World War including supply depots, food, fundraising and domestic work.
When staff started to return at the end of the war WVS were asked not to
overlap but to still support hospital services. WVS developed a
range of services for the benefit of patients’ physical and mental wellbeing as
well as supporting the hospitals’ needs. While developing the NHS, the Ministry
of Health asked Lady Reading for support where hospitals would not meet
patients’ needs. Lady Reading of course agreed; while personal shopping
services had existed since 1946 Trolley Shops were one of the first WVS
services to appear within the NHS in 1948 by 1949 there were 183 trolley shops
across the country. For members then and volunteers today trolley shops
were/are all about providing a service to make patients feel special, to give
them independence and connections with the world outside and supporting the
NHS. A pivotal part of our national identity and in the archives this identity
can be found in photographs, publications and central registry files which help
us give local services a clear identity and heritage. The Archive
represents many identities and another of these is the character of the
The Character of the
Founder Chairman Lady
Reading was one of the first women to sit in the House of Lords, in 1958 she
had a coat of arms designed for her title Baroness Swanbrough. She wanted it to
epitomise WVS and the motto was “Not why we can’t but how we can”. Lady Reading had many strong views on the
subject of volunteering which have informed people’s own beliefs today about
giving their time for RVS services, in an interview in 1960 she said:
“Voluntary service, to my mind, is
the proud expression of responsibility undertaken by an individual as an
The shelves of our archives are full of examples of that
proud expression, many selfless acts of volunteering and what it means to be a
volunteer. Oral histories and reports written by centre organisers on a monthly
basis provide us with first-hand accounts and memories of service beyond self
over 80 years of history. I know of many examples which would show you the
character of volunteering but I have chosen the following:
Narrative Report, members of Sheffield WVS after an air raid
12th-15th December 1940
Oral History Barbara Statham, rebuilding the Hospital Canteen
at Bromham, Bedfordshire (1990s)
To me these examples show how volunteers will try and help
where ever they can and shows how we can use archives to find the identity of
the concept of volunteering and use it influence us today.
Having a strong identity helps us to make decisions and being able to identify it from their archives can allow charities to learn about their past and look in to their future. The Royal Voluntary Service represents three identities that of the charity itself, the nation and the character of volunteering. All of these identities of course represent a charity which has been part of the fabric of the nation for 80 years. This blog has given just a few examples of the records and objects which can represent these identities; there are many more to be discovered on the Archive Online
and Our History
pages of the website.
In this week's Blog we share with you our Archivist Matthew McMurray's speech given at the OXO Tower Launch on 31st October. Although we can't recreate the electric atmosphere of that event I would encourage you to listen to get the true message of what photographic archives are all about.
Recently I have been doing
a lot of interviews.
Usually I am asked
What did the WVS do during
or even; What is your favourite
picture in the exhibition?
The first is an easy list
of over 40 different services from garnishing camouflage nets to knitting
comforts for troops and of course the provision of food and hot drinks from
mobile canteens. The list goes on but I
have been told I only have 10 minutes!
The latter is harder, and
I am not sure I could really pick any.
There are so many beautiful and iconic images here, but perhaps these
aren’t truly representative of our organisation and the work of our members and
volunteers over the past 80 years.
Displayed here are Just 35
of about 30,000 images we have in our archive.
Despite our surroundings here at the OXO tower the work of our
volunteers has never been glamorous, in fact our founder Stella Reading said to
an audience in 1960
“In these days we are not
living in the atmosphere of drama, we are no longer being called out at night
for Evacuation or the Blitz. We are
working on day to day work which has perhaps no glamour at all, and yet which
is much more worthwhile, because in-fact it can only be appraised in terms of
For every one of these
beautiful atmospheric images there are hundreds more,
less beautiful and less
More than a few are
slightly blurry candid shots of volunteers going about their everyday work
making a difference to ordinary peoples’ lives through their selfless gift of
their time and there energy. But a
photograph on its own can only tell you so much, and with history context is
Behind these 35 archive
images and the thousands more we have are millions of pieces of paper which give
that context, they are the stories behind these pictures which I, my colleagues
and my volunteers protect on behalf of all past, present and future volunteers
and for the nation as a whole. Our
archive is recognised by UNESCO as one of the most important sources for
Women’s history in the 20th century in Britain, and it is only
through truly understanding where we have been that we can truly know where we
Some of you will be thinking,
‘he hasn’t answered the question yet’ but I promise that I am getting to my
Anyone who has read a good
novel will understand exactly what I mean.
For me photographs, like
anything else, infrequently tell the whole truth.
For me, the pictures I
paint in my mind from the first-hand accounts of our volunteers held in our
archive are the most real, the most honest and the most vivid.
Whether that is the
description of a damp, filthy basement flat occupied by an old man in late
1940s London, or the hard, unchanging and endless struggle faced by centre
organisers over the years to recruit volunteers to help them make a
These are my favourite
Going back to the
questions though: I always like a
slightly more challenging one, it keeps me on my toes, and the other day a lady
asked me a good question.
“Why is Royal Voluntary
Service celebrating its 80th Anniversary?” the tone of her voice
said a million things the question itself did not.
That was a very good
question in the way she meant it and in the probably less than three seconds
before I opened my mouth with my mind doing a million miles an hour, which
seemed like a panicked eternity, a very simple answer came.
Why would you not
celebrate the contribution of over 2 million women and men to British society
over 80 years? A recent estimate I did,
suggests that between them they have given 14 million years of service. Placed end to end that quickly covers off the
whole of human history, passing beyond the origins of Rome, ancient Egypt and way
back into geological time when the first apes started to emerge in Africa.
To be honest I find that a
little difficult to properly comprehend; that so many people have given so much
of themselves to help others.
Looking across the river
to the City of London reminds me that ultimately the strength of a nation is
not measured by its banking operations nor by its financial transactions, it is
measured by something much more important, the character of the men and women who
are that nation.
The contribution of the
men and women of the WVS/WRVS and now Royal Voluntary Service is woven into the
very fabric of this nation. Lady Reading
called Voluntary Service a coloured thread which runs through that fabric, and without
it the fabric is neither as strong nor as beautiful.
These pictures then and
the eight new ones by Nicky which will join those 30,000 others I already look
after, are like the light shining through the crack under a door, they tempt
our innate curiosity to open that door, to look inside and to discover
Originally known as Luncheon Clubs, Lunch Clubs were a place where ‘older people, not housebound or in need of Meals on Wheels, may get a good nourishing meal on several days each week, find friendship and help whenever they ask for it, and where they can enjoy a hot meal in the company of others, always a stimulus to those living alone.’
During the Second World War
WVS provided meals for older people in British Restaurants. In the immediate
post-war period meals were provided through Meals on Wheels services to some Darby
and Joan Clubs.
The first mention, in the
Archives, of a dedicated Luncheon Club is the Malvern Luncheon Club in 1949 it
had 220 members and met once a month. Other Luncheon Clubs appeared through the
1950s in different areas including St Marylebone, Bakewell Rural and Mablethorpe.
However it was not until
1962 when the scheme really took off and WVS realised the need to increase the
number of clubs providing midday meals. Clubs provided tea,
coffee, a two or three course meal and in some clubs activities such as Bingo,
a quiz or a raffle.
Every Luncheon Club had a
club leader, cook(s), pot-washers, and servers, all of whom were volunteers
though in some cases the local authority paid for permanent cooks. In some clubs
members who came for a meal would help volunteers with the washing-up. However
in some areas the meals were cooked in kitchens outside the clubs, such as Guys
Marsh Open Borstal for the Parish Centre luncheon club in 1974.
WRVS continued to provide Luncheon Clubs all over Britain for older people to enjoy a hot mid-day meal into the 1980s, 1990s and 2000s. Today Royal Voluntary Service volunteers still run Lunch Clubs and there is now a Cooking for a Crowd cookbook, a collection of favorite Royal Voluntary Service Lunch Club recipes.
 RVS A&HC, Luncheon Clubs, 812, 1967
 RVS A&HC, Report on 25 Years Work 1938-1963, 1963,
Report of Ten Years Work for the Nation 1938-1948
 RVS A&HC, Bulletin, WRVS/HQ/PUB/BUL/BUL-1949-04,
April 1949, pp10-11, Bulletin, WRVS/HQ/PUB/BUL/BUL-1953-01, p15, Bulletin, WRVS/HQ/PUB/BUL/BUL-1954-06,
June 1954 p14, Narrative Report, WRVS/HQ/NR/R3/1958-LINC/MTP, Mablethorpe,
Lincolnshire, May 1958
 RVS A&HC, 807, Work for Old People, 1962
 RVS A&HC,
WRVSA&HC/WRVS/HQ/PUB/BUL/BUL-1974-09, Sept 1974 p11