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The Gift of Time

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 questions like:  

What did the WVS do during the War?  

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 human happiness”.  

For every one of these beautiful atmospheric images there are hundreds more, 

less beautiful and less perfect,  

less posed.  

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 everything.    

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 are going.  

Some of you will be thinking, ‘he hasn’t answered the question yet’ but I promise that I am getting to my point.  

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 difference.   

These are my favourite pictures.  

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 something new.

Posted by Matthew McMurray, Archivist at 09:00 Monday, 19 November 2018.

Labels: Photographs, History, Heritage, exhibition, Archives, OXO

Sweet and Savoury for British Pudding Day

Apparently Friday (9th November) is British Pudding day so for this week’s blog I thought I would share some pudding recipes from the WVS Bulletin and WRVS Magazine.



The WVS Bulletin March 1942



The WVS Bulletin January 1950



The WVS Bulletin May 1963






The WRVS Magazine September 1972

This is just a selection of recipes from the WVS Bulletin and WRVS Magazine, if you want to find more you can search on Archive Online.

Posted by Jennifer Hunt, Deputy Archivist at 09:00 Monday, 05 November 2018.

Labels: Pudding, WVS, WRVS, Bulletin, Magazine