Keep up to date with the latest news and happenings at the Archive and Heritage Collection. Send us your email address to receive notifications of new posts to your inbox, or follow us on twitter.com/RVSarchives
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.