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The Silent History of Women

In a sleepless night at the weekend, before I returned to work for the New Year, I was listening to the Film Programme on BBC Radio 4. The episode was about Women in film and included a very interesting conversation with the director Carol Morley, Producer Elizabeth Karlsen and writer/actor Justine Waddell.

Elizabeth Karlsen came out with a phrase that has stuck with me over the past couple of days and one which has led me to much thought. She said that the history of women was a ‘hidden history’, a ‘silent history’ and in searching out and making films about women they were mining silent territory, a lone pickaxe if you will in a vast deserted wilderness.

Our archive deals primarily with the contribution of women to British society in the 20th century so naturally this idea of a concealed past, waiting to be revealed, struck a chord with me. Most have heard of Dad’s Army because of the popular 70s TV show, but few know of the army that Hitler forgot - the “Women in Green”; the Women’s Voluntary Services (WVS).

During the Second World War, the Home Guard, or Dad’s Army as they were known, comprised around one and a half million men, the WVS just over one million members. The WVS was larger than all of the other women’s services combined; the next largest the Auxiliary Territorial Service (ATS) with around 250,000 women.

While Dad’s Army and the other conscripted services ended with the victory of the Allies in 1945, the Women in Green carried on. Around 600,000 women helped us to pioneer the early welfare state, such as developing the modern home care system and fundamentally reshaped British society, and our volunteers continue this legacy in communities across the country today.

The representation of women in film over the past 20 years has admittedly changed substantially, with documentaries covering services such as the Women’s Land Army, the ATS and, the Lumber Jills and WAAF. But, to my knowledge, the WVS has never enjoyed the same treatment. The only WVS centred programme that I know of is Victoria Wood’s wonderful ‘Housewife 49’, a one off drama based on the wartime diaries of WVS member Nella Last. One almost never sees a uniformed WVS member in the background of a period drama, despite one in every ten women in the country belonging to the organisation during WWII.

I sometimes feel a bit like I too am mining that silent territory, shouting to get the remarkable story of those women in green heard. Our archives are full of those wonderful stories of everyday unremarkable heroism which faced down a never ending tide of human misery and hardship created by total war.

Perhaps part of their problem is that their story is unglamorous; dealing with lice infested children, handing out donated clothing to the dispossessed or working in the background sustaining with tea those toiling in the spotlight to put out the fires and clear the rubble created by the Blitzkrieg.

"…our aim is not recognition of success nor are we wishful of public thanks, but we are determined on achievement. No task is so slight that it falls below our notice-no effort so great that it lies beyond our attempt. We fight for our country with unspectacular but unceasing determination."

Lady Reading
The success of the organisation and the vision of its founder, Lady Reading, was in using the everyday skills that women already had and mobilising them to make a difference quickly. It was also to use those who were not eligible for conscription, mostly older women over the age of 40, housewives and mothers.

As talking about the war and one's experiences started to become popular in the 1980s and 1990s, most of these women who had given so much to their country had already passed away and the more glamorous and less constrained younger generation for whom the war brought new opportunities were left to tell the wartime story.  Our archive is now the last keeper of those forgotten memories.

Over the years I have been approached by several documentary makers about creating a programme about the WVS, but all have sadly come to nothing. To return to Elizabeth Karlsen’s view; commissioners want a hook, and invariably a hook that people already know a little about. We however are mining the silent territory, the hidden history of women.

Posted by Matthew McMurray, Royal Voluntary Service Archivist at 09:00 Monday, 11 January 2016.

Labels: Silent History, Elizabeth Karlsen, Hidden History, Dad's Army, Home Guard, ATS, WAAF, Women's Land Army, WVS

The Army Hitler forgot

Our Narrative Reports and correspondence files are strewn with the whimsy of some of the more creative of the WVS centre organisers over the years. And one of their favourite past times was including with their letters or little poems. These ranged in skill from the sublime to the downright awful, but below, for your delight is one of the most charming we have come across.

WVS – The Army Hitler Forgot

Has the question ever been put to you
Can you tell me what the WVS do?
Oh yes! Of course, they drive a car
Serve cups of tea from a canteen Bar
With such duties light, in a gentle way
They easily pass the livelong day.
No, no! They are wrong, and must be told
Of the different story we now unfold.

We Camouflage, “Make do and Mend”
Knit, Sew and Wedding Dresses lend
Rest Centres, Information and CAB
Red Cross messages, Salvage and VCP
Overseas Gifts for those “Bombed Out”
A boon to our country without a doubt
Meals for the Land Army, and Home Guard as well
National Savings the Exchequer to swell
Billeting, Hospitality, the Child’s Clothing Exchange
Are some of the activities within our range.

Take out school meals, rose hips collect
Try hard to fill in “Returns” correct.
Reports, Statistics, Forms One, Two and Three
Besides the Canteens and Cups of Tea.
Welfare for the forces is in daily request
Furnishing, Libraries, Mending socks and vests.
Whatever they ask we try to provide
To perform a “Miracle” is the WVS pride.

The housewives section do jobs without end
In lulls and Emergencies are the Warden’s Friend
With Demonstrations, Meetings and Exercises too
They are known to all by the cards “Red” and “Blue”.
In all Emergencies the WVS are there
Looking after the Homeless with Tender care.
We feed, we clothe and the Frightened Soothe
And being “Basically Trained” can trouble remove.

Our days are full with routine work
And the dullest job we never shirk
Yes, with willing hearts in the Isle of Wight
We “Stankonovite” from morn till night
And if our efforts can shorten the war
By just one day, well that’s worth working for
And if we are tired and weary, we don’t care a jot
For we are part of the “Army that Hitler Forgot”.

By Mrs S C Needham, county organiser for the Isle of Wight, October 1943

Posted by Matthew McMurray, Royal Voluntary Service Archivist at 09:00 Tuesday, 26 May 2015.

Labels: Hitler, WVS, Canteens, Land Army , Home guard, National Savings, Tea , VCP, Make do and mend, Camouflage, Red cross, Gifts