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Nepalese Gurkha Welfare

With the tragedy over the weekend in Nepal we thought we would bring some good news of how the WVS helped the families of Nepalese Gurkha soldiers , a task that would last for over 40 years and how it all started in an account from 1948.

When the decision was made that a Gurkha Brigade would be recruited by the British to serve in Malaya, those responsible felt very strongly that if this experiment were to succeed a welfare service must be provided for the families.

These families had never been out of Nepal in their lives; had probably never seen the sea; had anything from a five to 14 days’ walk to reach the port of embarkation, and could speak no English. To go overseas to live in a strange country with strange people in unknown and unimagined conditions would be a tremendous step.

Early in 1948 WVS agreed to send members to act in a welfare capacity. There are now Families’ Camps attached to the eight battalions serving in Malaya. The families at present live in tents which are wonderfully well kept, and around which little gardens have been planted.

The work of the WVS member varies in each camp, but everywhere a main concern is the health of the women and children. She issues additional milk and vitamin foods, possibly once a week makes an inspection of the tents, weighs the numerous babies, takes the expectant mothers to ante-natal clinic, goes to hospital with all who need treatment, and generally endeavours to reassure the very nervous Gurkha woman and persuade her there is nothing to fear, either in regard to seeing a doctor or going into hospital.

A sewing machine is often provided which the women are taught to use, and the WVS member buys thin material which, in turn, the women buy from her to make light clothes for the children. When the families first arrived the children wore thick, knitted, woollen garments. In a tropical climate the result was very severe prickly heat and often outbreaks of impetigo and other skin diseases. It was not easy to convince the women at first that light clothes were suitable and would be most comfortable, and it was only by getting one or two of the more enterprising of them to try the experiment, which proved successful, that now practically all the women wear light bright coloured saris.

These Gurkha wives are most of them very young people, many of them only 16, 17 or 18.  There are, naturally, some who are considerably older, but for the young ones such a tremendous upheaval must be a startling experience, it is extremely easy to frighten and upset them. By far the chief occupation is having babies!

Every WVS. member feels a tremendous pride in the number and size of the new arrivals, and there is considerable rivalry between the various battalions !

Another activity is running a little class or school for the younger children. It is, naturally, difficult for the WVS member to teach children to count, read and write in a language of which she knows only comparatively few words herself, but nevertheless she manages extremely well by either pointing or drawing an object, the little Gurkha giving the Gurkhali word, the WVS. member giving the English equivalent, thereby both acquiring knowledge at the same time.

The women are on the whole extremely enterprising, very excited with anything new and most receptive to any fresh experience. An outing was once arranged for the wives and families from one camp, On arrival the smaller children walked straight into the sea and started paddling, many of the women immediately took off their top layer of clothes and plunged in in their underclothes. As our WVS member said: “I never thought I would find myself teaching a Gurkha lady to float, with her sari trailing on the waves behind her.”

It is extremely interesting to go round the tents and see what the different families manage to do with the same equipment. Each family is issued with the basic furniture : beds, chairs, tables, chest of drawers. Some remain rather bare and cheerless but others, from apparently nowhere, very soon have many bright flowers about and extraordinary collections of coloured pictures and photographs, and very often an advertisement cut from an illustrated paper appears next door to a brightly coloured picture of a local god.

There is no shadow of doubt that the WVS members working with the Gurkhas have done a really first class job of welfare in the fullest and best sense of the word. The work is exacting and strenuous, but I am sure that everyone who has worked with the Gurkhas is very glad to have had the experience.

Posted by Matthew McMurray at 00:00 Monday, 27 April 2015.

Labels: Nepal, WRVS, RVS, WVS, Gurkha, Soldiers, families, Knitting, Babies, impetigo, hospital, Gurkhali, wool, tents, malaya

WVS Overseas

The news for the past few weeks has been mostly dominated by horrendous events happening all over the world.  While today the Royal Voluntary Service’s purpose is to help older people, in Great Britain (as anyone who has been reading this blog will realise) this wasn’t always the case. 

WVS had a presence or connections, especially during and after the second world war in both the Middle East and West Africa, doing all manner of works as these extracts from the WVS Bulletin for May 1946 show.

“In Iran and Iraq there was naturally a great deal of Services welfare for WVS to do, and canteens, clubs, hospitality, knitting and mending for the Forces formed the chief part of their work.

In Abadan (Iran) the WVS consisted almost entirely of the wives of the officials of the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company, who knitted and mended for the troops, did canteen work, raised money for war charities, made clothes for Polish refugees and organised parties for Servicemen.

Iraq also had working parties in Bagdad, and produced hospital supplies for the Middle East, clothes for Greece and for the bombed-out people at home, as well as parcels for prisoners of war. They ran hospital libraries, visited men in hospital and arranged private hospitality for the troops.

In Sierra Leone Services welfare was the main activity of WVS, who ran clubs and canteens for the Allied Forces in Freetown. It also had an information bureaux and organised drives for the raising of money and the collection of rubber.

Nigeria, for instance, felt that some good use should be made of the large quantities of goat and sheep skins which were available in the country, so—over a dinner table at an evening party in 1940—it was decided by a small group of friends to try to raise a little money to produce leather jackets to send to England as comforts for the Fighting Services and Civil Defence. The Fund flourished and the work grew: it christened itself the Windcheater Leather Jacket Fund and it eventually produced an average of 1100 jackets per month, which were sent to England and distributed”


Posted by Matthew McMurray at 09:00 Monday, 08 September 2014.

Labels: Iraq, Iran, Sierra Leone, Nigeria, Services Welfare, Goat Skin, canteen, Knitting, mending, Anglo-Iranian Oil company, freetown

The golden age of knitting

WRVS archivist and wartime and knitting expert Matthew McMurrayWell, there’s a title I didn’t ever imagine using, and nor did I ever think I would appear as an expert on wartime knitting on television, but here we are! Yesterday (Monday 1 October) I had to travel to London for the day to be interviewed for a forthcoming BBC Four programme titled, ‘The Golden Age of Knitting‘.

The venue was Wilton’s Music Hall in the east end of London, somewhere I had never been before, even though I had seen it plenty of times on the TV, usually in costume dramas. It is the oldest music hall in London and has a very rustic atmosphere, exposed timbers plaster stripped brick walls, you could just imagine yourself in a run down part of London at the beginning of the nineteenth century.

Having trudged through the very soggy streets I met up with the director/producer, camera man and assistant and the questioning commenced.

While I can confess to being an expert on the history of WRVS, or WVS as it was during the war, an expert on knitting I am not; at least I didn’t think I was. It is surprising what you can come up with, and the previous day's in-depth research into WVS’ role in providing comforts for the forces and merchant services during the war was very enlightening.

The questions came thick and fast, what was the role of the WVS with knitting? How much did they knit? Who were they knitting for? To give you an example, in Hastings and St Leonards in Sussex, WVS organized over 1,000 women, a dozen men and a nine year old boy to knit for the forces. In 1941 they produced 7,000 items, from pullovers to socks and balaclavas for our troops and surprisingly for those of the Red Army. In all during the war nationally between 150,000 and 200,000 WVS members were assigned to knitting and sewing work parties, helping and organising probably another 750,000 ‘individual knitters’. Just imagine, a million women knitting their socks off!

I spent a very enjoyable hour answering questions and hopefully at least a couple of minutes worth will turn up in the final edit. The programme should air in early spring next year, so I will keep you posted when we know a broadcast date.

Posted by Matthew McMurray, WRVS Archivist at 00:00 Tuesday, 02 October 2012.

Labels: WRVS, archive, knitting, wartime, WVS, sewing, Golden Age of Knitting