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Early days on Christmas Island

Billie and Mary Burgess give news of their first impressions and activities on arrival, prior to the opening of the NAAFI Club on December 3rd, 1956

THE great day had at last arrived and in a few minutes the R.A.F. plane in which we were travelling would be touching down on the new runway of Christmas Island. There below us lay the now famous Coral Island about which everyone is talking. Basking there in the brilliant tropical sunshine, looking every bit like the tropical isles one reads about in fairy tales.

At last, travel-stained and a little weary, and covered in the inevitable dust, we reached the small green bungalow which was to be our home for as long as we were on the island. It had been constructed from disused huts left behind by the American Forces and is an absolute model of ingenuity. A large lounge, bedroom, small kitchen and toilet (including a shower—another memory of the Americans) are all decorated in a cool shade of cream and pale marina green. So hurried were the preparations for our arrival that the painters were literally leaving by the back door as we were coming in by the front.

Bright and early the next morning we made our way to the NAAFI compound and to the large Romney hut where our club-room facilities were supposed to be situated. Alas, we were a little disappointed. Not only was our Centre not completed, but the NAAFI end of it was only in its primary stages. We cautiously asked when it was likely to be finished. They could not give us a definite date, but as soon as the canteen was finished they would be starting on our room. Here we were with all our boxes and packing cases simply crying to be opened up. What were we to do? In the end we decided to open them one at a time and to take (when transport was available) all the more valuable articles back to our bungalow and store them on our verandah. Soon there came to light all the various treasures which W.V.S. members had contributed. The sewing machine was the first to emerge, followed closely by the delightful kitchen utensils, some of which, unfortunately, we shall not be able to put to full use until our tiny kitchen is equipped with the small stove we are hoping will be installed.

We had already approached the Army personnel with regard to a pantomime and, having found out that they were in the throes of producing a Christmas concert, we were determined to unpack next the boxes of costumes in order to help them. That afternoon we discussed with their producer what costumes would be required. They were putting on a little panto of The Christmas Carol as one of their acts in the show, and among the costumes mentioned was a long pair of lace edged pantaloons for Mrs. Cratchett and a frock coat for old Scrooge. Imagine our great surprise and delight when the first article out of the costume box was indeed a pair of unmentionables for Mrs. C. and not long after a frock coat was discovered for the old miser.

A couple of days later we made an impromptu visit to the small but adequate Military Hospital, taking with us a supply of magazines and periodicals. We had a long natter with all the patients and they seemed very cheerful and quite delighted to see both us and the reading material. The chess sets and other games were also a great success. We shall make this one of our regular ports of call in the future.

As soon as our Club room is ready, we hope to start the Scots dancing- classes. In fact we have already enrolled the services of an instructor (a plumber who repaired our leaking tap, which, incidentally, is supplied with water from a converted petrol drum on the roof). A gold-medallist waiter is also among our ardent ballroom followers and he has volunteered to help us with these classes once they are under way.

Most evenings we visit the NAAFI canteen to take orders for ‘ Say it with Flowers’, chocolate orders and Christmas gifts. These schemes are more than welcomed by the boys and we have taken a considerable number of orders.

Posted by Matthew McMurray, Royal Voluntary Service Archivist at 00:00 Monday, 01 February 2016.

Labels: NAAFI, Club, Service Welfare, Christmas island, Soldiers, WVS, Coral island

Over-sexed and over here - part 2

I said that we would return to the British Welcome Clubs, and here we are with the continuing story of the WVS’s entertainment of our American cousins in Leamington Spa.

After the slightly disastrous opening night of the welcome club, the situation did not seem to get much better; in fact the club lurched from one disappointment to the next.

The biggest issue at the beginning seems to have been the very poor attendance at the club by the American forces, which inevitably left the local girls who had turned up rather disappointed! The club was open two nights per week, and had a varied programme of games, dancing and other entertainments. It soon became clear that the preferred entertainment was dancing and much of the programme came to reflect this, but obtaining a suitable Master of Ceremonies (MC) was a continual issue.

Engaging bands to play was also a challenge and on many occasions, a gramophone had to be hired in. The majority of the records seem to have been loaned from the private collections of the committee members, but there seems to have been a preponderance of classical music discs, and so funds had to be spent on procuring new dance records. When a band was engaged the fee was usually three Guineas!

After about six months things started to get better, attendance was up and they had to start refusing new members (a subscription was payable), though inevitably there were some members who were late with their subscriptions and were being chased for payment.

As with all clubs involving young soldiers some trouble was inevitable. The club hall was next to the NAAFI Bar and there were problems later in the evenings with some men being a little worse for wear trying to get into the club. The military Police were asked to ‘give the club a once over’ each evening.

By far the biggest problem seems to have been finding committee members to take on responsibility. Inevitably it was left to a few individuals to carry the majority of the burden, which at one point led to mass resignations and the disbandment and reforming of the managing committee, and the regular WVS being asked to fill the gaps in helping to organise club nights.

This is not the end of the story. We shall return for the end of the war and the winding up of the club another week.

Posted by Matthew McMurray, Royal Voluntary Service Archivist at 09:00 Monday, 23 November 2015.

Labels: Welcome Club, American, Leamington Spa, WVS, Gramaphone, Band, NAAFI, Military, Soldiers

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