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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.
The WVS Clothing Department was established in 1939 to run Regional Clothing Depots which provided garments, shoes and boots for children. Clothing was donated, sent from overseas by the Canadian and American Red Cross, and handmade in working parties. Volunteers would run regional and sub-depots; sorting, and distributing clothing as part of WVS’s Civil Defence role.
Clothing was also supplied to adult evacuees and the homeless from 1941 resulting in six and a half million garments being distributed between 1940 and 1943. The WVS also opened Clothing Exchanges from 1943 allowed parents to swap clothes for their growing children without using valuable coupons. As a result millions more garments were given out during 1944, 1945.
Although Depots began to close in 1946 many people still needed assistance and WVS carried on its vital role in clothing setting up County, Centre and County Borough Clothing Depots. It was also a huge part of WVS Civil Defence work providing clothing to flood victims in 1947 and 1953.
Clothing Depots were for people who had no other way of clothing themselves and they had to be recommended by certain bodies or organisations. This included the NSPCC, Ministry of Pensions, Hospital Almoners and Prohibition Officers, Doctors and Social Services.
Over the years clothing was also distributed to refugees from Hungary in 1956 and then Ugandan Asians in 1972. The demand for clothing continued to be high and by 1976 1.5 million garments were given out each year. In the late 1980s they were renamed Clothing Stores and distributed around 2 million garments a year. At that time stores could be found in Area, County, Scottish Regional, Metropolitan, District, Local and London Borough Offices.
As part of the Voices of Volunteering
project 2014-2016 over 80 volunteers shared their experiences including for some clothing stores. Barbara Sparks a volunteer in Somerset was one of those volunteers.
"Then I started to work in the clothing store and thoroughly enjoyed it, absolutely
[Interviewer] Who would come into the clothing store?
[BS]: It, they were sent by Social Services, they had to have a need. And they
would be supplied with up to three changes of clothing twice a year so they
could come in the summer for summer clothes and then in the winter for their
winter stuff. And everything was logged down in a book and, if they came back
in between time and tried to swing the lead that they needed more because
they hadn't got any, the ladies would go and produce the book and say ‘Look, is
that your signature? Because on the such and such a date you were given this,
this, this, this, this and this, what have you done with it’? ‘Ah, I, well it wore out’
or well, and that was fair enough, that was fair comment. But if it was just that
they'd sold it because they thought they'd get a couple
of pennies for it, well no, they didn't get anything else. The ladies were quite strict like that, but you
needed to be. And it was quite, quite sad to see some of the people that came
in some days because one lady came in, no names obviously, but she’d, she’d
been pregnant and she's got a maternity grant and she’d blown the lot on a pink
baby dress because it was something she’d never had when she was a child,
and she just loved this dress, and she blew the entire maternity grant and then
she had a red headed boy. And poor lady, she came in and she said ‘What am I
going to do’? And they said ‘Don't worry, don't worry, we’ll sort you out’. And
they gave a complete layette, so she had everything from nappies right the way
through to vests and booties and, and, and little rompers, everything that the
baby needed for a little boy. And it was so tragic to think that she’d, she’d been
so much in need when she was a child that all she wanted was this dress for
her child. Really, really sad. And yes, I used to go in
there on a regular basis, well three times a week.
Some people you, you thought ‘Well, why did you do it’? One of my relatives
was quite high up in Social Services elsewhere and he said he loved WRVS,
absolutely loved WRVS clothing stores because their s
taff were being asked for
money and they knew it wasn't being spent on what it was being asked for
whereas they could give them a letter for our clothing store and we would make
sure that they actually got what they are supposed to need. And that they could
use it that way. He, he couldn't sing their praises high enough. So it was a much
needed facility at the time."
You can find more oral histories and information about clothing stores by serching Archive Online.
“Too many People think of volunteer service as
cheap labour. Real voluntary service is nothing of kind. It is the gift of
one’s skill, one’s time, and one’s energy, given by an understanding human
being for a special reason”
Lady Reading, It's the Job that Counts I,1953
Five/six years ago I wrote and submitted my dissertation for
my Msc Econ in Archive Administration. The focus was the value of volunteers in
county and community archives in North West England and how archives could or
couldn’t conform to Government policy. This was at a time when the MLA had just
become defunct and ideas like the Big Society (remember that?) were floating
around. Five/six years is a long time and many things have changed included my
move from an interest in county/community archives to specialist ones. However the
value that volunteers provide to archives hasn’t.
Here at the Royal Voluntary Service Archive & Heritage collection we have a team of volunteers who come on a regular basis and
take on roles such as: repackaging, digitisation, cataloguing, occasionally
giving talks to local groups and accessioning to name a few. Everything they do
helps to make our work a success and volunteers improve access and knowledge about
material; work which staff cannot complete is taken care of by volunteers; the preservation
needs of material are met by volunteers and the archives is promoted to other members
of the public.
Volunteers also bring specialist knowledge for example skills from
previous professions such as specific knowledge of photography or computer
skills. In our case most volunteers bring knowledge of the history of WVS/WRVS/Royal
Voluntary Service through their own experiences of services such as meals on
Wheels, Books on wheels, being District Organisers, Vice-chairmen or office
secretaries. This helps us to understand the context of the material they are
working with and allows them to learn more about their different interests in
the charity. Volunteering doesn’t just benefit the Archives it also advantageous
to the volunteers.
Back in 2011 I interviewed several volunteers about their
different roles in archives this included people who were retired, unemployed,
seeking work experience or in the case of community archives they were
volunteers interested in telling the story of a certain group in society. While
they helped the archives volunteering also gave them something. This can be
split into two categories educational benefits and social benefits. I concluded
that in county and community archives education came second and social came
first as primarily volunteers went to the archives to socialise with other
Here at the Royal Voluntary Service Archive & Heritage Collection most
of our volunteers are retired and occasionally we have student and graduate
volunteers however it seems there is more of a balance between education
(Knowledge and skills) and the social aspect. In just over five years I have
seen volunteers learn new skills such as cataloguing, blog writing and handling
or other preservation skills. Many of our volunteers who meet on the same day
have also formed friendships and meet outside the Archive. We have also
celebrated their achievements and time with service awards.
So remember volunteering is a two way thing volunteers give
archives their valuable time, knowledge and skills, in return volunteers can
make new friends and learn new skills. Also archives will always need
volunteers without them we would not have been so successful in many projects.
For those of of you gripped with Olympic mania, I've found a little something for you from our 1948 Narrative Reports, these extracts are taken from the London area reports.
In 2012, 70,000 volunteers have been recruited to welcome and direct spectators and athletes. If you've been to London in the last week, you'll have seen someone to help at virtually street corner.
In 1948, we had WVS!
July, August, September 1948
The Olympic Games
At the request of the British Tourist and Holidays Association, WVS in the London region were asked to staff information bureaux for Olympic Games visitors who arrived at Victoria, Waterloo, St. Pancras and Liverpool Street Stations and also at Wembley Park and at the Stadium itself.
Foreigners who arrived without having booked rooms were referred to the Central Accommodation Bureau and others were told how to reach their hotels or lodgings and were given answers to a multitude of extremely varied questions. WVS received most valuable assistance from the Girl Guides and members of the WJAC who were most helpful as messengers and also over escorting strangers in a strange land to their buses or tube stations. The bureaux at Wembley Park Station and at the stadium were staffed from 10 a.m. till 10 p.m. by the local WVS every day including Sundays.
As well as undertaking this exacting job, the Wembley WVS escorted seven hundred Italians and five hundred French people to their billets in the area, many of the final journeys taking place between 2 and 3 p.m. A Stanmore WVS member got into touch with a contingent of the Swedish Lottaocerstyrelsen who were looking after members of the Swedish teams and were housed in a local school. These Swedish girls were extremely interested in the Meals on Wheels service and two of them accompanied WVS on one round, talking to the old people and taking many photographs en route.
WVS were asked to undertake mending for some of the Olympic teams were living in West Drayton, but although a large quantity of wool was collected and WVS were ready to deal with all sorts of repairs, only six pairs of socks in need of mending materialised! WVS who staffed the information bureaux and helped the foreign visitors in many ways a;; agreed that it had been a job which was well worth doing and the foreigners seemed extremely grateful and appreciative of WVS help and advice and many of them said it had made all the difference to their stay in this country.
14th Olympiad at Wembley Stadium
We had a tremendously busy time during the period of the games. Our two main stations, Wembley Park, and Wembley Central and Information Bureaus which were staffed by our members from 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. including Sundays.
Accommodation was arranged, advice given, and information of all kinds were required. 700 Italian and 500 French visitors were escorted to their billets in Wembley, for which they were all very grateful. Many letters of thanks have been received from them. Although we were all tired at the conclusion of the games, it was a most interesting time.
Report on the Olympic Information Bureaux
Two Bureaux were opened in Wembley - one at Wembley Central Station and one at Wembley Park from July 26th to August 9th from 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. each day, Sundays included.
The primary object of these bureau was to direct visitors to their accommodations but there were only about six applications for this assistance. The greater part of the work was done at the office at Wembley Park (adjacent to the Station).
Very many enquiries were dealt with, Chiefly in connection with tickets, lost property, places of interest and how to reach them and we were asked to mind a small child whilst the mother returned to the Stadium to search for a lost bag.
On Wednesday the 28th July I was approached by a French representative of a travel agency who asked us to take 250 French visitors to their accommodation in various parts of Wembley, Harrow, Pinner and Edgware. The next day was spent in sorting the vouchers into their correct districts and order. Having, a short time before this, given a talk to members of the Wembley Round Table on the work of WVS from 1939 to the present day, they were so impressed that they offered assistance at any time. I took them at their word and called upon six owner-drivers to assist in distributing this large number of French people. Only four WVS members were able to help as this work started at mid-night and ended at three a.m. and there was no means of others getting home.
On Aug. 3rd a similar party of French arrived at 9-45 a.m. This time being escorted by WVS members to their accommodation by bus and train. On Aug. 10th a party of 729 Italian visitors arrived in Wembley at 8.45 a.m. food parcels supplied by a London firm, were distributed to each visitor by WVS before being taken by coach (AWVS member in each coach as Hostess and Guide) to addresses in Wembley, Pinner, Harrow and Edgware.