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Guest post from Charlotte Tomlinson, University of Leeds.
‘The city centre was a tortured landscape of cratered streets and wrecked buildings, some of them still wrapped in flames. Sections of pavement and roadway had split and lifted as if in an earthquake, and here and there water was gushing up from broken mains beneath…The roar of the pumps and the crackle of flames drowned out all other sounds, but occasionally there came a grinding crash as some wall or roof collapsed, and then clouds of bright sparks would mushroom up and whirl around on hot air.’
(Esther Baker, A City in Flames, p. 31).
This is how one female volunteer remembered the scene in Hull’s city centre in May 1941 -seventy-eight years ago this month - after a particularly devastating night of air raids. Over the course of the war, more than 90% of the city’s buildings were damaged or destroyed, and more than half of Hull’s population made homeless. Among the fires and rubble of this ‘tortured landscape’, hundreds of Women’s Voluntary Service (WVS) members worked tirelessly to provide food, accommodation and comfort to those in need in the city.
WVS work was extensive during the blitz. Volunteers worked across the entire country, from London to Liverpool, from Plymouth to Clydebank, as well as in the Yorkshire port city of Hull. In rest centres, thousands of civilians bombed out of their homes arrived in desperate need of shelter, where WVS members were ready to provide clean clothing, beds to sleep in, as well as a reassuring – and quintessentially British – cup of tea. WVS women also staffed mobile canteens delivering refreshments to firefighters and rescue workers, provided guidance and information at Citizen’s Advice Bureaus, and gave assistance to their neighbours through the Housewives Service. As the impact of the blitz varied from place to place across Britain, so did the work of the WVS.
As a historian, my research involves building a picture of the work done by the WVS during the blitz from the records that are available to us today. The Narrative Reports held by the Royal Voluntary Service Archive &Heritage Collection offer an intimate glimpse into the world of wartime volunteers, from which we can build a rich and detailed picture of WVS work in air raids, and the experiences of its members.
In Hull, as in other places, WVS work in the blitz centred around caring for those made temporarily or permanently homeless. The jobs to be done were seen as typically ‘feminine’ ones, such as cooking and cleaning, providing practical and emotional support, and bringing a sense of homeliness to rest centres and temporary housing. One promotional film, titled ‘WVS’, stressed the importance of maintaining the home in wartime and the special role of women had to play in this:
‘Never in all our lives has home meant so much to us. The snug feeling of protecting walls, the fire, the table set, the kettle on the stove. When we are bombed out, the government finds us new shelter, a room, a table, bed, chairs, bare essentials. It takes more than that to make a home. The little things, the sort of things a woman understands. This is where the WVS can help. They’ll lend a hand with fixing up a blackout, find a few crocks to be getting on with, maybe they’ve got a length of cretonne in their store cupboard’.
(© IWM UKY 341 Narrator Ruth Howe).
The jobs required of WVS members therefore had clear connections to their peacetime roles in the home, even if these jobs were taking place in exceptional circumstances.
Nonetheless, the work done by the WVS could be both difficult and dangerous. Two hundred and forty-five WVS members lost their lives while on duty during the war. In March 1941, the WVS centre in Hull had to relocate after being destroyed by enemy bombing. After managing for six months in spare room in the city’s Guildhall, the centre found a more permanent home in the repurposed Ferens Art Gallery. Narrative Reports reveal that Hull’s volunteers were well-prepared for raids – receptions centres had organised regular ‘mock air-raids’ from February 1940 while in May 1940 volunteers in each location were trained in maternity basics and stocked with ‘maternity bags’ in case of untimely deliveries. This proved to be quite necessary in May 1941, during Hull’s most intense raids, when the first baby was delivered successfully in a hostel for those made homeless, and ceremoniously wrapped in a green WVS blanket gifted by Lady Reading. Four more babies followed that month.
Unsurprisingly, the experiences of blitz volunteers could be deeply emotional. It isn’t hard to imagine how aiding people who had lost their homes, helping to register missing loved ones and working amongst the ruins of the city could be upsetting or traumatic. Lady Reading acknowledged this in the WVS Bulletin in April 1941:
The emotional strain of life in the blitz is hinted at in the Narrative Reports too, such as that written by volunteers in Haltemprice, a suburban area to the West of Hull, in May 1941:
Haltemprice North May 1941
In the central Hull reports, the ‘strenuous’ nature of this work was spelled out in numbers:
Narrative Report Hull May 1941
On the nights of the 7th and 8th May, in which hundreds of lives were lost, more than 14,000 people passed through WVS reception centres and another 40,000 through its district centres. More than 380,000 meals were sent out in the first two weeks of May, and WVS cars ‘covered about 15470 miles’ driving back and forth across the city.
While the story of WVS in the blitz is one of voluntarism in the face of danger, it is also one of neighbourliness. During the Second World War, WVS was organised along regional and local lines and members worked closely with their local communities. For example, members of the Housewives Service provided hot drinks for their local wardens and people in nearby shelters. In many cases they assisted wardens by keeping track of neighbours and their ‘raid arrangements’, so that people could be easily located during bombing. Much of this work took place on their own streets or within their own homes, where a ‘Housewives Service’ card was displayed in the window (example abaove). Like members of the Royal Voluntary Service today, wartime WVS volunteers provided much-needed to support, first and foremost, in their local communities.
Neighbourliness extended from area to area too. During the worst attacks on Hull, volunteers from the suburb of Haltemprice and nearby market town Beverley were called into action and their reception centres opened:
Narrative Report, Beverley, May 1941.
In the East Yorkshire village of Hedon, members of the Housewives Service formed search parties and scrambled to find spare clothing and other essentials for the homeless. Meanwhile, eight of York’s volunteers quickly drove their mobile canteens to Hull to help distribute much needed refreshments in the aftermath of heavy bombing, and stayed for several days. Hull’s WVS were extremely grateful:
Narrative Report, Hull, May 1941.
When we think about the blitz today, what images first spring to mind? Londoners in the East End are probably first. The devastated landscape of Coventry might be next. These are important stories, but the Narrative Reports now held by the Royal Voluntary Service Archive & Heritage Collection offer us an insight into wider experiences of bombing and the incredible work volunteers undertook across Britain. They help us to understand the variety and scale of the jobs done by women in cities targeted by bombing, and also in the suburbs and rural areas which surrounded them – stories which are often forgotten. From these records I’ve been able to build a fuller picture of the neighbourliness that characterised WVS work, from individual to individual, and from area and area. I’ve also been able to better understand the experiences of wartime volunteers and the difficult and dangerous challenges they faced. Through the records of the Royal Voluntary Service Archive &Heritage Collection I can begin to reconstruct the stories of WVS’ one million members - ordinary women who lived and volunteered in extraordinary times.
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.
Personal letters can form a very
important part of an archival collection; often they provide an intimate look
into the life and times of the author. The 62 letters we received recently were
written by a member of WVS India Kathleen Thompson to relatives in Harrogate Yorkshire.
They tell us about Kathleen’s Journey on the SS Corfu to New Delhi and then on
to Deolali, Randu and Raiputana where she spent 18 months
looking after troops getting ready to leave India. Each letter is extremely
detailed, shows a range of emotion and are very opinionated and I think the
best way to show you this is to share a few extracts from those letters.
SS Corfu 5.2.46
“The little boats of course came around with all their goods ‘very
cheap’ ‘very dear’ etc but orders had been given and before purchases could be
made a hose pipe was turned on them. This was I think to prevent any epidemics
been brought on board. The CO troops told me that VAD’s last trip bought ice
cream and 40 were down with dysentery so it’s not to be wondered at that
measures were taken”
The other four letters carry on
in the same way detailing life on board, the food which often seemed to
Kathleen like more ‘than a week’s ration’ as well as the time she spent with
other WVS members and the troops. On the 10th February she sent her
first letter from New Delhi were she stayed till March.
WVS Headquarters New Delhi
“Oh I don’t think I told you how we all went to the Daily Sketch Club
last week. This is a hut colour washed and made very beautiful with a stage. The
floor was red tiles and very good to dance on. A Sargent attached himself to me
and we had a good talk. The men seem on the whole very tired of India, longing
to be home and very pleased to see us. When we said goodnight he shook me
warmly by the hand and thanked me very much indeed for a pleasant evening. Most
of the women went in long frocks but I wore my old white brown cotton frock as I
did not quite know what to expect. Actually
the men were all in clean khaki drills and looked very nice. They were so
pleased to see so many women and I think it is one of the things to guard
against, this feeling of being really important. I do want to remain interested
in people and not become blasé.”
Between March and August 1946
Kathleen ran a club with two other WVS members Bertha and Marjorie in Deolali.
They also had a shop there, went to dances, ran trips for the troops and helped
with the YWCA.
“I saw quite a good film on Monday. Two girls and a sailor light and
sugary but it was good entertainment. Albert Coates was in it too but there
wasn’t enough of him for my taste. I went with John Towlee the Major to Bangalore
to a conference and felt he was in need of a little feminine society – that was
the excuse anyway!!”
Kathleen spent the rest of her
time in Randu and Raiputana before returning to Deolali in July 1947. Her last
letter to relatives in Yorkshire discusses her time on leave before she was due
to return home.
“The rain seems to have arrived in real earnest this morning and is
coming down in good old plops. When it breaks just a little I shall put on the
cape and walk to the post. Afraid it is impossible to stay in all the time. I
am really lucky to have had so many fine days as the records say that Abu
should have had 10” of rain by now”
Kathleen left Deolali at the end
of her contract with the organisation in August 1947. References from the WVS India
Administrator it was written that “[Kathleen]
has carried out her duties conscientiously and efficiently, and I have every
confidence in recommending her as a thoroughly capable and reliable individual”.
There is no record of what Kathleen did next, but included with all the letters
was a WRVS membership card dated 1970, so perhaps she re-joined as a volunteer for
her local area. I’m sure that Yorkshire isn’t as hot as India or expecting 10”
of rain but these days you never know.
It’s been a while since we told you about some of the treasures we have in the Archive and I thought I’d tell you about some very interesting donations that have arrived here over the last few months.
Day Books from Margate and Tunbridge Wells, Kent, 1938-1945
The Archive recently received five Day Books about the WVS Centres in Margate and Tunbridge Wells from 1939-1945. These Day Books were used by volunteers to record the activities happening in the local centres across Great Britain. One book describes the daily activities in the Margate office in 1944 and 1945 including.
- Whist drives to raise funds for POWs
- Volunteer Car Pool
- Clothing Refugees
- Salvage (collecting bones)
- Welfare Furniture
- Repairing overalls for engineers
- And the final entry on 30 June 1945 which records members attending a Civil Defence Standing down party.
WVS watercolour poster, 1941 from Royal Voluntary Service Chesham House Centre Café at Lancing, Sussex
This is a large original pencil ink and watercolour poster (30 x 41.5 in) of 13 scenes of WVS activities in three columns, with a WVS Badge at the top centre. The Scenes depict: the Blitz, Salvage, the Homeless, John Citizen - 1941, the Footsore and Weary, a WVS Station canteen, a WVS Aluminium Dump, a WVS Mobile Canteen, Peace, Fresh fields, a rest centre and Communal Feeding, a WVS Work Depot, and children being fitted for shoes. The scenes down the left side of the poster are 'problems' with WVS’ solutions on the right.
Yorkshire, Calderdale (Halifax) papers, 1950-2013
This collection was given to us at the end of March and contains an array of exciting material from West Yorkshire, Including among others:
- Ten coloured photographs of exhibition to mark 40th anniversary of WRVS, held in Halifax Town Hall.
- The Orders of Service for WVS’s 21st birthday Service of Thanksgiving at York Minster 1959, and for WRVS’s Golden Jubilee at York Minster 1988.
- A black and white photograph taken in May 1988 during a visit from Dame Thora Herd to Calderdale.
- A Song Book for Darby & Joan Clubs and Christmas Carols, including songs such as The Kings Orient, Holly and the Ivy, Loch Lomond, A Nice Cup of tea and The White Cliffs of Dover.
- Ten Scrapbooks compiled from 1954-1992 in Calderdale and Halifax with a Green photograph album including photos of Calderdale volunteers 1979.
Posted by Jennifer Hunt, Deputy Archivist at 09:00
Monday, 02 May 2016.