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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.
This week’s blog is an
updated version of an article from Volume 6 of the Heritage Bulletin and The
Good Neighbours Fact Sheet on the Voices of Volunteering School Resources pages.
During the Second World War WVS started to develop its work
to help people be active in their communities such as setting up Darby and Joan
Clubs. WVS also realised that they needed to provide services for those who
were housebound or needed help in their homes. Over the years there have been
different schemes before the current service Community Companions. The first
scheme to develop was one which doesn’t really resemble the visiting service
which provides practical help. Home Helps was setup to provide help which would
eventually be given by the NHS after it was established in 1948.
Originally intended to be the Home
Workers Scheme, Home Helps assisted those in need of domestic service for
thirty years. During that time it was an essential part of social welfare in
In 1944 the WVS Centre Organiser
for the City of Oxford, Theresa MacDonald, asked the Local Authorities
permission to pioneer a new scheme, Home Helps. Its purpose was to work
alongside and form an attachment with the Local Health Services. At first it
dealt with maternity as its top priority and then concerned itself with old
people as well as chronic cases. Eventually the Helps took on any cases which
were a health emergency.
As a public health service, Home
Helps took on jobs such as washing, cooking and child care. They were employed
by the Local Authority but administration was in the hands of a voluntary
organiser. The WVS trained the Helps and promoted the scheme, at first very
little formal training was given but later Helps could work towards the
National Institute of Houseworkers’ Diploma.
WVS Bulletin January 1947 p5
In 1946 WVS opened a Home Helps
Department at headquarters in London and used its network to publicise the
scheme. The department also ran residential training for Home Help Organisers.
Different local schemes added their own flare to training meetings including
celebrations such as Christmas, birthday and anniversary parties.
Buckinghamshire went further and held a county rally for its Home Helps.
When the National Health Service
Act (1948) came into force the Ministry of Health stated that Home Helps was
vital to the new service. Many Health Services however wanted to take full
control of the scheme. In some areas the WVS remained very involved with Home
Helps, though over the years many handed over to Local Authorities and paid
organisers. By 1964 only a few WVS run schemes remained in counties such as
Cornwall, Worcestershire and East and West Sussex. Home Helps was finally
wrapped up in 1974 with the closure of the final scheme in East Sussex. However
this wasn’t the end of WVS visiting people in their homes and providing support
From the late 1960s onwards WRVS
tried to get a scheme off the ground to help people who were having difficulty
with running their home. Good Neighbours was originally called Good Companions
and had a number of forerunners and names including: the Home Aid Scheme (in 1967
it was merged with the Home Helps Scheme) and Voluntary Daughters. Pilot
schemes were launched in East Sussex in 1971 and by the end of 1972 the 12
regions had at least one scheme each.
The aim of the scheme was to
alleviate loneliness and encourage people to help others in their local
community. Volunteers did not need to sign up as WRVS members but were assigned
people to help by the organisation who were usually referred to them by Social
Services or Doctors. Good Companions
were drawn from a range of people including men, women with young children,
young people (mostly from the WRVS London Evening centre) and even Darby and Joan
club members. Those who need them as a Good Neighbour were usually older
people, disabled, housebound or anyone in need of help.
Good Neighbours allowed people to
stay independent and continue to live in their own homes. Volunteers would
often escort people on outings, go shopping, collect pensions, send post, mend
clothes, change lightbulbs, cook, and do other odd jobs around the home as well
as taking time to talk to the person they were visiting.
From 1977 to 1985 the service
also ran campaigns with the Department of Health and Social Security to raise
awareness of the needs of older people and the disabled. These campaigns also
included work with the police to raise awareness of ‘bogus officials’ calling
on older people.
Royal Voluntary Service continued
to provide Good Neighbour schemes for older people through the 1990s and into
21st Century which included practical help, home visits and telephone calls. In
March 2019 with the ASDA Foundation they launched funding for Community
Companions to continue the work started by Good Companions in the 1960s and
1970s. You can find out more about today’s Community Companions service on thiswebsite.
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.
The Second World War started (in Europe) on 1st September 1939 nearly 80 years ago. WVS had been established just over a year; not long after the start of the war it was Christmas. As I was thinking about writing this blog to go out the week before Christmas Eve I wondered what the WVS were up to at this time of year. I could have chosen anywhere but one of the first documents to jump out at me was a programme of Christmas activities from Rickmansworth WVS 1939. Looking at the Narrative Reports from the area for December 1939 to 1944 you can clearly see that just because it was Christmas WVS work didn’t stop. These are just a few examples of activities in Rickmansworth, taken from the Narrative Reports.
WVS Rickmansworth, like all other WVS centres in Evacuation zones, during the war organised various entertainments for children and adults who were a long way from home just after being evacuated in September 1939. Activities included film showings, dancing, gymnastics, games, singing and parties. Over the years activities changed, in 1941 the Evacuee Club held an exhibition of needlework including clothing such as frocks, dressing gown and children’s clothes. In 1942 the WVS held two parties for under-fives which was considered a great success as you can see in the extract below from December that Year.
Of course the WVS didn’t just spend December running children’s parties they also had other duties to perform. Activities included salvage in 1941 they campaigned to collect paper from houses driving around using the loudspeaker on the WVS Van. Knitting also continued during the season of good will in 1941 47 pull overs were knitted for the Merchant Navy and members began knitting gum boot stockings for Russia. In 1942 they received an urgent request for sweaters and socks for Malta; 114lb was distributed to knitters for the job. Work with the Red Cross also continued in 1941 they had the Russian Red Cross sale for Mrs Churchill’s Fund and the WVS were able to raise £210 (c£8262.74 in today’s money). In 1942 a WVS party made soft toys and raised £59.16.8d (c£2,354.23 in today’s money) for the local Red Cross group. As you can see many activities were business as usual for WVS of Rickmansworth.
Supporting the Armed Services based in Hertfordshire was a large part of WVS Rickmansworth’s work in 1941 and 1942 with a variety of activities in December of Both Years. In December 1941 The Troops Hut was completed with electricity and lino installed. It also had a radio gram and ping pong table. The WVS opened the Hut on Christmas day for 200 men who spent the evening playing games. In Both years WVS held a concert for the RAF Benevolent Fund in 1942 they raised £18.10.0d (c£727.91 in today’s money) for the fund. Looking after the services didn’t just include the Army and RAF there was also the Home Guard to support. In Both years the Home Guard were on exercises and WVS served tea to them from a mobile canteen. Another Service provided by the WVS all year round was camouflage nets. WVS’s role garnishing camouflage nets began in the early years of the war but the scheme wasn’t official until June 1943. Rickmansworth WVS were already working on this before it became official and included other work for the services in this role as you can see from this Narrative Report Extract, December 1942.
This week’s blog has focused on WVS Rickmansworth’s work during the Decembers of 1939, 1941 and 1942. Unfortunately in our Headquarters collection of Narrative Reports there are not many for this area in Hertfordshire and we haven’t been able to look into the Christmases of 1943 and 1944. It is more than likely that these missing reports were written and one of the quadruplet copies arrived at Headquarters. However in 1970s Region 4 was heavily weeded as all regions had different rules for what was kept at that time we have less information about local offices in the Home Counties and East Anglia areas. Although this is the case for Rickmansworth you can see from just a few reports how much was going on during the Second World War and how much time the women of Rickmansworth were giving to help people keep up moral at this time of year.
Originally known as Luncheon Clubs, Lunch Clubs were a place where ‘older people, not housebound or in need of Meals on Wheels, may get a good nourishing meal on several days each week, find friendship and help whenever they ask for it, and where they can enjoy a hot meal in the company of others, always a stimulus to those living alone.’
During the Second World War
WVS provided meals for older people in British Restaurants. In the immediate
post-war period meals were provided through Meals on Wheels services to some Darby
and Joan Clubs.
The first mention, in the
Archives, of a dedicated Luncheon Club is the Malvern Luncheon Club in 1949 it
had 220 members and met once a month. Other Luncheon Clubs appeared through the
1950s in different areas including St Marylebone, Bakewell Rural and Mablethorpe.
However it was not until
1962 when the scheme really took off and WVS realised the need to increase the
number of clubs providing midday meals. Clubs provided tea,
coffee, a two or three course meal and in some clubs activities such as Bingo,
a quiz or a raffle.
Every Luncheon Club had a
club leader, cook(s), pot-washers, and servers, all of whom were volunteers
though in some cases the local authority paid for permanent cooks. In some clubs
members who came for a meal would help volunteers with the washing-up. However
in some areas the meals were cooked in kitchens outside the clubs, such as Guys
Marsh Open Borstal for the Parish Centre luncheon club in 1974.
WRVS continued to provide Luncheon Clubs all over Britain for older people to enjoy a hot mid-day meal into the 1980s, 1990s and 2000s. Today Royal Voluntary Service volunteers still run Lunch Clubs and there is now a Cooking for a Crowd cookbook, a collection of favorite Royal Voluntary Service Lunch Club recipes.
 RVS A&HC, Luncheon Clubs, 812, 1967
 RVS A&HC, Report on 25 Years Work 1938-1963, 1963,
Report of Ten Years Work for the Nation 1938-1948
 RVS A&HC, Bulletin, WRVS/HQ/PUB/BUL/BUL-1949-04,
April 1949, pp10-11, Bulletin, WRVS/HQ/PUB/BUL/BUL-1953-01, p15, Bulletin, WRVS/HQ/PUB/BUL/BUL-1954-06,
June 1954 p14, Narrative Report, WRVS/HQ/NR/R3/1958-LINC/MTP, Mablethorpe,
Lincolnshire, May 1958
 RVS A&HC, 807, Work for Old People, 1962
 RVS A&HC,
WRVSA&HC/WRVS/HQ/PUB/BUL/BUL-1974-09, Sept 1974 p11
Today we all know the importance of keeping fit and moving
around at any age. As usually Royal Voluntary Service have a history of
pioneering activities for older people before they become popular. In the 1970s
WRVS was pioneering Music and Movement classes in local communities One WRVS
volunteer who helped with this was Elizabeth Kay. In 2014 I interviewed her for
the oral history project Voices of Volunteering
. Elizabeth had first joined
WVS in the late 1960s to be a speaker giving talks about Drugs, volunteering
helped her develop this skill and she gave talks on many other topics which
also led to training as a keep fit
instructor skills she used to help WRVS set up local Music and Movement classes
in Hounslow. This is Elizabeth’s story in her own words:
“I gave a talk on history of nursery rhymes, and most people didn’t know
how nursery rhymes started and why. Oh, and I’d talk about tortoises because my
son had a tortoise which I was looking after, again people didn’t know about
tortoises and how they were creatures of veneration. When I was in China I went
to see this enormous marble tortoise which was a symbol of longevity. So yes
as, I did find giving those talks were very interesting and because my husband
had died I had to make an income from somewhere and so that’s what I did.
It [WRVS] gave me more that, it gave me more than just, mm, learning to
do the drug talks, it gave me a feeling that people liked to listen. … While I
was in the WRVS I decided because I was a keep fit teacher, I thought these old
people sitting all day in chairs not talking to anybody, long before local
authority had started, which they do now, and movement classes.
I went to our local care home and asked the matron there if she’d like me
to go in and, and do some musical movement. And so, and I used all the old
songs that they knew. Some of them I had to learn, I didn’t know there was a
song called He Played His Ukulele As The
Ship Went Down, and I got the songs from these old, I say ‘old
people’, I mean heavens some of them are younger than I am now. But, but they
were and they sat all day and they did nothing, and so I felt that this was a
really good idea. And so I, I went and we used these songs that they knew and
we did actions to the songs. Now it’s done, local authorities are doing this
all over, but at that time it was quite revolutionary and nobody had done that.
I always wore my uniform and as you can see one or two of them are
actually lifting their arms but they used to like singing the songs as well.
That was actually breaking new ground because it hadn’t been done until
then. I had a woman who played the piano for me and I went to all kinds of old
people’s clubs and she played the piano and I did the movements, mm, and it
was, that was then sponsored by the local authority.
One of them [the Matrons in one of the homes] apologised to me because I
used to go in to this particularly [home], if they sit in their living room,
the social room, in chairs all around because I used to say ‘Don’t put them in
rows, I like them all round me’ because I work to every single one, which I do.
And every week when I used to go in one woman used to get up from her chair,
look at me and say ‘Stupid cow’ and walk out. And matron said ‘I’m so sorry’. I
said ‘Look, if that’s the only exercise she gets all week it’s exercise, don’t
worry, she’s moved’.
It was, it was so satisfying because I felt that the, they just loved
having somebody to be with them and do these and think about how it used to be
when they were young, the songs that they could sing. And we used some wartime
songs as well. And before, as I say, I never knew there was a song entitled Three Pots a Shilling which is about a
gypsy selling honey from door to door. And I learnt these, I actually looked
them up. I went to Charing Cross Road to
the, the archive shop there and looked up all these songs and bought the music
so that my pianist could play them for me. And it was great. And then sadly
Greta, who was much older, was not able to do the playing anymore and so
another, another lady took over and she didn’t need music at all, and it was
lovely because she used to play for my keep fit classes.”
Elizabeth Kay WVS/WRVS Volunteer July 2016
Stories from volunteers really helps to tell the story of Royal Voluntary
Service and how volunteering has benefited society in many ways. If you would
like to hear Elizabeth’s story or those of many other volunteers in full you
can visit Archive Online
and search our Voices of Volunteering
You can also listen to the story above on SoundCloud
The second image in this week's blog is taken from WRVS Magazine No.371 December 1970
After its creation in 1938, the Women’s Voluntary Service’s main focus was the war effort, recruiting women to assist civilians during and after air raids. After the war, however, the aim of the organisation shifted, and more attention was focussed on the older generation. Since then, the Royal Voluntary Service (RVS) has worked closely with older people, hoping to improve their lives in every way possible. Today we will look at the achievements of the Royal Voluntary Service and how its efforts have changed over time.
After realising the ever increasing population in the older generation, the WVS set out to assist them in a number of ways, many of which are exist in some form today. These included Darby and Joan clubs
, residential clubs and the Meals on Wheels
. Special clubs were set up for old people in a few places during the war, but after seeing its success, the number increased rapidly after 1945. By 1962, there were over 2,000 Darby and Joan clubs, with membership exceeding 150,000. In this friendly atmosphere, the old people enjoyed spending time with each other, dancing and going on regular holidays throughout the year. Mary Curtis, a former club leader who spent 45 years with the WVS, talked about her time spent on holidays with members in 2015 in an interview with Jennifer Hunt. She said that she went in a variety of places across the UK, starting from 1970 – with the last holiday taking place in 2008. These included Morecambe, Llandudno, Newquay, Ayr and Bournemouth. But these places did not come without excitement. “On one occasion our coach skidded off the road and went into a ditch” she quotes, when speaking of a foggy morning in the Isle of Wight. “Nobody panicked” she says and “it was a lovely holiday”.
Residential Clubs were also established, where members would assist permanent staff in homes for the pensioners. By 1963, 23 homes were established by the WVS. As purpose-built flats and bungalows were being provided by the government, the WVS also helped with re-housing the retirees. Some would lay carpets, whilst others would hang curtains, making life easier for people who were moving house.
The changing role of RVS
In 1960, it was estimated that around 12.5% of the country’s population was of a pensionable age. This has since increased to 18%, an increase of over 5 million people. As a result, through the 1970s WRVS established many other services; transport schemes
(Country Cars 1974/1975) have also been put in place whereby volunteers undertook thousands of journeys each year and still do, taking people to and from hospital, trips into town or shopping trips, adding to the pleasure of day to day lives and allowing people to be closer to their local community. Other opportunities include the Good Neighbours Scheme
(1974), which started as a visiting scheme but has now developed to offer help, whether it’s walking the dog, changing a lightbulb or collecting a pension. Helping an older person in small ways can make life much easier for them. Home library services started in the 1960s but took off in the 1970s. Today, volunteers still bring a range of books
, as well as DVDs and CDs to older people who wouldn’t normally be able to get out of the house. In 1992 WRVS became a charity and as a result became more focused on the welfare of older people. The Charity works today to meet the very different needs of older people, including more community focused schemes such as Cafes, Lunch clubs
and social events, encouraging people to get out and about and meet new people. In every way we are working to support changing lifestyles and tackle loneliness later in life.
Over the years WVS and WRVS has worked to improve the lives of older people with a range of services including the home library service and befriending. The RVS has adapted to provide for the ever increasing population in the older generation. By introducing and continuing schemes such as the Good Neighbour scheme and Lunch Clubs, the RVS has encouraged people to socialise with one and other, an essential part in anyone’s life that boosts morale and mental wellbeing. The RVS has continued to support the elderly and the Archive holds lots of records about the welfare of older people from 1938 to the present day. This demonstrates our success in providing needs for older people, from 80 years ago and for many more years in the future.
Credit First photograph, R44353/80 - "Old People Dancing" taken by CH Wood, published by the kind permission of Museums and Galleries, Bradford MDC
Work in the field of welfare for the disabled was part of
WVS from the beginning through Health and Hospitals, Meals on Wheels, Clothing,
Children’s Holidays and Old People’s Welfare, among other services. In the late
1960s WRVS set up the Welfare for the Disabled Department. This was a reflection
on growing public awareness, the requirements of the Chronically Sick and
Disabled Persons Act (1970) and advances in medical science. WRVS provided many
services through the department including clubs, handicrafts, holidays and
diversional therapy. In this week’s blog we’ll explore the work of WRVS
providing these services.
After the war the welfare state became a prime focus for the
nation including social care for those in need of it. As usual WVS was at the
forefront of any developments. In 1956 the Government produced the Piercy Report, it considered the rehabilitation of disabled people and accounted for
what they could expect from the welfare state. Local Authorities responsibilities
included catering “for the social need of the disabled in employment” and
meeting “social and occupational needs of other disabled persons”. In some
places WVS was already running clubs or helping Local Authorities with their
own clubs. WVS also aimed to help people become as self-reliant as possible in
their own communities and complete any medical care which would allow them to
go home from hospital.
When WVS established Evening Centres in the 1960s to
encourage younger people to join the organisation one of the tasks they gave
them was to run clubs for the disabled. In London in 1962 the Bermondsey
Evening Centre ran a club. Also in the 1960s the WVS Winged Fellowship Holiday
Scheme this allowed anyone with a disability to go on holiday. WVS also
provided services such as transport to clubs, activities and appointments for
example in 1964 WVS in Golborne (Greater Manchester) took a lady who had
suffered from polio on a walk (c.1.5 hours one way) and shopping trip to Leigh.
Over the years Royal Voluntary Service hasn’t just provided services it has
also promoted the latest research into the areas it focuses on. In 1968 WRVS
raised awareness about a project at Edinburgh University into access for the
By the late 1960s WRVs had expanded its role in creating the
Welfare for the Disabled Department which included the diversional therapy,
reading, letter writing, mobile libraries, visiting, holiday centres and
providing flats as part of WRVS’s Housing Schemes. Nationally in the 1970s
there was a movement towards care in the community rather than keeping people
in institutions, hospitals and psychiatric hospitals. WRVS provided many
services which would help people being discharged from these places or moving
out as they were closed. Many of these
services listed above were already in place in many departments of WRVS. This
included clothing, the department produced a number of publications. The organisation
also ran sessions to discuss the clothing needs of people with disabilities. (WRVS Magazine 1971 p.14)
Through the Children’s Holiday Department WRVS Scotland
provided holidays for blind and death children in the Glasgow and Helensburg
area. They also informed the world on volunteering work and in 1974 told Japanese
visitors, connected with welfare work in Japan, on a visit to HQ about care for
older and disabled people in Britain. In the 1980s/1990s WRVS continued with
all the services it had gradually been developing for 50 years. This also
included arranging riding lessons for children with disabilities as Riding for
the Disabled began to establish centres in the 1980s. In 1992 WRVS established its charity status,
with the need to
fundraise and changing focus to Hospitals, older people’s welfare and
emergencies the Welfare for disabled people’s department faded away. However
many of the services it provided for example home libraries, talking books,
wheelchair escorts in hospitals and clubs were continued and integrated into the
areas it chose to focus on to support the welfare of all and the welfare state
as Royal Voluntary Service continues to do today.
Of course in a fortnightly blog there isn’t enough time to
discuss the huge amount of work done by Royal Voluntary Service in a single
area. This whistle stop tour is here to give you an idea of the work the
charity has been doing for society from a time of war to peace and beyond. You
can find more detailed information about services we’ve provided on ArchiveOnline, Schools resources and Factsheets page.
The Second World War ended on 2 September 1945 following the defeat of Japan in August. It concluded in August when America dropped two nuclear weapons on Hiroshima and Nagasaki causing the Japanese to surrender. However with the end of one war came the threat of another completely different type of war and one which played out on several different battlefields but didn’t result as some feared in nuclear armageddon but the fall of a political ideology and superpower. This was the Cold War which spanned four decades from 1947-1991. Of course in the unfortunate event that nuclear war would play out between east and west there was a volunteer army at the ready and well prepared to assist civilians; obviously it was the WVS.
At the end of the Second World War it seemed that the post-war years would be a time of peace and in Britain the Civil Defence Services were disbanded. However by 1949 the government and the people had come to realise that with large world powers making nuclear weapons the Civil Defence Corps needed to be brought back into action. This took the form of a voluntary organisation which incorporated the WVS into a special welfare section. In 1951 Home Secretary David Maxwell Fyfe declared the function of WVS in Civil Defence would be to:
• Running rest centres
• Helping in peacetime national disasters
• Providing meals for Firemen, police, members of the Civil Defence Corps and Cadet Camps
• Emergency Feeding and feeding at large scale events as part of training (also part of the Food Flying Squads)
• Home Nursing
• First Aid
• Liaison with Civil Defence in other countries WVS members trained women from Holland, America, Lebanon and Luxemburg to name a few.
• One in Five talks which aimed to talk to 3 million women about the dangers of nuclear attack and basic survival.
In the mid to late 1960s the Cold War between Russia and Britain had started to thaw and it was thought there was no longer a need for the Civil Defence Corps. The corps were disbanded in 1968, however the ever practical Lady Reading and WRVS members (by then Royal had been added to the title) saw a need for the welfare services they had been providing since 1949 as part of Civil Defence. In the early 1970s they started the Emergency Services Department. This new department continued in the following roles:
• Running rest centres
• Helping in peacetime national disasters
• Providing meals for Firemen, police
• Emergency Feeding and feeding at large scale events
One in Five, although part of WRVS’s Civil Defence work, had been established as a separate department and so work continued to train one fifth of women about the dangers of nuclear attack and basic survival. This service continued into the 1980s and as hostilities relaxed and the Soviet Union collapsed (1989-1991) the department faded away.
Even though parts of WRVS’s role in preparing the nation for a large national crisis ended with the fall of the Berlin wall and collapse of the Soviet Union some vital services were still needed. Volunteers continued to assist in emergencies and reassuring the nation in times of need in our next blog we will look at how WRVS provided compassion in crisis in a new era were the ideals of society and community were changing drastically.
You can find out more about the role of WVS/WRVS during the Cold War on our factsheet page or if you are in or near to Devizes before 24th June you can visit the Compassion in Crisis Exhibition at Wiltshire Museum.