Who volunteers? Recruiting for the WVS in wartime

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 in wartime. 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.

Posted by Jennifer Hunt, Deputy Archivist at 09:00 Monday, 04 March 2019.

Labels: Volunteering, WVS, Royal Voluntary Service , guest blog, historian, Second World War

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