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While many may think that archivists spend all their time hunched over dusty papers in dark cellars (well we do sometimes), we also occasionally get to leave the confines of our repositories of knowledge and experience the consequences of the things we read about first hand.
This past weekend on a glorious summer’s day, without a cloud in the sky, I went on a tour around rural Dorset and ended up at Tyneham. For those who do not know the Dorset coast to the west of Wareham, the majority of it is a huge military firing range with flat lands, huge hills and hidden valleys. One of these hidden valleys holds the deserted village of Tyneham, a village requisitioned during the lead up to D-Day and never returned (unlike all the others) to its inhabitants.
In wandering through the ruined houses and the meticulously kept church with their display boards, I noticed in one of the photographs a lady, Evelyn Bond, in a WVS uniform. I knew that the WVS had been responsible for the evacuation of Slapton Sands around the same time and so the question which immediately sprung to mind was did the WVS help at Tyneham? I didn’t hold out much hope as the Slapton Sands Evacuation is hardly mentioned in the Narrative Reports, it was kept secret. Would the same be true for Tyneham?
The next day in the archive I looked up Evelyn Bond. What luck! She was the Centre Organiser for Wareham and Purbeck Rural and as a victim of the eviction she writes passionately and eloquently about the situation. Her report is transcribed below.
“W.V.S. life in Purbeck has been completely overshadowed during this month by the evacuation of part of the district for an extended Training Area. This most painful necessity involves a lot of work as, although W.V.S. are not directly responsible for finding accommodation, they have been asked to undertake visiting and enquiries, and, as there is absolutely no public transport in the affected district, the Volunteer Car Pool has been stretched to the utmost in running officials about, taking evacuees-to-be to see accommodation suggested for them, etc. The Centre Organiser herself, already turned out of her house into the coachman’s cottage by the R.A.F., is among the dispossessed, together with her entire village, and the church of which she is church warden (the Rector is away acting as a Service Chaplain.)
The notices went out on Nov. 19th - the area, to be cleared by Dec. 19th. The Centre organiser, with one of her Centre staff, visited 15 families on the 19th and reports were lodged that evening, the Deputy - Centre Organiser, with the Assistant Billeting officer (R.D.C.) toured another part of the area, and the Centre staff followed up, so that every house had a visit and was reported on in 4 days. An office has been set up at the offices of the Rural District Council (where the W.V.S. Centre have their room) and Ministry of Health, Assistance Board, Billeting Officer and other officials are in attendance. House holders from the area can come in for consultation, but the authorities attach great importance to house-to-house visiting to ascertain needs and reactions and the W.V.S. are at their disposal.
The numbers to be evacuated are not much over 200, but many very old people are involved and a considerable number of farmers and small holders - the lot of the latter is particularly hard as the Ware[ham] Agricultural Committee are quite unable to find holdings for them and their stock has to be sold and implements stored or disposed of.
One old couple are typical - husband 92 and wife 89 - they have lived in their house all their married lives and the husband since birth. Some are fishermen, one a boatbuilder, and live right down on the shore. Visiting officials have been observed, to make for their cars with alacrity when they realised that the beaches and approaches are heavily mined. Another old couple have not been out of their house this century, except for 2 nights to take “shelter with neighbours when a mine blew up in a storm and took half the roof away. They were back that time as soon as repairs were finished - now they are leaving - for "duration. It is impossible to resist the question - will they or the war last longest?
The Centre Organiser has certainly been able to help these people, being in the like plight herself, but she and other W.V.S. well though they know these Dorset folk, are amazed at the unflinching spirit in which this trial is faced. "They can’t say we’ve done nothing for the war" is the spirit, and it is touching how, in every house, the thought is always for the oldest inhabitants round about. "It be turble hard for old Mrs - - " - it is. One old lady had not had her boots on for 9 years till she donned them to climb into a V.C.P. car to go and look at suggested houses.
Our Pool drivers have been on the road as never before, many W.V.S. members and others, including an invaluable retired policeman, they have been ready with persuasion and advice as well as transport. As with the previous evacuation in this area, ancient and precious dogs, cats, boats, bees and other adjuncts present many problems. We ought to be experienced hands by now, but it is not a job which becomes easier or in any sense commonplace with repetition”.
The village of Tyneham has waited a long time for its inhabitants to return, but sadly time and decay have not been equally patient the ruined buildings a silent reminder of the villager’s sacrifice. This was a community torn apart by war, and one which never had the chance to return and heal.
Devizes is home to the Royal Voluntary Service Archive and Heritage Collection, it is also home to me, Ezra Bigland. I have recently started volunteering here at the Archive during my gap year and have been given use of the archive to research the local activities of Royal Voluntary Service (then known as the Women’s Voluntary Services for Civil Defence) during the 1950s in my hometown of Devizes.
The Narrative Reports – monthly records of each branch’s activities – available here at the archive demonstrate the breadth of services WVS provided, from visiting the elderly and doing their shopping to giving lessons in First Aid and holding the 1-in-5 lectures throughout Devizes and its surrounding villages. Mrs Elsie Proudman, Centre Organiser for Devizes, and Mrs Patricia Forbes, Centre Organiser for the surrounding rural communities, were the women responsible for writing these monthly reports. Mrs Proudman focused on the social activities of the centre, pouring tea and visiting the elderly, whilst in those submitted by Mrs Forbes we see her priority shift from these social aspects to a more educative campaign on issues of Civil Defence.
The 1950s represented an important and uneasy decade. On the one hand the Allies had prevailed over the Axis powers and World War Two was over, on the other, a bipolar prism of East and West had very quickly emerged with the start of the Cold War in 1949. The prospect of peace had been dashed and the immediate post-war sentiments of hope and optimism slowly gave way to new fears as a sinister new threat emerged; Communism and its aggressively expansive incarnation – the Soviet Union.
WVS played an important part in responding to these threats, with the support of the Home Office the WVS began an educational campaign teaching ordinary women basic First Aid and practical skills required to best face the unique threats that the nuclear age presented. The Narrative Reports of Mrs Forbes, specify the number of women who had witnessed the ‘One-in-Five’ talks, lectures designed to provide at least one-in-five British women with the basic skills of Civil Defence.
It may seem a strange juxtaposition to associate Royal Voluntary Service – an organisation known best today for its work with older people - with the broad international political landscape of the 1950s, yet as the monthly Narrative Reports for Devizes show, the Women’s Voluntary Services for Civil Defence played an important educative role in equipping the women of Devizes, and those around the rest of the country, with the basic skills of Civil Defence, a programme which was approved and funded by the Home Office.
WVS also maintained an important social role; working with the elderly, visiting hospitals, arranging flowers and pouring an ever-welcome cup of tea. Whilst the Narrative Reports of Mrs Forbes extensively detail the organisation’s political role, those kept by the long serving Mrs Proudman – a pillar of charitable and civic life in Devizes, after whom a street has been named –detail the social responsibilities of the WVS. Both Mrs Proudman and Mrs Forbes gave great service to the town of Devizes, the fact that Mrs Proudman focused her time on social duties and Mrs Forbes on issues of Civil Defence demonstrates the breadth of service the WVS performed in 1950s Devizes. This variety of focus demonstrates how the WVS was personally shaped by the strong leadership of ordinary women up and down the country, women with greatly differing outlooks and priorities.
On another level it seems that the WVS filled a need for a post-war recalibration of the woman’s role, whereas a decade previously the collective effort of war had redefined the working lives of women and provided a true sense of purpose, the 1950s could have easily felt an anti-climax. The work of the WVS in 1950s Devizes can therefore be seen as a continuation of this wartime spirit, the principles of charity, selflessness and service perpetuated on a new and expanding platform. This was the realisation of what Lady Reading the WVS’s founder had envisaged.
The WVS undoubtedly had a strong presence in Devizes in the 1950s, with the matriarchal leadership of Mrs Proudman and Mrs Forbes countless elderly people were visited, innumerable cups of tea were poured and unending library books were distributed. But more than these valuable and unashamedly simple acts of service the WVS brought to Devizes and its surrounding villages an educational campaign designed to equip its people against the political and humanitarian uncertainty that loomed as the century marched on.
Posted by Ezra Bigland, Archive Volunteer at 09:00
Monday, 22 August 2016.
One in Five,
This Month’s Diary of Centre Organiser comes from October 1951
Wondered why the membership of an exceedingly small “Darby & Joan” Club had risen so remarkably recently, and called in at the newly-arranged hour of 7.30 pm to find out why. The room was packed—and there were more “Darbies” present than in any of our other Clubs. "It’s because we meet in the evenings,” the Club Leader explained. “The ‘Darbies’ promised to come if we changed our time, and they’ve kept their word.” Must pass this suggestion on to other Clubs.
Our International Club grows apace, and some of our members are taking evening classes in French in order to be more helpful at it. Conversation overheard in the ’bus this afternoon: Small girl: “Mummy, what is the French for ‘No’ ? W.V.S. Member (in strong, anglicised accents): “Nong.” Small girl: “Oh, I see. ‘No’ with NG added on!”
A farmer has frequently helped our “Meals on Wheels” service by gifts of vegetables. To-day he brought a basket containing, he said, “Cackleberries.’Two thoughts flashed through my mind: “I love these old country names for things,” and “I wonder if they’re awfully sour and will need a lot of sugar?” The basket, however, contained six dozen EGGS. “Here are your cackleberries,” the farmer exclaimed jovially, and roared with laughter as our appreciation of his joke slowly dawned upon us!
Recipe - Potato Meat Pie
1/2 pound cold meat.
2 cups milk.
1 pound mashed potatoes.
1/2 pound sliced tomatoes.
4 tablespoonsful flour.
1 tablespoonful butter or margarine.
Cut the meat in thin slices and lay in bottom of baking dish. Place sliced tomatoes on top of meat. Over this pour a sauce made of butter, flour, and milk. Finish with a top crust of mashed potatoes and bake.
More news from around the country, originally these stories
were submitted by Centre Organisers on the back of the Narrative Reports and
selected by the editors of the Bulletin for publication. These are just a few activities
from August 1949.
Centre Organiser has since 1942
collected, sorted and packed, with help, no less than 35 tons 2 qrs. 15 lbs. of
salvage, realising £169 18s. 5d. in all. Aled covers 110 square miles, and the
work was done in a shed known as the “WVS hut.” If records of the work done
previous to 1942 were available they would show a great achievement.
Outing organised by WVS car drivers;
about 80 old people, many of whom are taken to and from hospitals for
treatment, were invited to a picnic at Hassocks. Ice cream and a magnificent tea
were provided in the grounds of a private house. Each driver used his or her
own car, and everything was provided by voluntary contributions.
WVS running an Information Bureau
at a Military Camp are dealing with a number of unexpected domestic requests,
one of them being from a soldier for the loan of a pair of scissors to trim his
moustache before meeting his wife!
Over 200 cans of peaches and
goose berries were canned at the Widowers’ Children’s Home, Murrayfield,
Edinburgh, last week. The staff and older children joined in and enjoyed it as
much as WVS.
Have a cup of tea? WVS have served
at the Royal East Sussex Hospital Canteen during the last four months, 1,031
tea meals and 1,329 cups of tea.
On the occasion of the opening of
the new Danish Mission at Newcastle, WVS were asked to escort eight Danish
ladies, widows of officers and men who had died in the last war. The ladies had
a very heavy shopping list and it kept the five WVS escorts exceedingly busy to
assist in buying all the raincoats, belts, suits, cases, etc., as well as 8
lbs. of coffee and cocoa! Flowers and small
posies were purchased to carry to the Commemoration Service and after WVS had
accompanied them back to the hotel a terrific sorting of parcels took place.
They then went to the Danish Centre where WVS bade them goodbye.
suggestion of the WVS Centre Organiser there is to be a goat class at the Roos
Show, and the judge is to be another WVS Centre Organiser who is also the
Secretary of the Yorkshire Goat Society. This is the first time a goat class
has been arranged for a show in the East Riding.
WVS stepped into the breach and
presented a bride with a silver horseshoe on her parent’s behalf as they could
not be present at their daughter’s wedding and they had written to WVS for
help. The bride later came to thank WVS for its great assistance at the
Registry Office, etc., and presented WVS with a delightful bouquet of flowers.
Pete here, it has been just over two years since I last posted a blog about
volunteering here at the Royal Voluntary Service Archive & Heritage
Collection; this is what I have achieved in the past two years.
Maybe I am
being too self-critical, but it doesn’t seem to be very much. I am still involved with the collection of
photographs I had started sorting two years ago. I have managed to appraise around 3000 and saved
those which tell the fascinating story of the Charity in the 1990s and early
2000s, give them reference numbers, find descriptions from WRVS publications,
and scan them into the computer. This
last year I’ve been writing descriptions of all the photographs – I’m about
half way through.
Got to tell
you this, though, being a volunteer here is sometimes like being a history
detective, piecing the evidence together. I was going through the photographs
and I came across two pictures of RAF Tornado aircraft making Meals on Wheels
deliveries. At first I assumed they were
separate events as they featured different aircrew, different WRVS volunteers,
and different locations. Further
research revealed it was the same aircraft and crew on the same mission, one picture
taken just before take-off, with the pilot and leaving party, and the second
picture on arrival, with the navigator and different arrival party. I mentally popped a champagne cork for that
off to do some more cataloguing and investigating hopefully next time I blog
you’ll be able to read my descriptions on the online catalogue.