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Two years ago I wrote a blog (WVS/WRVS Serves at Wimbledon) looking
at our association with the Wimbledon Tennis Championship and the eventful two
weeks between 1947 and 2004 when a number of volunteers ran information desks. So
the other day I was wondering what were the WVS doing in Wimbledon before they
got involved in Tennis.
We actually know very little about the WVS in Wimbledon
during the War, unfortunately none of their Narrative Reports survived from
1938-1947 but there are two articles written in the Bulletin Magazine in 1942 and 1942. One of them tells us that on 11th October 1942 there was an
invasion defence exercise involving the Housewives Service, the Centre
Organiser and WVS post leaders who controlled the Street Leaders. The exercise assumed
that the South East of England had been invaded and the WVS were involved in
caring for the wounded and evacuating people from their homes. You can read the
full article here.
Another source of information is the statistic books for 1943-1945 they tell us the services WVS were involved in in those years Wimbledon ran the
- Under 5’s Nurseries
- Civil Defence Canteens
- Work for HM Forces
- Hospital Services
- Work Parties
- National Savings
Back to the Bulletin, which reported that in February 1945 Wimbledon
was adopted by Leicestershire as part of the Re-homing Gift Scheme. Donated items
collected by volunteers in Leicestershire were sent to Wimbledon, where they
were distributed by WVS to those setting up new homes after they had been
bombed out in flying bomb attacks. In June 1945 the WVS of Leicester County
Borough sent Wimbledon 16 1/2 tons of household goods including over 60 chairs
which had been re-seated by the Institute for the Blind.
Next week we look at what the volunteers of Wimbledon did after the War
While running the Voices of Volunteering project I talked to many volunteers who had helped many people including refugees and who thought they had only made a very small contribution. This week is National Refugee week so I thought I would share some stories from volunteers about their experiences of working with refugees. As you will see they did rather a lot.
WVS were working with Refugees from the start of the Second World War, greeting them and finding billets or accommodation.
“War was declared, I was fifteen and my brother was seventeen. I suppose like all stupid young people it was exciting, frightening in a way but quite exciting. And we lived in Weymouth and a lady called, I don't if it's Mrs Sewell or Miss Sewell advertised for volunteers because a lot of, people were coming over from the continent and the Channel Islands to get away from the war. So both my brother, Bob, and me volunteered and we were making beds for people. We actually helped at the birth of a baby which was quite a shock to both of us, but there was no point in, there was no, we couldn't hang around because it was imminent. Anyway, that's my introduction to the WVS as it, as it was called.” – Geraldine Harris Volunteer, Weymouth.
After the Hungarian revolution in 1956 around 200,000 people fled as refugees a number settled in Scotland. In January 1957 the WVS Bulletin reported:
“It is very difficult to make our page of any interest, other than Hungarian Relief Work, but we begin it by telling of the safe arrival of two train loads over the week-end at two camps, one Middle-ton Camp, Gorebridge, the other Broom-lee Camp at West Linton.
W.V.S. set up the clothing issue stores in both camps 24 hours before the expected arrival of the refugees and were then at the station and in the camps to help settle them in for the night. W.V.S. are now on duty issuing clothing and giving every possible assistance.”
When Idi Amin expelled the Asian Community from Uganda in 1972 many came to the UK and of course the WRVS was there to welcome them with clothing suitable for the British weather.
“we really didn't do very much except sort clothes, which came in from the public. There were so many clothes, we didn't know what to do with. But they all had to be sorted because some of them were not fit to give to anybody, and some were absolutely, really super clothes. And these were all sorted into men, women, children’s and babies. And we had one, one school sent us in with the children’s clothes, in the coat pockets were, was a toy in every one, which was lovely.” – Maureen Jones Volunteer, Epping
When Kosovar Refugees arrived in the UK in 1992 once again the WRVS was there to provide clothing to them.
“The Kosovars were based in Calderstones Hospital which was just on the verge of clothing [sic], closing and there was an appeal out for clothing and it came in in droves, we were really overwhelmed. We thought we were making some progress and then another lot would come in. Some really good things, new things, and we were sorting out the rubbish as well, which you also get some rubbish. But we never, we never finished it. They, eventually the, the clothing was taken into another part of the building and arranged as a dress shop or a men’s shop so they could come in and choose enough clothing to help them through.” – Kathleen Ashburner Volunteer,
These stories and more can be found on the Archive Catalogue search the Voices of Volunteering or Bulletin collections.
It’s been an exciting few weeks here at the Archive after
launching our Kickstarter Campaign on VE Day at the beginning of May.
The Campaign ended on Tuesday 8th June with a
final total of £27,724, which means we have exceeded our goal and can digitise
an extra 2,724. We’ll be able to reveal even more stories of the million women
who volunteered for WVS during the war including this one from June 1941.
The first Communal
feeding centre in Doncaster was opened on Wednesday June 4th. The
WVS supply the staff in the kitchen, 1800 meals are served per 6 day week.
We have been asked to
supply drivers for the conveying of the food from the place where it is
prepared to the centre.
And this one from August 1942
Wing Rural District,
Meat Pie Scheme. For
This is our latest
activity. We started in Ivinghoe on May 12 1942 and in June and July made 2179
pies at 4d each. We have paid the Ministry of food 1/2d on each pie, i.e.
The 12 workers 6 on Tuesday
and 6 on Thursday, Cooks and Kitchen hands come at 9am each day and the whole
thing runs like clockwork.
What we badly need and
have tried to get through the County Inspector of Pies is a mincing
machine that can be screwed to the table. She tells me that all mincers go to
Over the next few weeks Kickstarter will be gathering the
pledges made to the Hidden Histories of a million wartime women so that we can
start to digitise these amazing diaries in September.
Thank you to everyone who has supported the project, helping
to bring the stories of a million wartime women to life. So watch this space for more updates on the Hidden histories of a million wartime women.
Our founder Lady Reading was, to be blunt, a force of nature, who could be both the kindest and the fiercest person one could know. To her friends she was charming, delightful and funny, to her enemies she was to be feared. She was always insightful and rarely tolerant of fools and bureaucracy. Our collection has thousands of her letters and writings all preserved for posterity, mostly as copy letters, which simply bear her squiggle of approval in blue fountain pen.
One of the volunteers came across one such letter of frustration this morning from 1967 and I thought I would share it with you (suitably anonymised).
“I am full of righteous indignation and do feel that it is maddening in the way everything is always stymied by someone inventing some reason why it can’t be done, except their own way. I can’t tell you how many letters I have written, … but each one passes the buck to the next one in such a sanctimonious way that I could shake them all.”
When Lady Reading became the first women to take her seat in the House of Lords as Baroness Swanborough her coat of arms bore the motto
“Not why we can’t but how we can”
She was also extremely modest about her contribution, saying that it was the million women members, and not her that did all the work. Without her leadership and stubborn determination the WVS would certainly not have existed or prospered for so long; but she was right, that the heart and strength of WVS was not individuals or personalities, but the collective often anonymous work of ordinary women.
“WVS was made, not by the genius of the one, but by the faithfulness of the many.”
There are only 24 hours until our Kickstarter project
finishes, and through the faithfulness of almost 700 people and a 'how we can' attitude we have reached and surpassed our target of £25,000. We are going to be able to bring into the light the first three years of the WVS’s hidden history from 1938-1941 and with an extra push we can make even more available.
If you haven’t pledged already please join in, for every pound we raise we can bring another page to light.