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Behind the Scenes – The hidden histories of a million wartime women

You’ve enjoyed the stories, you’ve seen the images and you have read all the publicity but how did we get to the stage where we are ready to digitise the diaries telling the story of WVS volunteers during the Second World War? 

Originally the diaries sent to the Archives from the 1950s were stored on folders like those in the photograph.

All the stories of our wartime women were carefully repackaged and catalogued by a team of volunteers with the help of a cataloguing co-ordinator between 2010 and 2014. While repackaging volunteers often enjoy sharing the stories of a million wartime women such as this one from Alton Urban & Rural, Hampshire, February 1943:

A Wedding

‘Last week a wedding by special license took place in one of the villages and in the absence of the Bride’s father and the illness of her mother she specifically asked if she could have a member of WVS in uniform to give her away!!! Is there any vacancy we cannot fill!!!’

The diaries now live in Acid Free Folders and Boxes in our Archive and you can research which areas have surviving diaries by searching our online catalogue.

What’s next?

Our next step is digitisation, the process of capturing objects, paper documents, analogue material and traditional archives in a digital format, such as WAV, PDF or TIFF depending on the item being digitised.

We will be creating high resolution digital images of the documents containing the stories we’ve shared with you and many others using a digital camera. Each document will be captured individually and prepared for online use and research.

Once the collection of 28,000 fragile pieces of paper has been digitised it will be made available for everyone to view on the Royal Voluntary Service website.  This will help to preserve the originals and spread stories like this one around the world:

Hastings, Sussex, May 1944

WVS Clothing Exchange 1st Report. We opened on January 25th, 1944 with an attendance of 5 and with a staff of three helpers. The exchange of clothing from infancy to 16 years covers a wide range. Rapidly increasing numbers necessitated more staff and we are very fortunate in securing keen and enthusiastic helpers.

Great care is taken to see that all clothing brought for exchange is absolutely clean and in good repair.

The total number of names on our register on June 1st is 313 and our clients are so satisfied that they come again and bring their friends.

To find out more about how these records will be made publically available watch our Kickstarter video where Archivist Matthew McMurray explains all.

Thank you

Just over £24,000 has now been pledged thank you to all those who have supported us already and spread the word through social media but we still need help to reach £25,000. If you would like to help us achieve our goal please pledge at Kickstarter Hidden histories of a million wartime women or spread the word and support our Thunderclap.

Posted by Jennifer Hunt, Deputy Archivist at 09:00 Monday, 30 May 2016.

Labels: Kickstarter, million women, Hampshire, Sussex, diaries, digitisation

Amusing Anecdotes

The diaries we are hoping to digitise through our innovative Kickstarter project Hidden histories of a million wartime women are part of one of the most important documents in Britain and along with the Domesday Book and are recognised as such by UNESCO.

These diaries were recorded as narratives once a month (although later on they became quarterly or bi-annual entries) between 1938 and 1992. In these records the Centre Organisers would write the daily activities of the volunteers in their area. This does not however mean they were ordinary events in fact it seems from these stories that WVS, particularly our million wartime women, never turned down a challenge or request and their work was very much appreciated. Here are just a few examples:

Isle of Wight County Office, October 1942

Collection of Rose Hips and Horse Chestnuts for Medicinal Purposes

The county staff are glad that this collection has now ceased. They have moved literally tons of Chestnuts and have become either “Amazons” or complete “crocks”. The help of the ARP had to be enlisted to assist with the tons of Chestnuts that poured into County Headquarters. This help was much appreciated. On several occasions it was almost impossible to entre Headquarters at all. It is, however, gratifying that the “target” has been tremendously surpassed.

Rose Hips Target 2 Tons Collected 3 Tons

Horse Chestnuts Target 5 Tons Collected 15 Tons

Over £170 has been paid out in cash. School children, Scouts, Guides, Farmers, Women’s Institutes and Townswomen’s Guilds took part in the collection.

Basingstoke Rural Hampshire, August 1943

One of our more elderly Village Reps was challenged by an American Sentry at the outskirts of an aerodrome near her home. She alighted from her bicycle and while searching for her pass in her handbag the sentry asked her: - “What’s that badge you are wearing Ma’am?” On being told it was WVS the American replied “WVS! Ma’am you may come by here whenever you choose – Pass on please!!”

Wokingham Borough Berkshire, December 1944

An odd request

A ring at a members door “Please can you help me, my husband is a Lion Tamer and the lion has just died.” After conversation it was discovered that a new lion was not required but a house to live in, which is the hardest to find a house or a lion?

Really it was all in a day’s work for the Army Hitler forgot.

You can find out if we have entries for your local area here and help bring them to life by supporting our Kickstarter project.

PS if you would like to read more stories from a million wartime women why not read the Guardian's article Banana raffles and dog wool: the ingenuity of a wartime women's army or view their photo gallery Women's Voluntary Services - in pictures.

Posted by Jennifer Hunt, Deputy Archivist at 09:00 Monday, 23 May 2016.

Labels: Kickstarter, UNESCO, Isle of White, Basinstoke, Wokingham, WVS

This month in 1940 ...

Thursday 12 May was Mass Observation’s annual call for one day diaries, diaries which will tell the story of people’s daily lives in 2016. During World War II Mass Observation asked for diaries to be sent to them recording the experiences and activities of ordinary people, one of their contributors was WVS volunteer Nella Last. Like Nella Last the WVS Centre Organisers (there were at one point over 2000 of them) recorded the story of their local services once a month. These are some of the activities they were involved in across the country in May 1940.

Burgh of Ayr, Ayrshire

Comforts. During this month, 587 comforts have been received and 515 despatched. As the Red Cross Society has sent out an appeal for additional hospital garments, the WVS work Party has returned making hospital supplies. It had recently been concentrating on comforts for the fighting forces.

Cardiff, Glamorganshire

The main work during this month was dealing with Belgian Refugees nearly 600 of whom came to Cardiff. Centres for accommodation and feeding were established in several halls and billeting processed as quickly as possible. “Keep Calm” posters were distributed and clerical help was given the Blood Transfusion Service. Lady Reading came to Cardiff to address a meeting and over 1000 women attended. Much interest was aroused.

York, North Riding Yorkshire


York is still on the reserved list, but has been informed they will not take children. We are keeping the evacuation organisation together as a body of women which can be used for other services, and have chosen a few of the most reliable for and special services which may arise.


One new feeding centre has been opened. All these centres have now got preliminary stores and blankets. WVS are working in close co-operation with regard to centres with the Public Assistance officer. Small stores have been given out and emergency arrangements made to deal with the cutting off of services such as water and light.

Worcester, Worcestershire

Other activities

On Thursday May 30th the staff of the WVS received an urgent summons to Norton barracks to greet a vast number of BEF home from Dunkirk. Our gifts of cigarettes, sweets and facilities for writing home were much appreciated – but even more welcome were the 2,000 pairs of socks and the many pullovers we distributed among them – but greatest of all was our pride at being able to help in this way, many of us acting as hostesses to the officers in our homes.

Cambridge, Cambridgeshire

Odd Jobs

No appeal for help however extraordinary is turned down by our office. Next week one of our helpers is to go to Herne Bay to bring home a convalescent Boy Scout to Cambridge – Herne bay not being considered at the present stage of the war a salubrious locality for convalescent Boy Scouts.

We would love to make these stories and others like them more accessible and celebrate the hidden history of a million women. Our Kickstarter campaign is going really well but we still need more to help reveal the story of one million women during World War II. For more information why not watch our inspiring video at Hidden histories of a million wartime women.

Posted by Jennifer Hunt, Deputy Archivist at 09:00 Monday, 16 May 2016.

Labels: WVS, Kickstarter, Stories, Hidden, Histories

Revealing the hidden histories of a million wartime women

Here at the Royal Voluntary Service Archive & Heritage Collection we certainly enjoy a bit of pioneering. Once again we are mining away at the secret and hidden history of women.

Yesterday Royal Voluntary Service launched its Kickstarter campaign hidden histories of a million wartime women. Our aim is to raise £25,000 pounds to start a project which will digitize and help to preserve around 28,000 fragile pieces of paper which tell the story of WVS from 1938-1941 in the words of the women who were vital to the Homefront all over Great Britain.

These stories are first-hand accounts of what it was like for a million women giving their services providing advice Information Bureaus, food in British Restaurants and Tea bars, clothes in Clothing Stores, supplies for hospitals and many other activities. It is difficult in a short blog to express how much they achieved and how this history needs to be given a platform, just imagine being able to read a handwritten diary about repairing and cleaning gas masks in Bath, wool made from dogs hair in Portsmouth, Toy Scheme’s for under-fives in Rickmansworth and the serving of 5,035 cups of tea in Hastings.

Hidden histories of a million wartime women will aim to give you this opportunity, to read stories central to the history of Great Britain and of course help us to reveal the secret history of women. We will be making stories recognised by UNESCO as one of the most important documents in the UK accessible to all.

You can explore our project and watch the exciting campaign video on Kickstarter today and help us preserve these stories.

Posted by Jennifer Hunt, Deputy Archivist at 10:00 Monday, 09 May 2016.

Labels: Royal Voluntary Service, Archive, Kickstarter, UNESCO, digitize, WVS, wartime, women

New in...

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.

Labels: New, Accession, Margate, Tunbridge Wells, Kent, WVS, Day Books, Poster, watercolour, Chesham House, activities, Yorkshire, Calderdale, Halifax, photograph, publication, letter, song book

Victoria Wood Housewife 49

I was saddened last week to hear of the death of one of Britain’s most popular stand-up comediennes and television actresses, Victoria Wood, after a short battle with cancer and I thought I would pay a small tribute.

In 2006 she wrote and stared in Housewife 49, a BAFTA Winning drama, based on the diaries of Nella Last a WVS volunteer in Barrow-in-Furness Lancashire during World War II. It was also adapted for the stage in 2013; Victoria Wood chose the small Old Laundry theatre in Bowness-on-Windermere for the performance.

Nella Last wrote her diaries for the Mass Observation project between 1939 and 1966, their archive is now held at the University of Sussex. In them she commented “I felt such a thrill to think I belonged to WVS.”

Housewife 49 saw Victoria Wood portray Nella last in her role as a member of the WVS, making hospital supplies, working in the local WVS centre and a WVS kitchen. This drama gave  the silent history of women a voice and showed how their role on the homefront was vital to the war effort.

Thank you Victoria Wood 

Posted by Jennifer Hunt, Deputy Archivist at 00:00 Monday, 25 April 2016.

Labels: Victoria Wood, Housewife 49, Nella Last, World War II,

News Flashes April 1949

Stories from all over the country reported in the WVS Bulletin April 1949 

ASHTON UNDER LYNE - When in trouble, ask a Policeman to ask W.V.S! A woman motorist was travelling from Wales to York in a snowstorm. On arriving at Ashton she was told not to proceed - the Pennines were blocked. She went to a Police Officer to try and find a room in a hotel but in vain. She then asked, "Is there a W.V.S. Centre here?" Result. The lady was housed and a garage found for her car.

BARKING - Swiss furniture has been given to a young couple who were burnt out of their pre-fab. They have three children under three. Four W.V.S. members together with four Darby and Joan’s gave a very good concert to the Club which was much enjoyed.

BRENTFORD AND CHISWICK - Demonstrations, when required, are being given on briquette making, for fuel economy. Co-operation with Hospital Almoner. Members have visited the cases brought to this Centre's attention by the Almoner, helping in various ways from providing spoons, plates, etc, to just paying social visits.

BRIGHTON - The trolley-shops are much appreciated at West House and Ovingdean and it is hoped W.V.S. are saving the staff trouble over complicated shopping lists. Special orders are now "featured" - clothing of all descriptions is required and much help received from the shops who give W.V.S. a small selection to take along.

CHINGFORD - A driver devised a wonderful idea to keep the meals hot. She lined orange boxes with newspapers, then covered the inside and outside of the boxes with old woollen cloth, from worn clothing, and put rope handles on the outside, to ensure safe handling. On first expedition with these boxes was asked "Where is the baby?" as they looked like baby carrier cots ! Each box holds about eight dinners.

EXMOUTH URBAN - First Darby and Joan Club in Devon opened on February 1st, 1949, and 28 appreciative folk spent a happy afternoon at whist, draughts, dominoes and jigsaw puzzles. Later the club, is to be officially opened by the Chairman of the Exmouth Urban District Council.

LAMBET - A short while ago recommended one of the old Club members as a Sitter-In. The experiment has proved very successful and the old lady has, in addition, taken over the family's sock mending. She hopes shortly to get her employer to come and help us !

LUTON - Were asked by the Army Cadet Force if some W.V.S. members would help with collections at two of the local cinemas. Many W.V.S. helped and a letter of thanks has been received from the Luton Committee of the Bedfordshire Army Cadet Force.

MALVERN - W.V.S. Luncheon Club is held once a month in the ballroom of the Great Malvern Winter Gardens, and has caught on in an astonishing way, being one of the most talked of ventures in the Malverns.

Posted by Jennifer Hunt, Deputy Archivist at 09:00 Monday, 18 April 2016.

Labels: Bulletin, WVS, News, local office

What was it like to be a WRVS District Organiser

Between 1974 and 1992 WRVS was divided into Districts along the same lines as the Local Authorities, each District was managed by a District Organiser.  Some of the volunteers who were interviewed as part of the Voices of Volunteering project talked about being the District Organiser for their local area. Doreen Harris who participated in July 2014 was North Norfolk District Organiser from 1975 to 1985. Here are some of her experiences:

How did you become District Organiser?

"Well, it was because the County Organiser, Joan, that I’d worked with for 11 years, she decided she wanted a change and she was going to leave. Well I didn’t want to leave but I felt that they’d have to get a new County Organiser and she wouldn’t want to get landed with me she’d want to pick her own secretary was the way I looked at it. And so the Regional Organiser came down and said ‘Well I’m glad that you’re not resigning too, what can we do with you’? So I rather cheekily said ‘Well I’d like to look after North Norfolk’, I knew they hadn’t had an Organiser, a District Organiser for some time. ‘Oh well’, she said ‘that sounds a good idea you’d better give it a go’. I worked from home at first, I’d asked if I could have an office if I could find an office and was told ‘Prove the work’s there and we’ll see about it’. So I worked for several months at home, which in a small bungalow you can imagine it wasn’t that easy. I began to get people interested to approach them again and they said ‘Yes, okay look for one’, so I found a little office in North Walsham which was lovely and so a little team of us went there. And North Norfolk has, is always my favourite district, and it was lovely because it went right round the coast."

As District Organiser Doreen was also called out on emergencies in North Norfolk

"I was called out when the sea came through at Walcott, this lovely inspector rang me up and says ‘Mrs Harris my boys it happened on the coast, they are so cold and miserable and can you help’? This is about nine o’clock in the evening, I said ‘Well, we must do something about them mustn’t we’? So I said ‘We’ll pick our team and be there as soon as possible’. So I gathered up the ladies with the tea, we got the urn and down we went to Walcott. And it was rather strange because the police were pretty looked after but we went into the village hall and they had wisely got a group of local ladies, mm, were looking after. And at first I think they thought we’d come to interfere, we said ‘No we just want to make sure you’re all right’, and we said ‘have you got enough blankets, because if not we’ve got some we can let you have’, ‘Yes’, they said ‘that’s, that’s fine’. So we said ‘Okay we’ll leave you to it, you know where we are if you want us’.And then we went on and fed and watered the police as well." 

You can listen to the full story and find out about Doreen’s WRVS work before she became a District Organiser on our online Catalogue.

Posted by Jennifer Hunt, Deputy Archivist at 09:00 Monday, 11 April 2016.

Labels: Norfolk, District Organiser, Emergency, Voices of Volunteering, Oral History

Spinach and Beet - Part 19

This week’s diary of a Centre Organiser and recipe come from April 1949.


Too touched when old Mrs Stoutley pressed a small package into my hand when she came to collect her “Cash and Carry” meals today. “That’s all right, dear,” she said as I took it protestingly. “I’ve just had a parcel from Australia. You give us what we need, I told my husband, and it’s only right we should give you what you need when we can.” Thanked her warmly... and only discovered after she had gone that she had given me a CAKE OF SOAP ! How do I take her remark now?


Stopped on my way to the office by an elderly man who pointed a quivering finger at my badge. “What crown is that on top of it?” he demanded. “No - I’m not disputing that W.V.S. has earned the right to wear a crown, but it’s not like any other I’ve ever seen. It hasn’t the blue emeralds of the Post Office - and it’s different from the one worn by the Coastguards...” My - frivolous? - suggestion that perhaps our crown is “a female of the species” was treated with contempt. "You ought to know about your own badge,” he grumbled, and I promised to make enquiries. (N.B. Shall enjoy being “superior” - when I know the answer!)


Miss G. came in rather thoughtfully this afternoon from a Hospital Car Service journey. The small boy she had taken for treatment from an extremely dirty looking house had been worried about something he had learned at school that morning. “Teacher said we’re all made from dust,” he said. “Is it true?” Miss G. had felt it best to agree. “Then there’s an awful lot of people going to be born in our house,” he had declared, looking rather scared, “and most of ’em under my bed !” Miss G. admitted she had felt quite inadequate to deal with the situation.


Here is a good recipe for individual Simnel cakes

4 oz margarine
3/4 lb mixed fruit
4 oz castor sugar
2 oz mixed peel
2 eggs
1/4 tsp spice
4 oz flour
Grated rind of half a lemon
Pinch of bicarbonate of soda
Almond essence

Beat the butter and sugar to a cream. Add eggs gradually and beat until the mixture is stiff and uniform. Stir in flour, soda and salt sifted together. Add fruit, chopped peel, spice, grated lemon rind and a few drops of almond essence. Mix well, then place in greased patty tins. Cook in good oven for 35 minutes.

Posted by Matthew McMurray, Royal Voluntary Service Archivist at 00:00 Tuesday, 05 April 2016.

Labels: WVS, Spinach and Beet, Simnel Cakes, Hospital car Service, Soap, Post office, Coastguard, Cash and Carry, Meals on Wheels , Diary

All good things come to an end

Mary Howard-Jones attending the EventHere at the Archive we know how to celebrate in style and last weeks End of Project Event for Voices of Volunteering was no exception. This event hailed two years since the Voices of Volunteering project started in March 2014.

Royal Voluntary Service Volunteers and employees attended our event at the Assembly Rooms in Devizes on 15 March. There we had two exhibitions one which told the history of the charity through photographs of material held in the Archive and the other featured five of the volunteers who had been interviewed during the project.

This was also an opportunity to look back at what had been achieved by volunteers, Royal Voluntary Service and the project. Here we were able to show how, with the help of Heritage Champions, the project has made our history less ‘hidden’ and less ‘silent’. It was also a chance to share some very interesting stories including: a dog using the transport scheme in the 1970s, a game of Mr & Mrs on a Silver Threads Club holiday and how volunteers first became involved with WVS and WRVS.

At the event we also introduced our new school resources which aim to inspire a new generation of volunteers using stories from the oral history collection. To do this they look at debates surrounding volunteering such as what impact it has on people’s lives and local communities as part of one hour lesson plans. The lesson plans also encourage children to be more active citizens, helping older members of their families or fundraising for charity. Why not have a look for yourself on the Voices of Volunteering website.

Overall the event showed that the project has been a roller-coaster ride, a journey of discovery and emotion which has led to the collection of over 100 oral histories from women and men who between them have given over 75 years of Citizenship and Service since 1938. They are now available for you to listen to on our online catalogue.

Posted by Jennifer Hunt, project archivist oral history at 09:00 Monday, 21 March 2016.