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It’s been a while since we last looked at the early roles of
WVS, so this week I thought we would explore the services provided for the
homeless. Due to enemy attack and bombing raids during the Second World War many people
were made homeless. The WVS had many solutions to help ease the situation and supplied
food, clothing and accommodation to those in need from 1939-1945. There was
also assistance provided in the immediate post-war period a WVS began to
reshape itself and society. Volunteers were vital in keeping up people’s moral
particularly when they were victims of air raids; most of this work took place in
In September 1939 WVS was called upon to take a new role
care of the homeless, alongside evacuation of children, mothers and under-fives
and other vulnerable people. Homes and building were earmarked as rest centres.
This was the first place to go for help if you had lost your home before being
billeted or rehoused. The phony war did not bring as much evacuation and rest
centre work as expected or feared however once heavy bombing started in 1940
WVS swung into action.
Rest centres were
mainly established in cities and in some coastal towns with 180,000 volunteers
ready to help when needed. In many cases WVS ran the rest centres and
maintained them when they were not in use. Services run from the centres
included: food, gift from overseas, rations, clothing, bedding and information
desks/Citizens Advice Bureaux. This was also an area where WVS showed its
innovative and forward thinking side with the development of new schemes to
ease the pressure on rest centres in times of crisis this encompassed the
The unpleasant possibility of being suddenly made homeless
in the night threatens all of us with varying degrees of imminence. The
Emergency Shelters, which in many places are staffed and organised by W.V.S.
volunteers, have done much to relieve the sufferings of bombed- out victims of
air raids, but any scheme which lessens the pressure upon these shelters would
obviously be welcomed both by their staffs and those who are forced to seek
refuge in them. In one city the workers in the Emergency Shelters have
canvassed the householders, suggesting that each household should pair off with
friends living not less than half a mile away, so that, if one house is struck,
the other affords shelter to both families. The exchange of a small reserve of
clothing also spreads the risk of losing the entire family wardrobe. The W.V.S.
Housewives' Service has helped to organise this short-term emergency
hospitality in several places, and they have been so successful that, in some
cases, it has not been necessary to open the Emergency Shelters even after
serious incidents.” – WVS Bulletin April 1941 p.4
A war is won on the success, support and effort provided by
the Home Front without vital assistance those who suffered may have lost hope
and this would have had negative impact on the battle fields. WVS was fundamental
to keeping up moral and continued to provide help to those who lost their homes
throughout the war especially during emergencies and bombings in London. The
service also included helping to reunite people, families and friends, who had
been separated during a raid. Towards the end of the war WVS also saw the need
to help those who had lost everything and help them return to some kind of
Towards the end and after
the war there were many people who needed to be rehoused who had nothing to
furnish their homes with or plant in their gardens. WVS ran two schemes to help
them one of these was the Re-homing Gift Scheme which involved centres in areas
which had not suffered serious collecting gifts of furnishings to send to
London Boroughs for distribution. WVS helped 100,000 families distributing
8,000 tons of furniture, crockery and hardware. The second activity was the
Garden Gift Scheme, established in
April 1945 to collect help the owners of blitzed gardens and those who had been
rehoused in prefabs. The scheme
asked for flowers; vegetable seedlings; shrubs; trees and hedging plants. If
you got in touch with your local WVS they would collect your plants; distribute
them to prefab owners in London and other blitzed cities and pay for postage or
Care of the homeless was very important to WVS and involved
many of aspects of its wartime services and a few post-war. As we have seen
this included rest centres, feeding, clothing, Citizens Advice Bureaux,
rehoming and gardening. WVS was vital to the war effort, without it who knows
how the development of wartime and immediate post-war British society would
have been effected.
I have now spent just over 14 months digitising the Hidden histories of a million war time women contained in the WVS Narrative Reports written between 1938 and 1944 (currently more than half way through 1945). It has been a really enjoyable experience and has helped to preserve these invaluable records while making them more accessible. In this week’s blog I would like to reflect on the pros and cons of carrying out a digitisation project in relation to my work here as Archives Assistant.
Digitisation can theoretically improve the life span of a document due to the reduction of manual handling. By making a document of certain significance to be viewed through an online catalogue, the physical copy can return to being untouched and potentially spoilt. However, it is actually the digitised copy that is the most fragile of all. It is far easier to place a piece of paper in a suitable box for three hundred years than to deal with a long-term solution for digital storage. For example, data is kept on mechanical drives that live on servers. After an extended period of time, those drives will fail. This means that for long-term digital storage to be continuously available for everyone, data constantly needs to be backed up. Similarly, the data also needs to have duplicate copies and ideally have a safe home off-site in case of a crash or fire. It is widely known that for something to exist digitally, it must be backed up at least three time. We have used archival standard formats such as TIFF and PDF to ensure that the digitised reports are preserved for as long as possible. As well as helping to preserve the original documents with digital copies I have also assisted with improving online access to the collection.
Digitisation is also an excellent method of showcasing the prestigious wealth of material that exists within many boxes on the shelves of an archive’s storeroom. This is largely beneficial for everybody involved as it can make the archive much more accessible. The Narrative Reports have been hidden away from view for a long period of time and everybody can now enjoy looking at them for free online. Digitisation may be viewed as a short-term solution to engage the wider populace with the material, but it is actually as long-term as the box at the back of the storeroom. It is essential however, that the importance of the physical collection is never undermined by its digital counterpart. For example, the same piece of paper can be digitised three times in one hundred years, but it can never be photographed again if the original is lost forever. Although it is brilliant that we have improved preservation and access to the collection we have had to think about other aspects of digitisation including cost.
As with any digitisation project time and money has had to be spent on the Hidden histories of a million war time women. It can be quite financially challenging to implement into the day to day running of an archive, but digitisation grants are becoming increasingly available. However crowdfunding such as Kickstarter can provide archives with the financial support they need to purchase equipment and employ additional staff. I have been employed as a full time member of staff that focuses primarily on photographing and editing the Narrative Reports. There are also a number of companies which can take on digitisation work for archives. However the project has involved preparation work and a number a checks to the catalogue records when attaching documents to CALM which would have still been done in house.
While carrying out the project as well as making it easier for the Archivist and Deputy Archivist to answer enquires, since July 2017 they have not had to move from their desks when looking for local information from the period 1938-1943, I have also been able to help them in ways they did not foresee. Digitising the reports has enabled me to spend time amending any mistakes to the packaging of our original copies due to the digitisation process. This may include finding a report with the incorrect year or location. After these mistakes were corrected, it has actually improved the overall accuracy of the collection, which can only be a good thing.
Overall there are three main aspects to consider the pros and cons of when digitising archival material; these are preservation, access and cost. You may also as I did come across some added bonuses like improving the overall accuracy of your collection. In this week’s blog I have provided a balanced view but I would argue that digitisation is a wonderful method of opening up a particular part of an archival collection. Obtaining access to all things via the internet has become a progressively important part of society and if financially viable, archival digitisation has become an efficient method of improving accessibility.