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Guest post from Charlotte Tomlinson, University of Leeds.
‘The city centre was a tortured landscape of cratered streets and wrecked buildings, some of them still wrapped in flames. Sections of pavement and roadway had split and lifted as if in an earthquake, and here and there water was gushing up from broken mains beneath…The roar of the pumps and the crackle of flames drowned out all other sounds, but occasionally there came a grinding crash as some wall or roof collapsed, and then clouds of bright sparks would mushroom up and whirl around on hot air.’
(Esther Baker, A City in Flames, p. 31).
This is how one female volunteer remembered the scene in Hull’s city centre in May 1941 -seventy-eight years ago this month - after a particularly devastating night of air raids. Over the course of the war, more than 90% of the city’s buildings were damaged or destroyed, and more than half of Hull’s population made homeless. Among the fires and rubble of this ‘tortured landscape’, hundreds of Women’s Voluntary Service (WVS) members worked tirelessly to provide food, accommodation and comfort to those in need in the city.
WVS work was extensive during the blitz. Volunteers worked across the entire country, from London to Liverpool, from Plymouth to Clydebank, as well as in the Yorkshire port city of Hull. In rest centres, thousands of civilians bombed out of their homes arrived in desperate need of shelter, where WVS members were ready to provide clean clothing, beds to sleep in, as well as a reassuring – and quintessentially British – cup of tea. WVS women also staffed mobile canteens delivering refreshments to firefighters and rescue workers, provided guidance and information at Citizen’s Advice Bureaus, and gave assistance to their neighbours through the Housewives Service. As the impact of the blitz varied from place to place across Britain, so did the work of the WVS.
As a historian, my research involves building a picture of the work done by the WVS during the blitz from the records that are available to us today. The Narrative Reports held by the Royal Voluntary Service Archive &Heritage Collection offer an intimate glimpse into the world of wartime volunteers, from which we can build a rich and detailed picture of WVS work in air raids, and the experiences of its members.
In Hull, as in other places, WVS work in the blitz centred around caring for those made temporarily or permanently homeless. The jobs to be done were seen as typically ‘feminine’ ones, such as cooking and cleaning, providing practical and emotional support, and bringing a sense of homeliness to rest centres and temporary housing. One promotional film, titled ‘WVS’, stressed the importance of maintaining the home in wartime and the special role of women had to play in this:
‘Never in all our lives has home meant so much to us. The snug feeling of protecting walls, the fire, the table set, the kettle on the stove. When we are bombed out, the government finds us new shelter, a room, a table, bed, chairs, bare essentials. It takes more than that to make a home. The little things, the sort of things a woman understands. This is where the WVS can help. They’ll lend a hand with fixing up a blackout, find a few crocks to be getting on with, maybe they’ve got a length of cretonne in their store cupboard’.
(© IWM UKY 341 Narrator Ruth Howe).
The jobs required of WVS members therefore had clear connections to their peacetime roles in the home, even if these jobs were taking place in exceptional circumstances.
Nonetheless, the work done by the WVS could be both difficult and dangerous. Two hundred and forty-five WVS members lost their lives while on duty during the war. In March 1941, the WVS centre in Hull had to relocate after being destroyed by enemy bombing. After managing for six months in spare room in the city’s Guildhall, the centre found a more permanent home in the repurposed Ferens Art Gallery. Narrative Reports reveal that Hull’s volunteers were well-prepared for raids – receptions centres had organised regular ‘mock air-raids’ from February 1940 while in May 1940 volunteers in each location were trained in maternity basics and stocked with ‘maternity bags’ in case of untimely deliveries. This proved to be quite necessary in May 1941, during Hull’s most intense raids, when the first baby was delivered successfully in a hostel for those made homeless, and ceremoniously wrapped in a green WVS blanket gifted by Lady Reading. Four more babies followed that month.
Unsurprisingly, the experiences of blitz volunteers could be deeply emotional. It isn’t hard to imagine how aiding people who had lost their homes, helping to register missing loved ones and working amongst the ruins of the city could be upsetting or traumatic. Lady Reading acknowledged this in the WVS Bulletin in April 1941:
The emotional strain of life in the blitz is hinted at in the Narrative Reports too, such as that written by volunteers in Haltemprice, a suburban area to the West of Hull, in May 1941:
Haltemprice North May 1941
In the central Hull reports, the ‘strenuous’ nature of this work was spelled out in numbers:
Narrative Report Hull May 1941
On the nights of the 7th and 8th May, in which hundreds of lives were lost, more than 14,000 people passed through WVS reception centres and another 40,000 through its district centres. More than 380,000 meals were sent out in the first two weeks of May, and WVS cars ‘covered about 15470 miles’ driving back and forth across the city.
While the story of WVS in the blitz is one of voluntarism in the face of danger, it is also one of neighbourliness. During the Second World War, WVS was organised along regional and local lines and members worked closely with their local communities. For example, members of the Housewives Service provided hot drinks for their local wardens and people in nearby shelters. In many cases they assisted wardens by keeping track of neighbours and their ‘raid arrangements’, so that people could be easily located during bombing. Much of this work took place on their own streets or within their own homes, where a ‘Housewives Service’ card was displayed in the window (example abaove). Like members of the Royal Voluntary Service today, wartime WVS volunteers provided much-needed to support, first and foremost, in their local communities.
Neighbourliness extended from area to area too. During the worst attacks on Hull, volunteers from the suburb of Haltemprice and nearby market town Beverley were called into action and their reception centres opened:
Narrative Report, Beverley, May 1941.
In the East Yorkshire village of Hedon, members of the Housewives Service formed search parties and scrambled to find spare clothing and other essentials for the homeless. Meanwhile, eight of York’s volunteers quickly drove their mobile canteens to Hull to help distribute much needed refreshments in the aftermath of heavy bombing, and stayed for several days. Hull’s WVS were extremely grateful:
Narrative Report, Hull, May 1941.
When we think about the blitz today, what images first spring to mind? Londoners in the East End are probably first. The devastated landscape of Coventry might be next. These are important stories, but the Narrative Reports now held by the Royal Voluntary Service Archive & Heritage Collection offer us an insight into wider experiences of bombing and the incredible work volunteers undertook across Britain. They help us to understand the variety and scale of the jobs done by women in cities targeted by bombing, and also in the suburbs and rural areas which surrounded them – stories which are often forgotten. From these records I’ve been able to build a fuller picture of the neighbourliness that characterised WVS work, from individual to individual, and from area and area. I’ve also been able to better understand the experiences of wartime volunteers and the difficult and dangerous challenges they faced. Through the records of the Royal Voluntary Service Archive &Heritage Collection I can begin to reconstruct the stories of WVS’ one million members - ordinary women who lived and volunteered in extraordinary times.
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.