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The Royal Voluntary Service Heritage Collection is the sixth largest collection of charity archives in the country. If you stacked all the boxes in the collection one on top of the other they would be 108m higher than the Glasgow Tower. In those boxes you will find over 2 million documents, 30,000 photographs and more than 1,000 objects and uniforms. These archives tell the story of Britain and its people, not through the eyes of those who ruled but through the eyes of a hidden army of women (and men) ready to volunteer their time and energy where they were needed, ready to give compassion in crisis.
The tellers and protectors of this story are known as the Keeper of Heritage and the Archivist. Over the last eight months Jennifer (our Archivist) has had the monumental task over of choosing 8 objects, four photographs and three posters as well as producing a film to represent the compassion of Glasgow’s volunteers in times of crisis. In this month’s blog Jennifer is going to expand on and share with you just some of the stories behind the archives featured in the Compassion in Crisis Exhibition at Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum (running till 31st January 2020).
Hello my name is Jennifer and I am the Archivist for the Royal Voluntary Service, many of you who are regular visitors to this blog will know me but for those who aren’t essentially I am the protector and story teller of the (somewhat hidden) history of one of the most important organisations in Britain’s social history. Did you know that since 1938 over 2 million people have volunteered all over the UK for Royal Voluntary Service. They have done everything from making “magical” cups of tea to telling people how to build a refuge room in case of nuclear attack to supporting soldiers on army bases all over the world. This week I would like to tell you a story, the story of how Glaswegian volunteers have helped their local communities and people worldwide with their compassion in times of crisis.
In 1938 Britain was on the edge of another war with Germany, in anticipation the government wanted to mobilise women to help in the event of an air raid. These women could sign up to Air Raid Precautions (ARP) as wardens however the men enrolling them didn’t know what to do with them. Que Lady Reading and a revolutionary idea called the Women’s Voluntary Services for ARP. To bring this revolution to Glasgow Lady Reading enlisted the help of Lady Ruth Balfour, appointing her chairman of the WVS in Scotland in May 1938. By the autumn she had established an office in Glasgow with a team of volunteers to run it. As I have said the original aim was to recruit women for ARP work such as fire watching and getting people into shelters.
However volunteers in Glasgow were soon being asked to help wherever they were needed. You have to imagine the original organisation was like a very large recruitment agency. By 1939 WVS had evolved radically and was involved in many activities to plan for the war effort including evacuation, salvage and mobile canteens. By then they had become known as ‘the women in green’. This was due to the colour of their uniform an example of the jacket and blouse can be seen in the exhibition.
Their role was ever expanding as was the number of volunteers involved; over 4,500 Glaswegian women were joined WVS during the war. Can you imagine that many focusing all their time and energy on the war effort. Nearly half those volunteers were focused on services for his majesty’s forces including clubs, canteens and hospital visits. They weren’t just giving their time to do these roles they also gave their skills and thoughtfulness.
One volunteer called Margaret Miller, a member from 1939 to 2015, was such a woman living in Glasgow. During the war she visited soldiers in hospital. Many of the men she visited couldn’t see their families as they lived to far away so Mrs Miller wanted to do something special for them. She convinced her local grocer to give her some oranges’ those of you who know of the shortages during the war will know how hard this would have been to come by and the soldiers were delighted with these gifts. The WVS didn’t just looking after service men staying in Glasgow they also helped those who were passing through. In 1940 station guides were established in all stations in Glasgow.
We don’t know how many women volunteered to be station guides during the war although the statistics show that in 1943 158 where engaged in other work for HM Forces. One of these women was Mrs Wyle Young. She kept diaries of her time in WVS and her wartime entries focus on this service. Here are two extracts from those diaries.
I hope that this gives you an idea of the sort of situations volunteers found themselves in and how through compassion they managed to help ease peoples suffering.
Throughout the war WVS volunteers continued to support the people of Glasgow as well as visitors and new communities moving in to the city. At the end of the war however it was thought that volunteers would not be needed to continue in many of the roles WVS had created or taken on. Thinking about your own experiences in relation to volunteering can you conceive of a world without them?
Before the welfare state was established the Poor Laws provided support for the poorest in society including work houses. Throughout the early twentieth century the support offered by these laws was declining as they were slowly replaced by new support mechanisms which helped to create the welfare state such as national insurance and later the NHS. Between 1945 and 1948 very little support existed to help those in need and here WVS saw an opportunity to take the skills and services it used during the war and turn them to peace time activities; this included clothing, meals, transport to hospital and many more. They also identified that loneliness needed to be tackled and continued to develop clubs to provide people with the opportunity to make new friends. While volunteers were developing their roles in social welfare their role in Civil Defence appeared to have come to an end.
However as the cold war began to heat up in the late 1940s the Civil Defence Corps was re-established and asked WVS to form the Welfare Section of this service. In the event of a nuclear attack volunteers would be a first aid point and source of comfort. Volunteers also joined the Food Flying Squad Convoys; fleets of blue vans ready to fly into action during a disaster. There were 20 convoys across the country and each convoy could serve 3,000 people. Fun fact each convoy had a motorbike apart from Scotland I have never been able to find out why; a set of dinky toys have been displayed as part of Compassion in Crisis to represent the convoy. The Scottish convoy was kept at Kirkintilloch and used on a number of training exercises.
In 1953 the biggest Civil Defence exercise in the UK was held at Kelvin Hall opened by the Lord Provost of Glasgow, it was named Thistle. On the last day the WVS fed 4,500 Civil Defence personnel in ¾ of an hour. The WVS was very keen to boost morale in a time when people lived in fear of the world ending.
In 1955 the WVS established the One in Five department, the aim was to tell one in five women, a fiftieth of the population what to do in the event of a nuclear attack. Over the years I have spoken to a number of volunteers who gave these talks and many have told me that looking back the information was useless “but it did make you feel a little bit better”. Information included hiding in a field with a coat over your head, filling the bath and covering it with a door to keep it fresh and building a refuge room. One volunteer decided to be very practical about this and cleared out her pantry, built herself a refuge room and then gave tours to local women so they could do the same. For Britain the Cold War began to thaw in the late 1960s and in 1968 the Civil Defence Corps were disbanded.
However WRVS as it was known by then decided to keep providing assistance in times of great distress. We’re very lucky they did the late twentieth century saw a number of disasters which were utterly devastating including Piper Alpha and Lockerbie. WRVS was at them all wearing an orange tabard, a cup of tea in hand as well as a willing ear to hear any problem and to help solve them however they could. On 21st December 1988 Pan Am Flight 103 was destroyed by a bomb killing 270 people it is the deadliest terror attack in the history of the United Kingdom. This is an extract from a Report on the work of the WRVS Emergency Services Department after the bombing.
While all this work to help people at home affected by the Cold War and the actions of others the WVS of Glasgow was also very involved in supporting people in distress all over the world.
Imagine that you have lost your home through natural disaster, war or your just no longer welcome your own country because a new political regime has swept in and they simply don’t like your beliefs or lifestyle. This was the situation facing 1000s, in Twentieth century, who simply had to flee their homes. Imagine how they must have felt arriving in Britain who would they turn to, can anyone guess who I’m going to name?
Yes absolutely the Royal Voluntary Service or WVS/WRVS as they were known in the past.
The WVS in Glasgow had a vast wealth of experience caring for refugees, during the war they helped Polish, Belgian and Dutch refugees settle in the UK and afterwards they supported EVWs who had volunteered to come and work in jobs which couldn’t be filled due to the loss of life in the Second World War. We’ve already spoken about the cold war and the boiling point it reached in the 1950s and 60s. In 1956 there was an uprising in Hungary which was crushed by the Soviet Union, many had to leave and 21,500 arrived in the UK. The WVS provided clothing, translators and advice to Hungarians who need help and support. I mention clothing as this was the main focus of the refugee part of our exhibition. You’ll have seen or hopefully you will see the clothing store model from East Kilbride. WVS set up 1,000s of clothing stores across the country to supplier good clean second hand clothing to those who couldn’t afford new or to those who had lost everything.
They were also experts in mass clothing drives, 1959 was World Refugee Year and WVS was tasked with collecting clothing to send to the Middle East to displaced Palestinians. In one year WVS Scotland collected 2,693 bales of garments weighing 105 tons. Support from Glasgow to Refugees around the world didn’t just end with World Refugee Year in 1960; members made layettes through the 1960s to send abroad and from 1961-1974 adopted Refugee families in Germany and Poland sending them letters and small gifts. This work formed the main focus of this section of the exhibition displaying the model East Kilbride Clothing Store, a souvenir booklet about the drive and a poster encouraging donations.
Volunteers in Glasgow were particularly keen to adopt families from Poland and their kindness and hospitality didn’t just involve sending gifts and letters. In 1962 one two of Glasgow’s adopted families arrived in the city. WVS had found them two council houses side by side in Milngavie, on arrival they found the table laid and a home cooked meal waiting for them as well as their friends from the WVS.
If you volunteer I want to think about why you decided to volunteer. In my case as with many it was an enthusiastic caring person who inspired me to take on a voluntary role. For girls at Park School the Glaswegians of the WVS inspired them to adopt a refugee and helped her to complete her education. They corresponded for 4 years between 1968 and 1972 but unfortunately as with the two families we don’t know what happened afterwards. Hopefully the support from volunteers gave them everything they needed for their future lives.
WRVS volunteers continued to support refugees through the 1970s including Ugandan Asians expelled by Idi Amin in 1972. Although no refugee camps were established in Scotland volunteers travelled all the way to the South West of England to help. Other refugee crises supported by volunteers also included Chilean Refugees in 1974, Vietnamese Refugees in the 1980s and in the 1990s Kosovan Refugees.
The twenty first century still sees many of these same problems, people losing their homes through war and politics. However attitudes have changed, or those displayed by the media makes it seem like they have changed. For those willing to help it is becoming increasingly difficult and with a change in focus for WRVS in the late 90s early 2000s major crisis is no longer an area we are seen.
So far I have been telling you the stories of volunteering in cases of emergency, extreme circumstances and times of war or political turmoil. While these problems still exist in the twenty first century the meaning of crisis has broadened to include circumstances in people’s everyday lives. Due to changes in funding and a move from crown service to charity through the 90s and 00s WRVS began to develop the areas in which it focused – mainly health and wellbeing in hospitals and communities.
Volunteering to enhance social welfare, health, wellbeing and fight loneliness have already been alluded to. Today in Glasgow you’ll find 300 volunteers involved in hospital shops, cafes and trolleys. For over 80 years our volunteers have been helping in hospitals in many ways from making supplies to promoting blood donations to providing tea and comfort. Lady Reading worked closely with the Ministry of Health to support the creation and establishment of NHS in 1948, a support role which is still very important today. This leaflet from 1951 has a very interesting introductory paragraph.
I think this applies as much today as it did then and over 70 years later we are still supporting the NHS. Last year volunteers were on wards not just supporting patients but staff to easing the stresses brought on by the time of year. Our volunteers love their work; in our exhibition is a long service medal and clasp which together represent 27 years of voluntary service and over 1080 shifts in the Glasgow ambulatory hospital. This particular medal and clasp represent the dedication of Wilma McDonald who has actually volunteered for 31 years. Wilma doesn’t just provide teas and coffees to people; it’s here time, her smile and listening ear which they really appreciated. It’s all about that human contact; but what about those in crisis in the community, how do we help them.
There are around another 1,100 volunteers in Glasgow working in the community tackling loneliness, keeping people active and involved. Every day in the news we see stories about people not seeing anyone for days and living alone. This doesn’t just apply to older people the epidemic of loneliness has spread across the whole of society. Loneliness and our awareness of it is nothing new, I think we just treat it more like a crisis than we used to. As early as 1946 WVS volunteers were running clubs to support older people in their communities and help them make friends. In 1970 WRVS’s guidance for club organisers stated:
“The purpose of the clubs is to provide companionship in comfortable, cheerful and warm surroundings, to help members to continue to play a role in the life of the community, to keep up or awaken their interests and to give them the opportunity to put to account their aptitudes and skills.”
These ideas have evolved today and clubs are taking the concept of awakening interests and using skills with clubs that focus on specific hobbies such as fishing, art and wood work. As part of the exhibition you’ll see a tenement house covered in different pieces of art work covering it. You might think what does this represent? Well I have shared with you some traditional types of archives so now I’m going to share an extract from a much more modern one, it’s an email form Jennifer Hanlon who runs Art Club 1 who created this piece called OOT Tha Box.
This club was set up as part of Drink Wise Age Well a special initiative run by Royal Voluntary Service to support health and wellbeing in relation to drinking enough water and not too much alcohol. Originally this club was setup to help older people but now has a range of members enjoying art, long may it continue.
While these clubs aren’t preparing us for nuclear war or helping in major disasters they are still tackling more personal everyday crisis; loneliness; wellbeing and many other challenges of today. All this is done through compassion and willing volunteers wanting to help others.
I hope that you have been inspired by the stories of some of the thousands of Glaswegians who have volunteered since 1938. Through this whistle stop tour of our history I hope I have expressed just how much:
And Dedication there is and has been in Glasgow, Scotland and Britain over the last 80 or so years