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In 1939 WVS first began to recruit volunteers to work in mobile canteens which were largely used to feed Civil Defence workers and civilians in need. WVS volunteers also gave their support within hospitals during the war, working in hospital canteens, answering telephones, doing domestic jobs and completing other duties of every kind to help assist with staff shortages. When the NHS was established in 1948 Lady Reading and the Minister for Health, Aneurin Bevan, agreed that WVS would expand into running out-patient canteens.
Towards the end of the 1960s there were three types of hospital canteens: two of these were static, the first situated within the hospital building and the second in separate buildings in the grounds. Finally, trolley services were provided which toured wards selling goods and refreshments to bedridden patients.
The canteens provided an area within hospitals that allowed patients and visitors to escape from the wards. A 1969 Health and Hospitals News Sheet stated that WRVS offered the opportunity to experience a place run by ‘“normal” people, i.e. non-professionals’. It allowed long term patients to feel independent and to have real connections with the outside world.
Over time the food served at the hospital canteens changed from simple snack foods to hot meals. In the early years the canteens’ leading provisions were sandwiches with lentil, pea or bean spread and cream cheese fillings. However, by the 1970s the food provided had changed to include meat pies and sausage rolls, available due to the introduction of hot counters and freezers.
Any profits made were gifted back to the hospital to enable them to purchase new equipment needed to help the patients. One example of this was the WRVS shop and canteen service in Bedford’s South Wing Hospital. They were able to raise £148,522 in the 12 years before it was refurbished and expanded in 1994. These profits allowed the WRVS to gift the following equipment to Bedford’s South Wing Hospital:
• Aesculap drill - £4014
• Surgical telescopes - £720
• Two heart monitors - £6000
• Many smaller items such as furniture, patient trolleys and medical utensils
Today there are approximately 900 hospitals in which the RVS provides its services ranging from shops to canteens and trolley services. The proceeds from these are still gifted back to the hospital in order to provide better care for patients as well as better standards for staff and visitors.