Finding Identity in Archives

Reading a number of articles, social media posts and calls for papers once again archivists seem to be obsessed with the idea of  identity. The Oxford English Dictionary gives two definitions “The fact of being who or what a person or thing is.” And “A close similarity or affinity”; synonyms include: character, originality and specification. Previously in this blog we have explored what archives are, what is an archivist and how that has changed in 20th century. There are many topics which could be explored surrounding archives and identity; Archives themselves are the keepers of identity for particular communities, groups or organisations. In this week’s blog through the Royal Voluntary Service Archive & Heritage collection we’ll explore how a charity’s identity can be projected by its archive.

In Charity Archives in the 21st Century Matthew our Archivist described Charity Archives as holding “the collective memory of this vitally important part of our history” in reference to philanthropy and charitable work in previous centuries when volunteering started to develop in the form it takes today. So what do charity archives tell us about identity in terms of the charity, the nation and in case of RVS in particular the character of volunteering.

The Charity

Of course this isn’t the place for an in-depth discussion on identity so these are just some examples of identity in archives; the whole blog is a refection of parts of Royal Voluntary Services identity and many more can be found in the archives and the work it does today. The development of WVS to Royal Voluntary Service can be traced through its documents but also the items of clothing it holds. Since the rise of the teenager in the 1950s part of people’s identity has been their clothing, their unique style. Looking through our extensive collection of uniform and how it has changed over the years you can see why WVS was referred to as the ‘women in green’. Over the years styles changed but not the colours showing how recognisable the WVS and later WRVS wanted to make itself through a physical identity and that it was an organisation that moved with the times. Along with other organisations in the 1980s and 1990s it moved towards more casual wear. In 2004 WRVS changed its brand identity completely losing the red and green and going for orange and purple; a physical representation of the twelve year transition from crown service to charity. However during 75th anniversary celebrations WRVS became Royal Voluntary Service and went back to red and green identifying with its roots and heritage. While the archive represents the identity of the charity it also epitomizes the identity of a nation.

The Nation

Our archives do not just signify the identity of the charity; it represents the story of welfare for a nation. WVS was founded at a time when the nation was preparing for war but also at a time when ideas about how to care for society’s most vulnerable were changing. The poor houses and work houses were disappearing but there wasn’t yet the provision of the welfare state and the NHS but they were on their way. The Records of the Royal Voluntary Service’s Archives show how WVS bridged the gap through 1939-1945 with clubs, feeding, clothing exchanges, welfare foods and many others. Posters, Photographs, Narrative Reports and documents on policy all demonstrate the identity of Great Britain as a philanthropic nation with many people wanting to give their time to help those in need.  Today Royal Voluntary Service still enables people across Great Britain to give their time to help others.

A prime example is work in hospitals particularly Trolley Shops, this year some hospitals are celebrating 70 years of having a trolley run by our volunteers. WVS covered a whole range of hospital services during the Second World War including supply depots, food, fundraising and domestic work. When staff started to return at the end of the war WVS were asked not to overlap but to still support hospital services. WVS developed a range of services for the benefit of patients’ physical and mental wellbeing as well as supporting the hospitals’ needs. While developing the NHS, the Ministry of Health asked Lady Reading for support where hospitals would not meet patients’ needs. Lady Reading of course agreed; while personal shopping services had existed since 1946 Trolley Shops were one of the first WVS services to appear within the NHS in 1948 by 1949 there were 183 trolley shops across the country. For members then and volunteers today trolley shops were/are all about providing a service to make patients feel special, to give them independence and connections with the world outside and supporting the NHS. A pivotal part of our national identity and in the archives this identity can be found in photographs, publications and central registry files which help us give local services a clear identity and heritage. The Archive represents many identities and another of these is the character of the volunteer.  

The Character of the Volunteer

Founder Chairman Lady Reading was one of the first women to sit in the House of Lords, in 1958 she had a coat of arms designed for her title Baroness Swanbrough. She wanted it to epitomise WVS and the motto was “Not why we can’t but how we can”.  Lady Reading had many strong views on the subject of volunteering which have informed people’s own beliefs today about giving their time for RVS services, in an interview in 1960 she said:  

Voluntary service, to my mind, is the proud expression of responsibility undertaken by an individual as an accepted duty”  

The shelves of our archives are full of examples of that proud expression, many selfless acts of volunteering and what it means to be a volunteer. Oral histories and reports written by centre organisers on a monthly basis provide us with first-hand accounts and memories of service beyond self over 80 years of history. I know of many examples which would show you the character of volunteering but I have chosen the following:

Narrative Report, members of Sheffield WVS after an air raid 12th-15th December 1940

Oral History Barbara Statham, rebuilding the Hospital Canteen at Bromham, Bedfordshire (1990s)

To me these examples show how volunteers will try and help where ever they can and shows how we can use archives to find the identity of the concept of volunteering and use it influence us today.


Having a strong identity helps us to make decisions and being able to identify it from their archives can allow charities to learn about their past and look in to their future. The Royal Voluntary Service represents three identities that of the charity itself, the nation and the character of volunteering. All of these identities of course represent a charity which has been part of the fabric of the nation for 80 years. This blog has given just a few examples of the records and objects which can represent these identities; there are many more to be discovered on the Archive Online and Our History pages of the website.

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