“There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies, and statistics” so goes the eponymous quote popularised by Mark Twain.
Every once in a while we all have to admit we have been wrong and so that is what todays blog is in part about. It is the wonderful thing about archives, especially large ones like ours, that we are always finding new things and new evidence, refining and re-writing history and making ‘new’ discoveries.
Here in the archive we have the most fabulous set of statistics for the period 1938-1945. The WVS were compelled by the Government to keep them for the purposes of assisting with Civil Defence. Early on this data tracks WVS volunteer recruitment and numbers monthly, and from 1943 quarterly, but in much more detail. But when the war ended, so did the statistics; the need was no longer there.
We know for certain that in November 1941 the WVS reached its zenith in terms of the number of women who it could call upon, with 1,043,423 members; the largest volunteer organisation in British history. But what happened at the end of the war and afterwards has always been rather sketchy.
We knew that there were very significant resignations at the end of the war, with speeches given by women at the closing of WVS centres about having done their bit and wanting to look after their homes, families and returning husbands, but no figures survived. In fact it would appear no figures were gathered from the end of 1945 until 1949, a period of rapid and dramatic transformation of the WVS from one centred around Civil Defence to one at the forefront of post-war social welfare development.
In 1949 however, with the re-establishment of the Civil Defence Corps after the Russian’s successful Nuclear test in August, the WVS formed the Welfare Section of the CD corps and the statistics started again. Unfortunately we only had a few glimpses of these through a few returns which had been kept by some local offices, which had found their way to the archive. The Headquarters summary books were missing. By comparing these few centre examples against the data from 1945 we made best guesses about the change in national volunteering numbers over the late 1940s.
We also applied that to the period up to 1982 (which were the first post war national statistics we had) and took into account significant events and the start and finish of major branches of work.
Our best guess was that after the war the WVS lost about half its membership to about 500,000, with an increase in 1949 with the formation of the CD corps and then a steady decline with some larger drops at the closure of the corps in 1968 and the death of Lady Reading in 1971.
We have recently been undertaking a whole collections review. I spent five weeks looking in every box in our collection, and managed to find many things I had ‘lost’ and some things which I had never seen before. One of these was the missing 1949-1970 membership statistical returns.
How wrong I turned out to be! After ten years of telling one story, I now have to tell another, but at least it is now more accurate. It just goes to show you what unintentional lies can be wrought from making assumptions based on limited data.
The graph below shows just how dramatic that end of war exodus of members was with the membership between 1945 and 1949 dropping by 88% from 968,242 to 118,960. The majority of that probably occurring in the immediate period after VJ day.
Membership, rose slightly with the onset of the Cold War in 1949, until fatigue set in in the md 1950s, with a flat membership until Lady Reading’s death in 1971 and then a very slow decline until the early 1990s.
The more pronounced decline in the early 1990s through to 2010, should perhaps be seen in the context of the professionalisation of the charity sector and wider social change. This included dramatic changes in the role of women in society and ideas and enthusiasm about volunteering. That said the 1990s and early 2000s were a particular turbulent time for Royal Voluntary Service as its role fundamentally changed from doing just about everything to focusing only on older people and its Government grant was withdrawn incrementally from 1997 - 2008 when it stopped completely.
I think Mark Twain had it just about right, but I’m glad I can put the record straight; at least for the time being.