Devizes is home to the Royal Voluntary Service Archive and Heritage Collection, it is also home to me, Ezra Bigland. I have recently started volunteering here at the Archive during my gap year and have been given use of the archive to research the local activities of Royal Voluntary Service (then known as the Women’s Voluntary Services for Civil Defence) during the 1950s in my hometown of Devizes.
The Narrative Reports – monthly records of each branch’s activities – available here at the archive demonstrate the breadth of services WVS provided, from visiting the elderly and doing their shopping to giving lessons in First Aid and holding the 1-in-5 lectures throughout Devizes and its surrounding villages. Mrs Elsie Proudman, Centre Organiser for Devizes, and Mrs Patricia Forbes, Centre Organiser for the surrounding rural communities, were the women responsible for writing these monthly reports. Mrs Proudman focused on the social activities of the centre, pouring tea and visiting the elderly, whilst in those submitted by Mrs Forbes we see her priority shift from these social aspects to a more educative campaign on issues of Civil Defence.
The 1950s represented an important and uneasy decade. On the one hand the Allies had prevailed over the Axis powers and World War Two was over, on the other, a bipolar prism of East and West had very quickly emerged with the start of the Cold War in 1949. The prospect of peace had been dashed and the immediate post-war sentiments of hope and optimism slowly gave way to new fears as a sinister new threat emerged; Communism and its aggressively expansive incarnation – the Soviet Union.
WVS played an important part in responding to these threats, with the support of the Home Office the WVS began an educational campaign teaching ordinary women basic First Aid and practical skills required to best face the unique threats that the nuclear age presented. The Narrative Reports of Mrs Forbes, specify the number of women who had witnessed the ‘One-in-Five’ talks, lectures designed to provide at least one-in-five British women with the basic skills of Civil Defence.
It may seem a strange juxtaposition to associate Royal Voluntary Service – an organisation known best today for its work with older people - with the broad international political landscape of the 1950s, yet as the monthly Narrative Reports for Devizes show, the Women’s Voluntary Services for Civil Defence played an important educative role in equipping the women of Devizes, and those around the rest of the country, with the basic skills of Civil Defence, a programme which was approved and funded by the Home Office.
WVS also maintained an important social role; working with the elderly, visiting hospitals, arranging flowers and pouring an ever-welcome cup of tea. Whilst the Narrative Reports of Mrs Forbes extensively detail the organisation’s political role, those kept by the long serving Mrs Proudman – a pillar of charitable and civic life in Devizes, after whom a street has been named –detail the social responsibilities of the WVS. Both Mrs Proudman and Mrs Forbes gave great service to the town of Devizes, the fact that Mrs Proudman focused her time on social duties and Mrs Forbes on issues of Civil Defence demonstrates the breadth of service the WVS performed in 1950s Devizes. This variety of focus demonstrates how the WVS was personally shaped by the strong leadership of ordinary women up and down the country, women with greatly differing outlooks and priorities.
On another level it seems that the WVS filled a need for a post-war recalibration of the woman’s role, whereas a decade previously the collective effort of war had redefined the working lives of women and provided a true sense of purpose, the 1950s could have easily felt an anti-climax. The work of the WVS in 1950s Devizes can therefore be seen as a continuation of this wartime spirit, the principles of charity, selflessness and service perpetuated on a new and expanding platform. This was the realisation of what Lady Reading the WVS’s founder had envisaged.
The WVS undoubtedly had a strong presence in Devizes in the 1950s, with the matriarchal leadership of Mrs Proudman and Mrs Forbes countless elderly people were visited, innumerable cups of tea were poured and unending library books were distributed. But more than these valuable and unashamedly simple acts of service the WVS brought to Devizes and its surrounding villages an educational campaign designed to equip its people against the political and humanitarian uncertainty that loomed as the century marched on.
Posted by Ezra Bigland, Archive Volunteer at 09:00
Monday, 22 August 2016.
One in Five,