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‘Mend and Make Do to Save Buying New’: What can we learn from WVS work with wartime clothing

Studying the history of the Royal Voluntary Service has lots to tell us about the past. What did volunteering look like in the 20th century? What was the impact of the Second World War on the development of a welfare state? How have the lives of women, or the elderly, changed since 1938?

At the same time, the records held by the Royal Voluntary Service Heritage Collection can teach us a lot about solving current problems, too. According to recent reports, more than two tonnes of clothing are bought every minute in the UK – and a hefty portion of those are thrown away after only a handful of washes. Current pushes on sustainability are asking us to rethink our attitudes to clothes consumption, and take action by buying less and making more of the clothes we already have. ‘Mend and make do to save buying new’, the approach adopted by millions of women to clothing during the Second World War, is one which might be usefully applied almost eighty years later. WVS volunteers were at the heart of putting this mantra into action, from assisting with rationing and running clothing exchanges, to giving lectures on sewing and organising thrift competitions. Using examples from WVS Narrative Reports, this blog post asks: what can we learn about making clothes more sustainable today from the work done by the WVS during the war?

There are some important differences, of course, between the challenges posed by clothing in wartime and modern Britain. Today we enjoy a surplus of cheaply made clothes which are quick and easy to buy. Pressures from magazines and social media encourage us to indulge in ‘fast fashion’, buy more and more clothes, but wear them only a handful of times to avoid ‘outfit repeating’. By contrast, people living in wartime Britain faced a shortage of clothing caused by restrictions on shipping and the need to maintain supplies for the military. After the declaration of war in September 1939, essential items such as shoes and stockings became much harder to find and much more expensive to buy. British men and women had little choice but to make do with less, whereas living more sustainably today requires a great deal of voluntary effort on our parts. While those living in the 1940s were motivated by the war effort, in 2019 our efforts to reduce clothes consumption are driven by environmental concerns. Yet the goals of austerity fashion and sustainable fashion remain strikingly similar – to buy less clothes, and make more of those we already have.

To limit how many clothes people could buy, and make sure that limited stocks were distributed as fairly as possible, the British government introduced a clothes rationing scheme in June 1941. This worked by assigning each type of clothing a ‘points’ value (for example, eleven coupons were needed for a dress) and allocating people a certain number of ‘points’ to spend each year. The Women’s Voluntary Services helped with the scheme by distributing clothes coupon books and answering questions from the public at centres and advice bureaus – of which there were plenty. Volunteers in York reported that they had been ‘exceptionally busy’ in June 1941 due to clothing enquiries. Meetings were held around the country for WVS members to hear from representatives from the Board of Trade, who would brief them on the new rules and what advice to pass on to the wider public.

‘The big excitement of the month was, of course, the rationing of clothes etc. The meeting asked for by the Board of Trade was duly held and was well-attended on June 3rd’

Narrative Report, Hull, June 1941



WVS also set up ‘Clothing Exchanges’ to help people deal with the shortages and avoid buying new. At exchanges people could swap their old (but still wearable) items for those donated by someone else, which was particularly useful for mothers struggling to keep up with buying clothes for their growing children. By 1944 there were around 400 exchanges in operation and more than six and a half million garments had been distributed.

At clothing depots WVS helped evacuees, refugees and people made homeless by bombing, who sometimes owned little more than the clothes they were wearing when they arrived at the centre. This could be a huge task – Narrative Reports reveal that in March 1941, Brighton volunteers helped to fit clothes and shoes for more than 1000 children:




Narrative Report, Brighton, March 1941.

WVS volunteers were also involved in a range of events and initiatives as part of the ‘Make Do and Mend’ publicity campaign. ‘Make Do and Mend’ was designed to encourage women to repair clothes that might be damaged or remake them into new garments. Narrative Reports held by the Royal Voluntary Service Archive & Heritage Collection reveal the many different ways this campaign came to life at the local level. For example in February 1943, volunteers in Worcester held a ‘Thrift Exhibition’ in February 1943 where members ran ‘Make Do and Mend’ stalls, showed informational films created by the Ministry of Information and organised competitions and prizes for the public to get involved in. The event was described as a ‘great success’.

Later in the year, the Worcester centre ran a series of ‘Make Do and Mend’ lectures where women could learn to properly clean and care for clothes to make them last longer, brush up on their sewing skills and learn to darn holes, or be shown how to turn old hats into shoes and felt slippers. In the autumn of 1943 WVS centres across the country were involved in ‘Make Do and Mend’ competitions, where submissions of clothing were judged on their utility, ingenuity and originality. In Worcester an exhibition was organised for the start of December where the public could view the various garments sent in, creating a sense of community fun for the event, and the winner was announced by the Mayor to a ‘packed audience’ – a frock made from an old coat. WVS support for the ‘Make Do and Mend’ campaign therefore involved a mix of providing useful information and training for the public, alongside encouragement to get involved and a healthy dose of competition.

Although WVS volunteers were involved in a wide range of schemes to help wartime communities buy less and make more of what they had, not all of them could apply today. It’s unlikely that rationing clothes on a coupon scheme would work in the ‘fast fashion’ context of 2019. But others might help us turn our clothes from ‘throwaway’ to ‘forever’ items. Clothes swap initiatives, like the clothing exchanges operated by the WVS, can be a fun, inexpensive, and more sustainable way to create new outfits and put unloved items to good use, while learning skills in basic clothing repairs, like those taught by the WVS in ‘Make Do and Mend’ classes, might help us to wear our favourite items for much longer. The records held by the Royal Voluntary Service Heritage Collection give us an insight into the many ways women used creative thrift to face clothing challenges in wartime, which might spark our own ideas about ways to live more sustainably. Perhaps though, most of all, it is the impressive voluntary spirit that the WVS deployed in their work with clothes that we should draw inspiration from today.

Charlotte Tomlinson is a PhD researcher in the School of History at the University of Leeds. Her PhD explores experiences of female civilian volunteers in Second World War Britain and is generously funded by the White Rose College for the Arts and Humanities.

Posted by Charlotte Tomlinson, University of Leeds at 09:00 Monday, 02 September 2019.

Labels: Clothing, WVS, Royal Voluntary Service, Heritage, Archives

Appraisal

In this month’s blog we are going to explore the idea of appraisal and how records, documents and photographs become archives. Firstly let’s take a look at the definition of appraisal.

What is appraisal?

As usual when we look at archival theory and practice we must consider the ideas of Jenkinson and Schellenberg:
Jenkinson said that the process of appraisal should not be carried out by the archivist but the creator of records. "[The Archivists] Creed, the Sanctity of Evidence; his Task, the Conservation of every Scrap of Evidence attaching to the Documents committed to his charge; his Aim, to provide, without prejudice or afterthought, for all who wish to know the Means of Knowledge." (Jenkinson, Hilary, "The English archivist: a new profession", in Ellis and Walne 1980, pp. 236–59 (258–9).)

However Schellenberg, Jenkinson’s contemporary, argued that archivists should be involved in the appraisal process the archivist is by definition “the professional who selects documents used for administrative purposes and preserves them, mainly for scholarly use.” (Livelton, Archival Theory, Records and the Public, 67).

Today appraisal is still about the selection of records and archivists are more likely to be involved in this process rather than just taking in records selected by the creators and accessioning them without any appraisal work. They will of course follow a collection policy to determine what can be accepted into their collections however there are a variety of theories or methods which may or may not affect how they examine material as potential archives.

What are the different methods of appraisal?

There are many methods of appraisal; these are just a few with some quick definitions:

Documentation Strategy
This is a more active strategy for collecting records and considers cross discipline approaches to use expertise from different fields not just archives. It requires archivists to look at documents in more detail to ensure they archive records relating to different issues, activities or localities.

Macro-appraisal and functional analysis
This is a top down approach to analysing records and deciding if they should be archived. It assesses the value of records at an organisational level rather than looking at individual files or items.

Pragmatic acquisition strategy (1990s Minnesota Historical Society)
This involves a top down approach analysing the records of businesses against what has already been archived. It then creates levels to determine how thoroughly activities should be document from thoroughly documented to preserving the minimum amount of evidence required.

Record based analysis
Also known as a micro-appraisal or bottom up approach, archivists will appraise records by analysing the content and context of individual items in the collection; usually applied to small acquisitions. As most of what we take in externally and internally are small collections this is usually my preferred method of appraisal. However it doesn’t mean that I would always analyse records in this way.

Although there is guidance and a number of theories for archivists to follow it is important to remember there are no right or wrong answers when it comes to appraisal.

Our recent accessions

As we have been discussing the selection of archive material and the process where records become archives I thought I would share with you some the items which have become part of the Royal Voluntary Service Heritage Collection this year.

Medals
Since January we have had 5 long service medals, 2 clasps and 1 MBE donated to the collection from past volunteers all who would have been completing 40-60 volunteer duties a year for 15 to 27 years. Most of these donations have also been accompanied by biographies and personal papers relating to the volunteers work with WVS/WRVS.

Local Office Material
Local Royal Voluntary Service branches sometimes send us materials for the archives, this year we have had photographs and newspaper cuttings from East Kilbride, publicity materials from West Sussex and photographs, a plaque and medal from Litchfield Darby and Joan Club.

Knitting, marketing and publicity
We have also received some more items which are a bit different to what you might imagine archives collect including: knitted dolls with a knitted 80 created for our anniversary last year; publications created about the charity, it’s activities and the OXO Tower Exhibition and two articles one from Wiltshire Life Magazine and one in the Journal of the Social History Society on salvage during the Second World War.

Conclusions

Appraisal is an essential part of an archivist role when considering the acquisition of new material into the collection. Over the years and since Jenkinson first wrote down his theories on the archivist’s role in appraisal it has changed and developed. Now most archivists will follow Schellenberg’s idea of being involved in the process and sometimes take it further and are more active than even he intended. Today there are many methods which archivists may use to appraise material but they can be split in most cases in to two categories a top down approach which appraises on the basis of analysing whole collections. The other is a bottom up approach which appraises collections on a file or item basis. However Archivist may not always think in terms of which theory they will use they will always try to fairly appraise everything that may become part of their collection. As is evident above archives still receive many items on a monthly/yearly basis for their consideration.


Posted by Jennifer Hunt, Deputy Archivist at 09:00 Monday, 03 June 2019.

Labels: Appraisal, Archives, Theory, Records, Collections, Royal Voluntary Service

Volunteering at the Royal Voluntary Service’s Archive & Heritage Collection

“Voluntary Service is a coloured thread in the fabric of the Nation, and without that thread the fabric is neither as beautiful nor as strong as it should be”.

Lady Reading 1970

These are the words of Stella Reading founder chairman of WVS which are very relevant to the support archives are given by those who volunteer their time and skills to help with a multitude of tasks. It’s been a while since we updated you on what our volunteer team have been up to in the archive so here is a quick round up of all the tasks the team have been helping us with recently.

Cataloguing photographs

After completing his work on sorting through, digitising and cataloguing 100s photographs from 1990s and 2000s Pete has started work on photographs from 1940s, 50s, 60s and 70s. They have all been digitised and are now being described in detail in the Archive’s catalogue; Pete is working very hard and we often find out a lot of new information through research into the subject of the photograph. 

Central Registry Files

These files contain policy documents relating to various WVS/WRVS departments including Good Companions, Hospitals, One-in-Five, Civil Defence and Food. Each one is full of pins, staples and treasury tags which need to be removed. Nora is very busy working through over 1000 files to make sure they are repackaged to archival standards and preserving the history of the charity.

Narrative Reports

Yes we’re still working on the Narrative Report collection; there are 300,000 pages you know! Although we aren’t digitising the rest of the collection volunteers are starting to work on repackaging reports written in 1980s and early 1990s. Pearl is busy working away on them and discovering new stories while removing rust staples. As she has been since 2012 as Pearl said then “an afternoon in the life of this apprentice archivist is never dull.”

Record Cards

The latest project our volunteers are working on is repackaging a number of volunteer record cards we hold in the collection. Jean and Alice have been busy working on a number of areas including Aberdeen, Cardiff, Midlands and East Dunbartonshire. This isn’t simply an exercise in putting cards in alphabetical order there is a lot to think about e.g. are the cards split into a specific order, into centres into WVS cards and civil defence cards. Jean and Alice certainly have their work cut out for them.


Accessions

Every year we seem to receive more and more material into the collection, it’s always exiting to get some new treasure! Jeannie helps us out with accessions and has been for just over ten years sorting through c240 accessions. The latest material to come in was a WRVS Long Service medal with a clasp and MBE belonging to Molly Lace Regional Organiser for North Yorkshire.

As you can see our volunteer team are very busy and doing a marvellous job helping us to take care of this very important collection. We are always looking for people to join our volunteering team so if you are based in the Devizes area and interested in history and heritage why not get in touch with us through our online volunteering opportunities.

Posted by Jennifer Hunt, Deputy Archivist at 09:00 Monday, 04 February 2019.

Labels: Volunteering, Archives, cataloguing, accessioning, repackaging

The Gift of Time

In this week's Blog we share with you our Archivist Matthew McMurray's speech given at the OXO Tower Launch on 31st October. Although we can't recreate the electric atmosphere of that event I would encourage you to listen to get the true message of what photographic archives are all about.

Recently I have been doing a lot of interviews.   

Usually I am asked questions like:  

What did the WVS do during the War?  

or even; What is your favourite picture in the exhibition?   

The first is an easy list of over 40 different services from garnishing camouflage nets to knitting comforts for troops and of course the provision of food and hot drinks from mobile canteens.  The list goes on but I have been told I only have 10 minutes!     

The latter is harder, and I am not sure I could really pick any.  There are so many beautiful and iconic images here, but perhaps these aren’t truly representative of our organisation and the work of our members and volunteers over the past 80 years.   

Displayed here are Just 35 of about 30,000 images we have in our archive.  Despite our surroundings here at the OXO tower the work of our volunteers has never been glamorous, in fact our founder Stella Reading said to an audience in 1960 

“In these days we are not living in the atmosphere of drama, we are no longer being called out at night for Evacuation or the Blitz.  We are working on day to day work which has perhaps no glamour at all, and yet which is much more worthwhile, because in-fact it can only be appraised in terms of human happiness”.  

For every one of these beautiful atmospheric images there are hundreds more, 

less beautiful and less perfect,  

less posed.  

More than a few are slightly blurry candid shots of volunteers going about their everyday work making a difference to ordinary peoples’ lives through their selfless gift of their time and there energy.  But a photograph on its own can only tell you so much, and with history context is everything.    

Behind these 35 archive images and the thousands more we have are millions of pieces of paper which give that context, they are the stories behind these pictures which I, my colleagues and my volunteers protect on behalf of all past, present and future volunteers and for the nation as a whole.  Our archive is recognised by UNESCO as one of the most important sources for Women’s history in the 20th century in Britain, and it is only through truly understanding where we have been that we can truly know where we are going.  

Some of you will be thinking, ‘he hasn’t answered the question yet’ but I promise that I am getting to my point.  

Anyone who has read a good novel will understand exactly what I mean.  

For me photographs, like anything else, infrequently tell the whole truth.  

For me, the pictures I paint in my mind from the first-hand accounts of our volunteers held in our archive are the most real, the most honest and the most vivid.  

Whether that is the description of a damp, filthy basement flat occupied by an old man in late 1940s London, or the hard, unchanging and endless struggle faced by centre organisers over the years to recruit volunteers to help them make a difference.   

These are my favourite pictures.  

Going back to the questions though:  I always like a slightly more challenging one, it keeps me on my toes, and the other day a lady asked me a good question.  “Why is Royal Voluntary Service celebrating its 80th Anniversary?” the tone of her voice said a million things the question itself did not.  

That was a very good question in the way she meant it and in the probably less than three seconds before I opened my mouth with my mind doing a million miles an hour, which seemed like a panicked eternity, a very simple answer came.   

Why would you not celebrate the contribution of over 2 million women and men to British society over 80 years?  A recent estimate I did, suggests that between them they have given 14 million years of service.  Placed end to end that quickly covers off the whole of human history, passing beyond the origins of Rome, ancient Egypt and way back into geological time when the first apes started to emerge in Africa. 

To be honest I find that a little difficult to properly comprehend; that so many people have given so much of themselves to help others.  

Looking across the river to the City of London reminds me that ultimately the strength of a nation is not measured by its banking operations nor by its financial transactions, it is measured by something much more important, the character of the men and women who are that nation.  

The contribution of the men and women of the WVS/WRVS and now Royal Voluntary Service is woven into the very fabric of this nation.  Lady Reading called Voluntary Service a coloured thread which runs through that fabric, and without it the fabric is neither as strong nor as beautiful.  

These pictures then and the eight new ones by Nicky which will join those 30,000 others I already look after, are like the light shining through the crack under a door, they tempt our innate curiosity to open that door, to look inside and to discover something new.

Posted by Matthew McMurray, Archivist at 09:00 Monday, 19 November 2018.

Labels: Photographs, History, Heritage, exhibition, Archives, OXO

“Data, data, data” I can’t digitise without catalogue data

It’s another of those famous lines from a Sherlock Holmes story “Data! data! data!" he cried impatiently. "I can't make bricks without clay.” (The Adventure of the Copper Beeches) but it can be applied to many areas including archival practice particularly digitisation. Archives @PAMA recently covered the topic of digitisation in their blog Why Don’t Archivists Digitise Everything? Part of their argument covered Meta Data and how important it was to give archives context before digitisation. This has inspired us, in this week’s blog I would like to look more at the importance of cataloguing records before digitising them in relation to the Royal Voluntary Service Archive and Heritage Collection.


What is cataloguing?

Cataloguing is the process of creating a formal description of records held within an archival collection. This is based on a hierarchical structure showing where Items, files and series best fit within a collection and describes details such as the content, context, admin and custodial history, date and access details. Cataloguing records can help to make collections more accessible with details and keywords which help researchers find what they are looking for and link different records together on the same topics. If you would like to know more about Archival description why not read  Organising Archive material HeritageBulletin Volume 6.

Why is it important for digitisation?

Cataloguing is important to digitisation because it turns a single item on its own which may not tell us much about the activities of an organisation into a record which has context, a history of its own and links it to the rest of the collection. For example when cataloguing photographs, publications or posters if there are similar items or a series relating to each other we record their references in the Related Material Field. This helps lead researchers in looking at all the material available on a chosen topic. Recording this data before digitising records also gives the archivists the opportunity to assess the preservation needs of the material and repackage it into archival standard folders, boxes, papers etc.. It also allows of consultation on the need to digitise material and if digitised material could be published online depending on condition, content and copyright. This work can be very important in terms of preservation and access.

Our Collections and how cataloguing has helped make them more accessible

Cataloguing different parts of the Archive & Heritage Collection has allowed us to publish the catalogue records online for people to search for themselves. This work has given the team a greater knowledge of what materials are held in the collection and led in some case to digitisation.

Photographs and Posters

The Archive has been focusing on cataloguing and digitising records since 2010 and started with a collection of publicity photographs. Creating detailed descriptions of photographs allows researchers to find photographs easily and quickly by searching key words. Cataloguing also allows the Charity to record useful data about copyright holders and to distinguish which images can be used in promoting its rich history and heritage in many of the services it provides today. The Poster collection was catalogued and digitised in 2012 which has provided the same advantages as the photographs.

WVS/WRVS Bulletin/Magazine and WRVSAssociation

Newsletters Over the years Royal Voluntary Service has produced a number of publications including magazines containing news stories and information about its activities and that of the Association (1971-2013). Using the description field on our catalogue to its advantage and OCR software we were able to record all the information in each WVS/WRVS Bulletin/Magazine and WRVS Association Newsletters and make it searchable. Being able to do such a specific search can save time in trying to find articles covering particular services or activities. Recording months and dates also allows us to pin point key dates such as the first Trolley shop or mobile canteen.


Narrative Reports

Between March 2012 and March 2014 we catalogued all the Narrative Reports held in the collection which were written between 1938 and 1965. The information recorded included the areas the reports were from and this work enabled the archive to develop the Kickstarter Project Hidden histories of a million wartime women. The £27,724 raised via the crowdfunding site meant we could digitise all the reports written between 1938 and 1945 and publish them online. This allows more people access to these hugely important documents and it all started with a cataloguing project.

In General

The items mentioned above are also very fragile and cataloguing means we can pinpoint the exact records we are looking for without rifling through a number of documents before finding the correct information. Digitisation which leads on from this  helps us further in preserving fragile items as digital images are used as preservation copies for research meaning we reduce handling the original. Cataloguing also assist with the creation of finding aids such as the Guide to Archive Online; using data and description fields from the catalogue means we can assist researchers in their search for more knowledge about WVS/WRVS.

I have not included Voice of Volunteering Oral Histories in this week’s Blog as they are born digital records and in a future blog we’ll look at the difference between digitisation and born digital.


Conclusion

Cataloguing is the process of creating a formal description of records held within an archival collection. It is important to create these records before digitising to provide context and allow archivists to assess the need for the material to be digitised. Working on a project to both catalogue and digitise material can also help with preservation and digitisation which are very important activities in archives. Since 2010 Royal Voluntary Service has been working to catalogue its collection which as a result has led to some interesting digitisation projects including photographs, Narrative Reports and publications. However without the first stage of creating information about the these records this work could not have been carried out.

Posted by Jennifer Hunt, Deputy Archivist at 09:00 Monday, 13 August 2018.

Labels: Archives, Cataloguing , Digitisation, Records, Access, Preservation

What’s that sound? Oral History and Archives

Between 2014 and 2016 Royal Voluntary Service worked on its Voices of Volunteering project. Its aim was to collect up to 80 oral histories, which capture the memories and recollections of people who have volunteered and worked for the Royal Voluntary Service and make them accessible in a number of ways and introduce new volunteers known as heritage champions to Royal Voluntary Service and oral history. Throughout the project I don’t think we ever explained on the Heritage Bulletin Blog what oral history was and how it shapes archives and archivists.

What is Oral history?

The basic definition of oral history is that it is the collection of memories and personal commentaries of historical significance through recorded interviews. However this includes many elements including preparation of interview questions, building an interviewer and interviewee relationship, recording the interview, archiving it, cataloguing, writing transcriptions, making it accessible and interpreting the information for other to use. In essence there is a whole project behind the words oral history.

How is an archive based oral history project run?

Talking from experience oral history projects based in archives is not just the collection and archiving of the interviews it is much more than that. Voices of Volunteering: 75 years of citizenship and service was a pioneering oral history project bringing the voices of WVS, WRVS and Royal Voluntary Service volunteers to life. Generously funded by the Heritage Lottery Fund, over two years Royal Voluntary Service professionally gathered 80 oral histories from past and present volunteers from every part of Great Britain; stories told in their own voices and own words, of their contribution to the largest voluntary organisation in British history. Run by the Project Archivist this also involved training and collection of oral histories by volunteers called heritage champions, cataloguing and preserving oral histories, creating school resources and holding an end of project event in Devizes. You can find out more about the project here.

Archivists and oral history

In the past oral history would have been the preserve of the historian choosing who to interview for a specific research project and later depositing those interviews in an archive somewhere where they might be catalogued in the future. Today with the growing trend of archivists expanding their role in the heritage and information world many archives are taking on their own projects. Many of these archives seem to represent those whose histories are usually hidden or underrepresented in the public domain or to fill in gaps in the history of an organisation or to save current knowledge before it disappears forever.


While Jenkinson said that archives were not “collected” but “came together and reached their final arrangement by a natural process”. Schellenberg argued that the modern archivist “had a definite need to redefine archives in a manner more suited to his own requirements”. Schellenburg emphasised the historical relevance of keeping records, perhaps after the time of these two pioneers archivists have moved on to develop this aspect. It wouldn’t be unreasonable for archives in increasing access to archives and providing innovative outreach projects to take on the role of a historian or work on a project with one to create archives for their repository. It’s all part of the merge of the many roles in the heritage and history industry.

Oral history is just one of the many projects where archivists roles are expanded and their skill sets changed. This isn’t just in the collection of oral history and learning interview skills but also back in the more traditional role as preserver. Over the years sound has been recorded in many formats; archivists used to focus on preserving a physical format such as vinyl or cassette tape but now along with more “traditional” born digital archives oral history has moved on to the digital plying field and archivists must learn to preserve, migrate and make accessible these formats such as WAV and MP3. It’s an ever changing world which archivists must stay ahead of and oral history has had an effect on.

Conclusions
Oral history is not just a recorded interview it is a recorded interview with an entire project behind it archiving, making accessible and interpreting that recording. The project is run with many elements including heritage, community, education and preservation. They are planned out and celebrated as well as being funded either internally or externally. No longer just the preserve of historians they have developed into a trustworthy and reliable source of expanding our knowledge of historical events. Oral history is never simple it’s a complex and has many layers to it which is helping to develop the role of an archivist in the modern world.

Posted by Jennifer Hunt, Deputy Archivist at 00:00 Monday, 02 July 2018.

Labels: Archives, Oral History, Voices of Volunteering, Theory, sound

The history of WRVS/Royal Voluntary Service in Post-modern Britain

In the study of historical periods historians don’t just look at a time period of 100 years when looking at centuries in the modern era. There are some historians who define eras with the end of regimes or with dramatic events which change the course of history. In some cases the 20th century is defined as the short twentieth century as 1914 to 1989 an era of extremist regimes and conflict. With the end of the cold war as discussed in last week’s blog historians have defined the period after this as the postmodern era. In the 1990s WRVS was still active but going through many changes to become the charity it is today. In this week’s blog I thought I’d tell this story through some objects and uniform held in the archive collection.

WRVS officially become a charity in 1992 and appointed its first Chief executive. It was starting its journey to become Royal Voluntary Service.  In 1997 it was decided that over a ten year period the Government would decrease and finally stop a grant given to WRVS to carry out its services. In 1997 the charity began fundraising having never done so before for itself.

WRVS Collecting pot with cords. Green plastic collecting tin, white sticker WRVS 1994-2004 logo green text "WOMEN'S ROYAL VOLUNTARY SERVICE", "Help Make Someone's Day", "WRVS Head Office: Milton Hill Training Centre, Milton Hill, Abingdon, Oxfordshire, OX13 6AF", "Women's Royal Voluntary Service is a Registered Charity". Three orange plastic collecting tins with chain Stickers: one WRVS 2004-2013 logo with Strapline 'make it count' [2004-2008] and Head Office contact details, registered charity number. One WRVS 2004-2013 logo with strapline "it's your money make it count" purple banner white text "one million older people feel trapped in their homes" purple text "WRVS home visit volunteers provide a lifeline" orange text "www.wrvs.org.uk" Head Office details and registered charity number on the side. One WRVS 2004-2013 logo with strapline "it's your money make it count" purple banner white text "Emergencies devastate thousands of lives each year" purple text "help equip us to respond to disasters 24 hours a day, every day of the year" orange text "www.wrvs.org.uk" Head Office details and registered charity number on the side.


Like many organisations/charities in the 1990s, in 1998, the uniform was relinquished altogether in favour of casual work wear on the basis that 'smart but casual clothing was more appropriate for a dynamic and modern volunteering organisation – appealing to a new generation of members and increasing number of male volunteers – both needed to keep WRVS vibrant and right up to date. WRVS commissioned well-known Scottish designer Betty Davis to develop a new collection of branded clothing, which launched in the Winter 2000 edition of Action Magazine.

Gilet, Khaki, polyester, WRVS, Label Betty Davies Edinburgh sewn and Betty Davies white polo shirt, 1994-2004 embroidered logo on left breast, signature label.

In 2004, WRVS finalised its transformation from an organisation which did just about anything to one whose primary purpose was the care of older people. To coincide with this, WRVS changed its name and image, with the aim to modernise and re-invigorate.

WRVS Make it count flag standard, White synthetic fabric flag standard, oblong, with orange fringing around three sides, WRVS 2004-2013 logo with 'Make it count TM' strap line in purple. Brown wood pole with brass fittings, orange rope with tassels.

WRVS changed its name to Royal Voluntary Service during its 75th anniversary year, 2013. This was to help encourage more men to join the organisation. While it kept the casual look instead of returning to uniform it did return to its roots of red and green in its logo.


Tee Shirt, White, Screen Printed, Royal Voluntary Service, White Tee shirt, Screen printed to front with "Sing your Heart out for vulnerable older people" with "Royal Voluntary Service together for older people" logo below.

In 2018 Royal Voluntary Service is celebrating 80 years of volunteering. Compassion in Crisis looks at how the roles of volunteers in times of crisis have changed over those 80 years. This exhibition is full of objects, uniform and information about the charity's history.

These items from the collection may represent more aesthetic changes to the organisation rather than the changes to its role in society. It transformed from a charity which did everything and anything to one which adapted to find the places where it was needed in postmodern society including older people’s welfare, health and hospitals and Services Welfare they are still important in showing modern day changes. Altering its Identity in certain years can represent when these changes took place.

Remember you still have a week to see the Compassion in Crisis Exhibition at Wiltshire Museum (closes on 24th June).


Posted by Jennifer Hunt, Deputy Archivist at 09:00 Monday, 18 June 2018.

Labels: Object, Uniform, Archives, Twentith Century, Twenty First Century, Post modern

Who are we?

"The archivist is dead long live the archivist"

Last week I attended my first Archives and Records Association (ARA) Conference in Manchester, where the main theme appeared to be how we identify ourselves as Archivists and how the heritage sector is changing. Ideas ranged from the definition of appraisal, search room experience, community engagement and skills. However the main topic of discussion was the role of the Archivist.

There appeared to be a move away from the traditional archivist protector of records and preserver of history with a set of core skills which stood them apart from the museum curator. In their place stands the postmodern archivist who is all things to all men, a heritage professional, throwing open the doors of the archive, engaging with the community and letting go of their control. By this they mean  allowing others use the archive how they want and not be told how it should be used or how they can access it.  

Looking into the theory is all well and good but what about the practicalities of being an archivist, how are these ideas applied.

Let’s put this into the context of the Royal Voluntary Service Archive & Heritage Collection and a more practical definition of an archivist. In my career I have worn a few different guises as a cataloguing coordinator, project archivist and deputy archivist and have moved from traditional to sort of post-modern to somewhere in-between. Most of what was said at conference applied to local record offices who are becoming destinations for tourists like museums and facing different situations to a charity/specialist collection.

Here the role of an archivist is to preserve the history of the WVS, WRVS and Royal Voluntary Service and to make sure it is accessible now and in the future through cataloguing, digitisation, and a remote enquiry service and through working with colleagues managing our services. The Archivists are also there to support the work of the charity. It is not yet time for us to let go but we can still be innovative e.g. Voices of Volunteering and Hidden history of a million wartime women. These were projects which came from and where directed by the archives but upheld the values of the postmodern archivist and did them well; including community engagement (local, national, global) and providing access to records and information about the charity. We also hold what might be deemed a museum collection of objects and uniform but we care for them as archivists. We don’t yet have exhibition space to display these items but make them accessible through remote outreach such as our timeline. In this archive we are a mix of the two perhaps we should be called revisionist archivists not quite in the time of Jenkinson but pragmatic enough to change and develop when necessary. Essentially we don’t prioritise preservation or access but try to balance them out.

As with many things there is no definite definition of an archivist because it depends on many factors including where you work and the collections you work with. The Archivist is whoever we or our collections need us to be.

Posted by Jennifer Hunt, Deputy Archivist at 12:00 Monday, 04 September 2017.

Labels: Archivist, Archives, Royal Voluntary Service, Heritage, Preservation, Access

The value of volunteering in archives

“Too many People think of volunteer service as cheap labour. Real voluntary service is nothing of kind. It is the gift of one’s skill, one’s time, and one’s energy, given by an understanding human being for a special reason”

Lady Reading, It's the Job that Counts I,1953

Five/six years ago I wrote and submitted my dissertation for my Msc Econ in Archive Administration. The focus was the value of volunteers in county and community archives in North West England and how archives could or couldn’t conform to Government policy. This was at a time when the MLA had just become defunct and ideas like the Big Society (remember that?) were floating around. Five/six years is a long time and many things have changed included my move from an interest in county/community archives to specialist ones. However the value that volunteers provide to archives hasn’t.

Here at the Royal Voluntary Service Archive & Heritage collection we have a team of volunteers who come on a regular basis and take on roles such as: repackaging, digitisation, cataloguing, occasionally giving talks to local groups and accessioning to name a few. Everything they do helps to make our work a success and volunteers improve access and knowledge about material; work which staff cannot complete is taken care of by volunteers; the preservation needs of material are met by volunteers and the archives is promoted to other members of the public.

Volunteers also bring specialist knowledge for example skills from previous professions such as specific knowledge of photography or computer skills. In our case most volunteers bring knowledge of the history of WVS/WRVS/Royal Voluntary Service through their own experiences of services such as meals on Wheels, Books on wheels, being District Organisers, Vice-chairmen or office secretaries. This helps us to understand the context of the material they are working with and allows them to learn more about their different interests in the charity. Volunteering doesn’t just benefit the Archives it also advantageous to the volunteers.

Back in 2011 I interviewed several volunteers about their different roles in archives this included people who were retired, unemployed, seeking work experience or in the case of community archives they were volunteers interested in telling the story of a certain group in society. While they helped the archives volunteering also gave them something. This can be split into two categories educational benefits and social benefits. I concluded that in county and community archives education came second and social came first as primarily volunteers went to the archives to socialise with other people.

Here at the Royal Voluntary Service Archive & Heritage Collection most of our volunteers are retired and occasionally we have student and graduate volunteers however it seems there is more of a balance between education (Knowledge and skills) and the social aspect. In just over five years I have seen volunteers learn new skills such as cataloguing, blog writing and handling or other preservation skills. Many of our volunteers who meet on the same day have also formed friendships and meet outside the Archive. We have also celebrated their achievements and time with service awards.

So remember volunteering is a two way thing volunteers give archives their valuable time, knowledge and skills, in return volunteers can make new friends and learn new skills. Also archives will always need volunteers without them we would not have been so successful in many projects.

Posted by Jennifer Hunt, Deputy Archivist at 09:00 Monday, 24 July 2017.

Labels: volunteers, archives, skills, education, social, volunteering

Access to Archives: Finding aids

As the Deputy Archivist I am constantly looking at ways to make our collections more accessible. At Royal Voluntary Service we have run a small number of digitisation projects and opened an enquiry Service (running since 2013) but there are large parts of our collection which remain uncatalogued and only accessible to the Archives team. One way of tackling this is to create finding aids; they are defined as a document containing detailed information about a specific collection of papers or records within an archive. Finding aids are used by researchers to determine whether information within a collection is relevant to their research. Thus over the years we have used collections to create a number of fact sheets to help researchers gain an understanding of different services we have provided since 1938.

The fact sheets on our main site cover a number of topics including:

Health and Hospital Work 1938-2013 – this is a comprehensive look at the work of WVS and WRVS in hospitals since it was founded. Research to compile this document included Central Registry files, publications local office collection accessions and Narrative Reports.

Roll of Honour and History of the Roll of Honour – the former document is a colour copy of the beautifully illustrated book which contains the names of 245 WVS members who were killed during the Second World War. The latter explains its history and compilation, providing you with access to the history of this very important Roll of Honour.

WVS Uniform – on our website you can choose two ways to learn about the history of our uniform and how Royal Voluntary Service has chosen to represent itself. There is the more traditional factsheet containing a number of pictures of wartime uniform with descriptions and it uses publications to provide details on the costs. There is also a video which explores all uniforms from WVS for ARP to Royal Voluntary Service a quick guide with images, publications and uniforms all with video commentary to help you move from Green and red to orange and purple and then back to green and red.

There are also fact sheets on:

• The origins of Meals on Wheels

• Darby and Joan Clubs

• One in Five

• Salvage on the Home Front

• Story of WVS Bristol

• Origins of WVS

• Narrative Reports

• Books on WVS and WRVS

And copies of documents

• Ten Years Work (1938-48)

• WVS Housewives Service

There are also some shorter one page factsheets on our Voices of Volunteering schools resources pages which can help researchers to understand a topic before going to look at the online catalogue for more information about their chosen subject. These factsheets include:

• Books on Wheels

• Clothing Depots

• Darby & Joan Clubs

• Good neighbours

• Hospital canteens

• Lunch Clubs

• Meals on Wheels

• Psychiatric Hospitals

• Services Welfare

• Transport

All our factsheets aim to provide you with source material which isn’t available or easily accessible in other forms. We hope you will take a look, absorb the information and perhaps start some research of your own into our history. If you have any specific questions get in touch with our remote enquiry service.

Posted by Jennifer Hunt, Deputy Archivist at 09:00 Monday, 26 June 2017.

Labels: Archives, Fact Sheets, WVS, WRVS, Royal Voluntary Service