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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?
here 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.
The WVS Clothing Department was established in 1939 to run Regional Clothing Depots which provided garments, shoes and boots for children. Clothing was donated, sent from overseas by the Canadian and American Red Cross, and handmade in working parties. Volunteers would run regional and sub-depots; sorting, and distributing clothing as part of WVS’s Civil Defence role.
Clothing was also supplied to adult evacuees and the homeless from 1941 resulting in six and a half million garments being distributed between 1940 and 1943. The WVS also opened Clothing Exchanges from 1943 allowed parents to swap clothes for their growing children without using valuable coupons. As a result millions more garments were given out during 1944, 1945.
Although Depots began to close in 1946 many people still needed assistance and WVS carried on its vital role in clothing setting up County, Centre and County Borough Clothing Depots. It was also a huge part of WVS Civil Defence work providing clothing to flood victims in 1947 and 1953.
Clothing Depots were for people who had no other way of clothing themselves and they had to be recommended by certain bodies or organisations. This included the NSPCC, Ministry of Pensions, Hospital Almoners and Prohibition Officers, Doctors and Social Services.
Over the years clothing was also distributed to refugees from Hungary in 1956 and then Ugandan Asians in 1972. The demand for clothing continued to be high and by 1976 1.5 million garments were given out each year. In the late 1980s they were renamed Clothing Stores and distributed around 2 million garments a year. At that time stores could be found in Area, County, Scottish Regional, Metropolitan, District, Local and London Borough Offices.
As part of the Voices of Volunteering
project 2014-2016 over 80 volunteers shared their experiences including for some clothing stores. Barbara Sparks a volunteer in Somerset was one of those volunteers.
"Then I started to work in the clothing store and thoroughly enjoyed it, absolutely
[Interviewer] Who would come into the clothing store?
[BS]: It, they were sent by Social Services, they had to have a need. And they
would be supplied with up to three changes of clothing twice a year so they
could come in the summer for summer clothes and then in the winter for their
winter stuff. And everything was logged down in a book and, if they came back
in between time and tried to swing the lead that they needed more because
they hadn't got any, the ladies would go and produce the book and say ‘Look, is
that your signature? Because on the such and such a date you were given this,
this, this, this, this and this, what have you done with it’? ‘Ah, I, well it wore out’
or well, and that was fair enough, that was fair comment. But if it was just that
they'd sold it because they thought they'd get a couple
of pennies for it, well no, they didn't get anything else. The ladies were quite strict like that, but you
needed to be. And it was quite, quite sad to see some of the people that came
in some days because one lady came in, no names obviously, but she’d, she’d
been pregnant and she's got a maternity grant and she’d blown the lot on a pink
baby dress because it was something she’d never had when she was a child,
and she just loved this dress, and she blew the entire maternity grant and then
she had a red headed boy. And poor lady, she came in and she said ‘What am I
going to do’? And they said ‘Don't worry, don't worry, we’ll sort you out’. And
they gave a complete layette, so she had everything from nappies right the way
through to vests and booties and, and, and little rompers, everything that the
baby needed for a little boy. And it was so tragic to think that she’d, she’d been
so much in need when she was a child that all she wanted was this dress for
her child. Really, really sad. And yes, I used to go in
there on a regular basis, well three times a week.
Some people you, you thought ‘Well, why did you do it’? One of my relatives
was quite high up in Social Services elsewhere and he said he loved WRVS,
absolutely loved WRVS clothing stores because their s
taff were being asked for
money and they knew it wasn't being spent on what it was being asked for
whereas they could give them a letter for our clothing store and we would make
sure that they actually got what they are supposed to need. And that they could
use it that way. He, he couldn't sing their praises high enough. So it was a much
needed facility at the time."
You can find more oral histories and information about clothing stores by serching Archive Online.
WVS Bulletin December 1956
This week is Refugee Week, it takes place every year around
the globe to celebrate World Refugee Day on 20th June. In the past we have shared many stories with
you about WVS and WRVS’s involvement in refugee crisis across the world from
Belgian and French refugees during World War II to Ugandan Asians and
Vietnamese in the 1970s. This week we thought we’d bring you a different story
that of Hungarian Refugees who came to the UK in 1956.
On 23rd October 1956 the Hungarian people rose up
against the government of the Hungarian People’s Republic. It spread quickly
across the country but was eventually crushed on 10th November.
Thousands of those who revolted fled the country as refugees 21,500 came to the
UK although 5,500 later re-emigrated. Ready to assist the refugees was WVS who
took full responsibility for clothing, arranged hospitality in people’s homes
and worked in reception centres and hostels.
There are many records on the efforts of WVS in 1956 and
1957 to help the refugees on a national level. However there are also local
reports two which come from cities still known for their work to help refugees,
Sheffield and Leeds.
Leeds was involved in various different aspects of relief
for refugees including sorting 400 blankets, housing students at the university,
assisting refugees with employment and clothing. One story particularly stands
out as a huge act of kindness.
Sheffield was also very busy working with Hungarians arriving
in the city they were initially involved in clothing even before Hungarians
arrived. Sheffield United Tours took clothing from the WVS to Austria along
with one ton of sugar given to Sheffield WVS by Bassetts Ltd. Some refugees
were brought back on returning coaches and clothing still remained and issue.
In 1957 WVS Sheffield was mostly concerned with billeting
taking on a role which they had been responsible for during the War. This included
private billets as well as hostels for 64 Hungarians, by June 1957 29 had left Sheffield. One boy had returned to Hungary and three people had left for Canada.
Aid continued for many years in Report on 25 years work 1938 -1963 the following was written:
“Most Hungarians have now become fully integrated into the life of the country, but a few still live in these communal billets, while many others continue to depend on WVS for advice in connection with their families and homes.”
Hello I'm Elaine and I have just joined as volunteer here at the Archive & Heritage Collection. This is my introductory challenge, researching Clothing Stores in my local town of Swindon. I hope you enjoy reading it ...
By the late 1950s the WVS had
become experts in dealing with the provision of clothing in times of crisis.
This was not surprising given the extensive experience that had been gained in
the distribution and handling of garments during the war when, “at a conservative
estimate, fifty million garments were sorted and distributed” to those who had
been evacuated and bombed out, and who were left with literally nothing. This
meant that often items had to be sourced from areas unaffected by the bombs,
transported, sorted and then distributed according to need. It had been a huge
undertaking that had required considerable organisational skills.
As the war came to an end however,
the need for the WVS clothing services did not diminish, with garments urgently
needed in liberated Europe. This was followed a decade later by the Hungarian
crisis, and again in April 1959 when an appeal from the United Nations Relief
and Works Agency in Beirut resulted in the WVS collecting, sorting and bundling
1,000 tons of processed clothing – that’s 2,548,997 garments - to help refugees
in Lebanon, Jordan, Gazza and Syria.
Following the press appeal for
clothing donations by Lady Reading at the beginning of November 1959, Miss
Honeychurch, a reporter from the Wiltshire Evening Advertiser paid a visit to
the Swindon branch of the WVS on Victoria Road. She was astonished by the
amount of work that the WVS continued to do several years after the end of the
war, and following the establishment of the Welfare State. In her report she
emphasised how in addition to international appeals the local office provided
vital practical assistance to many of the town’s residents in their times of need.
It was particularly important for the provision of clothing and Swindon was consequently
“one of the busiest centres in the whole region” for this form of help.
Swindon was a new industrial town
with a rapidly expanding population, to which people often came with little as
they searched for work. Like elsewhere in the country, the WVS clothing service
was also used by single parent families, the elderly, those who had been struck
by illness or by those who had suffered a disaster such as a fire or a flood. All
were identified as having a chronic need and had been given a certificate from
a doctor, N.S.P.C.C worker, or other professional before attending the WVS. As
a result whole families, often with a large number of children, would often be
completely re-clothed, and in some instances this would occur twice a year.
To give this some scale, in the
month that Miss Honeychurch visited the office in Swindon, a total of 28
families were helped with at least 51 children included. This was in addition
to the previous 114 families that had been assisted in the preceding months of
All this meant that there was
often great pressure upon the service in Swindon and the local WVS Secretary,
Mrs Grundy, emphasised to Miss Honeychurch, the on-going need for donations of good
quality clothing from the public, “We never have enough clothing. We have great
difficulty getting sufficient for our needs.”
As a result they often held ‘make
and mend’ sessions where garments that were not of sufficient quality for
immediate distribution could be re-made into other items. Old fashioned white
nighties for example could be skilfully transformed into pillow cases,
petticoats, knickers, and hankies! However, when demand outstripped the
resources available in Swindon, requests for garments often had to be made to the
clothing centre at Corsham.
Corsham was also one of the
centres where the refugee clothing was held before shipping, and despite the
enormous pressure on the home front in Swindon they were pleased to report in
December 1959, that they had been able to send a full van, with several bales
of refugee clothing to Corsham. All on top of clothing a further 29 local