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The Second World War started (in Europe) on 1st September 1939 nearly 80 years ago. WVS had been established just over a year; not long after the start of the war it was Christmas. As I was thinking about writing this blog to go out the week before Christmas Eve I wondered what the WVS were up to at this time of year. I could have chosen anywhere but one of the first documents to jump out at me was a programme of Christmas activities from Rickmansworth WVS 1939. Looking at the Narrative Reports from the area for December 1939 to 1944 you can clearly see that just because it was Christmas WVS work didn’t stop. These are just a few examples of activities in Rickmansworth, taken from the Narrative Reports.
WVS Rickmansworth, like all other WVS centres in Evacuation zones, during the war organised various entertainments for children and adults who were a long way from home just after being evacuated in September 1939. Activities included film showings, dancing, gymnastics, games, singing and parties. Over the years activities changed, in 1941 the Evacuee Club held an exhibition of needlework including clothing such as frocks, dressing gown and children’s clothes. In 1942 the WVS held two parties for under-fives which was considered a great success as you can see in the extract below from December that Year.
Of course the WVS didn’t just spend December running children’s parties they also had other duties to perform. Activities included salvage in 1941 they campaigned to collect paper from houses driving around using the loudspeaker on the WVS Van. Knitting also continued during the season of good will in 1941 47 pull overs were knitted for the Merchant Navy and members began knitting gum boot stockings for Russia. In 1942 they received an urgent request for sweaters and socks for Malta; 114lb was distributed to knitters for the job. Work with the Red Cross also continued in 1941 they had the Russian Red Cross sale for Mrs Churchill’s Fund and the WVS were able to raise £210 (c£8262.74 in today’s money). In 1942 a WVS party made soft toys and raised £59.16.8d (c£2,354.23 in today’s money) for the local Red Cross group. As you can see many activities were business as usual for WVS of Rickmansworth.
Supporting the Armed Services based in Hertfordshire was a large part of WVS Rickmansworth’s work in 1941 and 1942 with a variety of activities in December of Both Years. In December 1941 The Troops Hut was completed with electricity and lino installed. It also had a radio gram and ping pong table. The WVS opened the Hut on Christmas day for 200 men who spent the evening playing games. In Both years WVS held a concert for the RAF Benevolent Fund in 1942 they raised £18.10.0d (c£727.91 in today’s money) for the fund. Looking after the services didn’t just include the Army and RAF there was also the Home Guard to support. In Both years the Home Guard were on exercises and WVS served tea to them from a mobile canteen. Another Service provided by the WVS all year round was camouflage nets. WVS’s role garnishing camouflage nets began in the early years of the war but the scheme wasn’t official until June 1943. Rickmansworth WVS were already working on this before it became official and included other work for the services in this role as you can see from this Narrative Report Extract, December 1942.
This week’s blog has focused on WVS Rickmansworth’s work during the Decembers of 1939, 1941 and 1942. Unfortunately in our Headquarters collection of Narrative Reports there are not many for this area in Hertfordshire and we haven’t been able to look into the Christmases of 1943 and 1944. It is more than likely that these missing reports were written and one of the quadruplet copies arrived at Headquarters. However in 1970s Region 4 was heavily weeded as all regions had different rules for what was kept at that time we have less information about local offices in the Home Counties and East Anglia areas. Although this is the case for Rickmansworth you can see from just a few reports how much was going on during the Second World War and how much time the women of Rickmansworth were giving to help people keep up moral at this time of year.
It’s been a while since we last looked at the early roles of
WVS, so this week I thought we would explore the services provided for the
homeless. Due to enemy attack and bombing raids during the Second World War many people
were made homeless. The WVS had many solutions to help ease the situation and supplied
food, clothing and accommodation to those in need from 1939-1945. There was
also assistance provided in the immediate post-war period a WVS began to
reshape itself and society. Volunteers were vital in keeping up people’s moral
particularly when they were victims of air raids; most of this work took place in
In September 1939 WVS was called upon to take a new role
care of the homeless, alongside evacuation of children, mothers and under-fives
and other vulnerable people. Homes and building were earmarked as rest centres.
This was the first place to go for help if you had lost your home before being
billeted or rehoused. The phony war did not bring as much evacuation and rest
centre work as expected or feared however once heavy bombing started in 1940
WVS swung into action.
Rest centres were
mainly established in cities and in some coastal towns with 180,000 volunteers
ready to help when needed. In many cases WVS ran the rest centres and
maintained them when they were not in use. Services run from the centres
included: food, gift from overseas, rations, clothing, bedding and information
desks/Citizens Advice Bureaux. This was also an area where WVS showed its
innovative and forward thinking side with the development of new schemes to
ease the pressure on rest centres in times of crisis this encompassed the
The unpleasant possibility of being suddenly made homeless
in the night threatens all of us with varying degrees of imminence. The
Emergency Shelters, which in many places are staffed and organised by W.V.S.
volunteers, have done much to relieve the sufferings of bombed- out victims of
air raids, but any scheme which lessens the pressure upon these shelters would
obviously be welcomed both by their staffs and those who are forced to seek
refuge in them. In one city the workers in the Emergency Shelters have
canvassed the householders, suggesting that each household should pair off with
friends living not less than half a mile away, so that, if one house is struck,
the other affords shelter to both families. The exchange of a small reserve of
clothing also spreads the risk of losing the entire family wardrobe. The W.V.S.
Housewives' Service has helped to organise this short-term emergency
hospitality in several places, and they have been so successful that, in some
cases, it has not been necessary to open the Emergency Shelters even after
serious incidents.” – WVS Bulletin April 1941 p.4
A war is won on the success, support and effort provided by
the Home Front without vital assistance those who suffered may have lost hope
and this would have had negative impact on the battle fields. WVS was fundamental
to keeping up moral and continued to provide help to those who lost their homes
throughout the war especially during emergencies and bombings in London. The
service also included helping to reunite people, families and friends, who had
been separated during a raid. Towards the end of the war WVS also saw the need
to help those who had lost everything and help them return to some kind of
Towards the end and after
the war there were many people who needed to be rehoused who had nothing to
furnish their homes with or plant in their gardens. WVS ran two schemes to help
them one of these was the Re-homing Gift Scheme which involved centres in areas
which had not suffered serious collecting gifts of furnishings to send to
London Boroughs for distribution. WVS helped 100,000 families distributing
8,000 tons of furniture, crockery and hardware. The second activity was the
Garden Gift Scheme, established in
April 1945 to collect help the owners of blitzed gardens and those who had been
rehoused in prefabs. The scheme
asked for flowers; vegetable seedlings; shrubs; trees and hedging plants. If
you got in touch with your local WVS they would collect your plants; distribute
them to prefab owners in London and other blitzed cities and pay for postage or
Care of the homeless was very important to WVS and involved
many of aspects of its wartime services and a few post-war. As we have seen
this included rest centres, feeding, clothing, Citizens Advice Bureaux,
rehoming and gardening. WVS was vital to the war effort, without it who knows
how the development of wartime and immediate post-war British society would
have been effected.
On Twitter the other day I
noticed a tweet from the Royal British Legion saying that Remembrance Day was
not just for the fallen but for those who have lived through conflict as well.
While Royal Voluntary Service’s blog on 10th November focused on
remembering the 245 WVS women who died during the Second World War, this week I
thought we’d look at how the WVS fought on the home front to keep everyone safe
When we think of evacuation we
often think of the process from escorting evacuees to the country side to
billeting them in the reception areas; we don’t think always think about the effects
on the householders and the relationship they had with evacuees. There are always
two conflicting view points on how evacuees where received by people in the
Evacuation broke down class barriers and
evacuees were received with love affection and treated as one of the family.
Ideas of class continued and evacuees were seen
as dirty or verminous and were mistreated by their hosts and hostesses.
There is truth in both opinions
and as our Archives show WVS were ready to smooth out any problems which arose
even from arrival they took care of evacuees cleaning them up and providing
clothing when needed. They also produced a number of publications which didn’t
take sides but advised everyone in the art of diplomacy or allowing for as one
leaflet was titled give and take. This was a leaflet designed to inform housewives
and visiting mothers on how to behave while relatives are visiting evacuated
children. It was a way of advising both parties without taking sides and helping
to easy worries and tensions; breaking down class barriers and dispelling
Another example comes from a
circular on advising householders on bed wetting stating ‘do not punish the child or do anything to humiliate
him and do not let him think he is a "problem" child and of special
interest’. Again WVS were trying to change public attitudes before bedwetting
was viewed as a dirty habit and the organisation worked towards changing this
view wanting people to see it as an effect of being removed from one’s home, a
result of a traumatic experience.
All the WVS’s hard work to bring communities together and
change opinions of town and country must have had an effect. By the end of the
war when it introduced its furniture scheme those areas which had been less
affected by the bombing were ready and willing to send tons and tons of
household items to blitzed areas. Also WVS was able to pioneer its Children’s
Holiday Scheme in Post-war Britain where children who would not have otherwise
had a holiday spent a week with a hostess family either by the sea or in the
So do remember while the men were away fighting to stop our
society changing for the worse over a million women on the Home Front were
working to transform it for the better.
While many may think that archivists spend all their time hunched over dusty papers in dark cellars (well we do sometimes), we also occasionally get to leave the confines of our repositories of knowledge and experience the consequences of the things we read about first hand.
This past weekend on a glorious summer’s day, without a cloud in the sky, I went on a tour around rural Dorset and ended up at Tyneham. For those who do not know the Dorset coast to the west of Wareham, the majority of it is a huge military firing range with flat lands, huge hills and hidden valleys. One of these hidden valleys holds the deserted village of Tyneham, a village requisitioned during the lead up to D-Day and never returned (unlike all the others) to its inhabitants.
In wandering through the ruined houses and the meticulously kept church with their display boards, I noticed in one of the photographs a lady, Evelyn Bond, in a WVS uniform. I knew that the WVS had been responsible for the evacuation of Slapton Sands around the same time and so the question which immediately sprung to mind was did the WVS help at Tyneham? I didn’t hold out much hope as the Slapton Sands Evacuation is hardly mentioned in the Narrative Reports, it was kept secret. Would the same be true for Tyneham?
The next day in the archive I looked up Evelyn Bond. What luck! She was the Centre Organiser for Wareham and Purbeck Rural and as a victim of the eviction she writes passionately and eloquently about the situation. Her report is transcribed below.
“W.V.S. life in Purbeck has been completely overshadowed during this month by the evacuation of part of the district for an extended Training Area. This most painful necessity involves a lot of work as, although W.V.S. are not directly responsible for finding accommodation, they have been asked to undertake visiting and enquiries, and, as there is absolutely no public transport in the affected district, the Volunteer Car Pool has been stretched to the utmost in running officials about, taking evacuees-to-be to see accommodation suggested for them, etc. The Centre Organiser herself, already turned out of her house into the coachman’s cottage by the R.A.F., is among the dispossessed, together with her entire village, and the church of which she is church warden (the Rector is away acting as a Service Chaplain.)
The notices went out on Nov. 19th - the area, to be cleared by Dec. 19th. The Centre organiser, with one of her Centre staff, visited 15 families on the 19th and reports were lodged that evening, the Deputy - Centre Organiser, with the Assistant Billeting officer (R.D.C.) toured another part of the area, and the Centre staff followed up, so that every house had a visit and was reported on in 4 days. An office has been set up at the offices of the Rural District Council (where the W.V.S. Centre have their room) and Ministry of Health, Assistance Board, Billeting Officer and other officials are in attendance. House holders from the area can come in for consultation, but the authorities attach great importance to house-to-house visiting to ascertain needs and reactions and the W.V.S. are at their disposal.
The numbers to be evacuated are not much over 200, but many very old people are involved and a considerable number of farmers and small holders - the lot of the latter is particularly hard as the Ware[ham] Agricultural Committee are quite unable to find holdings for them and their stock has to be sold and implements stored or disposed of.
One old couple are typical - husband 92 and wife 89 - they have lived in their house all their married lives and the husband since birth. Some are fishermen, one a boatbuilder, and live right down on the shore. Visiting officials have been observed, to make for their cars with alacrity when they realised that the beaches and approaches are heavily mined. Another old couple have not been out of their house this century, except for 2 nights to take “shelter with neighbours when a mine blew up in a storm and took half the roof away. They were back that time as soon as repairs were finished - now they are leaving - for "duration. It is impossible to resist the question - will they or the war last longest?
The Centre Organiser has certainly been able to help these people, being in the like plight herself, but she and other W.V.S. well though they know these Dorset folk, are amazed at the unflinching spirit in which this trial is faced. "They can’t say we’ve done nothing for the war" is the spirit, and it is touching how, in every house, the thought is always for the oldest inhabitants round about. "It be turble hard for old Mrs - - " - it is. One old lady had not had her boots on for 9 years till she donned them to climb into a V.C.P. car to go and look at suggested houses.
Our Pool drivers have been on the road as never before, many W.V.S. members and others, including an invaluable retired policeman, they have been ready with persuasion and advice as well as transport. As with the previous evacuation in this area, ancient and precious dogs, cats, boats, bees and other adjuncts present many problems. We ought to be experienced hands by now, but it is not a job which becomes easier or in any sense commonplace with repetition”.
The village of Tyneham has waited a long time for its inhabitants to return, but sadly time and decay have not been equally patient the ruined buildings a silent reminder of the villager’s sacrifice. This was a community torn apart by war, and one which never had the chance to return and heal.
Today Royal voluntary Service has released online its first major digitised collection of material, all 419 issues of the WVS Bulletin. To celebrate, we thought we would take a closer look at the history of the Bulletin.
The WVS/WRVS Bulletin/Magazine is a fantastic and accessible window onto the world of work undertaken by WRVS members over a 36 year period, following the fashion and trends of the periods it describes. Most importantly it is one of the best starting points for discovering more about the amazing work of the Women in Green.
The first issue of the WVS Bulletin was produced in November 1939, just two months after the outbreak of WWII when the WVS had a membership of over 300,000 and a way to communicate with them all directly was sorely needed. The Bulletin was produced every month for 35 years, from 1938-1974 over 419 issues.
The first thirteen issues of the Bulletin were a simple typescript, with the first covering just five sides of foolscap paper, and included news on subjects such as Evacuation, ARP, Transport and Hospital Supplies. It also showed the amazing ability of WVS to attract new members, with 110,000 welcomed in the month of September alone.
From December 1940, the Bulletin became a printed newsletter of eight pages, covering important information for members as well as a way of sharing tips and good ideas pioneered by one WVS centre for replication across the whole country. This reporting of goings on from centres all over Great Britain became a staple of the bulletin, with the ‘From the Centres’ latterly the ‘Reports from Everywhere’ column surviving until the very end of publication.
The first picture (a black and white cartoon from Punch magazine) appeared in February 1942, though pictures were a rare occurrence during the war, the first photograph was not printed until April 1947. While the war had been going on, there had been no need to include adverts, but as funding was reduced post war, it became a necessity.
The first advert appeared in April 1947 (perhaps to pay for the inclusion of the picture!) and was for the Listener Magazine. This was the start of a very long term relationship with the BBC which posted large adverts for its magazines and books in almost every edition of the Bulletin/Magazine after this point. Though initially the adverts were all for the BBC or Information from Government Ministries, the first commercial advert was run for ‘Milton’ (disinfectant) in November 1948. After that the number of commercial adverts increased significantly over the years as the number of pages in the Bulletin grew. By the end of its run in 1974 the WRVS Magazine was regularly 36 pages.
In April 1970 the Bulletin changed its name to the WRVS Magazine, but sadly publication ceased in December 1974. Members had always had to pay for the bulletin themselves with it initially costing one penny per issue. Sadly over time its popularity declined and by the late 1960’s were only printing about 5,000 copies. The price had risen to 50p annually by 1974 and they did not have enough subscribers to make it financially viable.