Keep up to date with the latest news and happenings at the Archive and Heritage Collection. Send us your email address to receive notifications of new posts to your inbox, or follow us on twitter.com/RVSarchives
From 1938-1942, our collection holds 31,401 pages of Narrative Reports. These reports were sent to the headquarters of the WVS at 41 Tothill Street, London. This allowed members at HQ to be able to keep track of all WVS activities in the country.
Due to the unique structure of the WVS, duplicate copies of the monthly diaries were also sent to our county offices, whilst keeping the original reports at the individual centres. This set up allowed each section of the organisation to monitor what was going on. It also meant that a chain of communication could be rapidly established between WVS Headquarters and WVS members throughout the country. Due to the existence of these multiple copies, an identical monthly report will occasionally pop up. Whilst it would be wonderful to have duplicates of every diary, it would rather limit our shelf space.
To handle the massive influx of Narrative Reports each month, members at headquarters tagged specific reports that were considered important enough to be read by the heads of department. By 1942, there were just over 2000 centres across the country. With each centre sending in one report per month, Tothill Street must have had one of the busiest letter boxes in London.
After the introduction of the archive in 1958, the reports were filed in brown card folders with their respective location hand written in blue and red ink. The reports are still in their original files today, but they have been repackaged in acid-free folders and placed into boxes to help maintain their condition. Unfortunately, members of the WVS probably didn’t realise how significant these documents would become so not all of the reports have survived the test of time. This is particularly stark in Region 4 (Bedfordshire, Cambridgeshire, Hertfordshire, Norfolk, Suffolk), as the reports were weeded to save space. As a result, Region 4 has by far the fewest number of reports.
Nevertheless, their survival is testament to the members of the WVS that decided the reports were worth keeping. A member from the WVS centre for Worcester wholeheartedly agreed with the great work happening at headquarters and consequently wrote this excellent poem.
A most exciting place to be,
I’m sure that you will all agree,
is in Headquarters, Tothill Street,
For, there, you’re almost sure to meet
With many famous people who
Are bent in seeing their country through.
The smallish muddles that arise
And cause the gov’ment much surprise;
The minor details that occur,
Apart from battles, as it were.
For instance, take Evacuation;
Who copes with urns at every station?
Who takes the children for a ride
Into the pleasant countryside?
Who kindly helps the I.C.C
To sort out each evacuee
Who has some clothing coupons owing
Because their clothes they are outgrowing?
Who interviews the under-fives
And helps to save their little lives?
And who persuades the very aged
A dang’rous war is now being waged
And they could better serve the nation
By going to some safe situation?
Who manages the Clothing Centres?
And laughs at all such misadventures
As parcels of damp frocks and jackets?
Or books in ladies’ clothing packets?
Or take the case of Demolition!
Who gets the canteens in position?
And helps to feed with buns and tea
The men who labour constantly
To make the place “as safe as houses”?
And who is it the police arouses
Whenever any help is needed
Knowing the always have succeeded?
The noble wears-out very slowly!
And may they be successful wholly
How good they are, p’rhaps you guess!
Our grand H.Q., WVS!
WRVS had a number of headquarters over the years including
Park lane, Brixton, Milton Hill, Cardiff and not forgetting Scottish HQ in
Edinburgh. However WVS’s (1938-1966) Headquarters was 41 Tothill Street now the
Conrad London St James. This was the office where the hard work really began when
Lady Reading sat down in a tiny office in Tothill Street in Whitehall, London;
crammed in with four other handpicked women she laid the foundations of what
would quickly become the largest volunteering organisation in British history.
I wonder if they ever thought this organisation would still be around today.
The Women’s Voluntary Services for Air Raid Precautions was founded and took up residence at 41 Tothill Street on 16th May 1938. Originally this was a single room secured by
Lady Reading’s Secretary and former Civil Servant in the Ministry of Labour
Mary Smieton. The WVS Offices expanded quickly to occupy the whole 4th Floor. A
reception was established on the ground floor and not long after a shop for the
purchase of WVS uniform. Over the years the shop window was used for a number
of displays including Make do and Mend in 1943 as seen in the image above.By the end of the War there were 176 members working at Headquarters.
Over the years many other WVS activities took place at
Tothill Street including:
The labelling Princess Elizabeth gift food parcels distributed
to the needy as a wedding present from the future Queen in 1948.
- Collecting gifts including a Sheffield Plate Soup Tureen for
Canadian Flood Relief in 1950
- One in Five introductory talks in November 1958, the
department was established by Lady Lucas Tooth at Headquarters in 1955.
- The sorting of magazines for Services Welfare, as part of
the books and magazines adoption scheme in 1962.
WVS Headquarters moved from Tothill Street to Park Lane in
May 1966 the year they were renamed Women’s Royal Voluntary Service (WRVS). At the time there were 361 members of staff working at Headquarters more than double the numbers in 1945.
Today we are delighted to honour
our founder, Lady Reading, with an English Heritage blue plaque in London at
The Conrad London St James (formally the WVS Headquarters 41 Tothill Street). Today is
also the digital launch of all those fascinating hidden histories of one million wartime women which we have been digitising since September. Follow us
on Twitter to find out whats happening at todays launch event.