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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.”
While running the Voices of Volunteering project I talked to many volunteers who had helped many people including refugees and who thought they had only made a very small contribution. This week is National Refugee week so I thought I would share some stories from volunteers about their experiences of working with refugees. As you will see they did rather a lot.
WVS were working with Refugees from the start of the Second World War, greeting them and finding billets or accommodation.
“War was declared, I was fifteen and my brother was seventeen. I suppose like all stupid young people it was exciting, frightening in a way but quite exciting. And we lived in Weymouth and a lady called, I don't if it's Mrs Sewell or Miss Sewell advertised for volunteers because a lot of, people were coming over from the continent and the Channel Islands to get away from the war. So both my brother, Bob, and me volunteered and we were making beds for people. We actually helped at the birth of a baby which was quite a shock to both of us, but there was no point in, there was no, we couldn't hang around because it was imminent. Anyway, that's my introduction to the WVS as it, as it was called.” – Geraldine Harris Volunteer, Weymouth.
After the Hungarian revolution in 1956 around 200,000 people fled as refugees a number settled in Scotland. In January 1957 the WVS Bulletin reported:
“It is very difficult to make our page of any interest, other than Hungarian Relief Work, but we begin it by telling of the safe arrival of two train loads over the week-end at two camps, one Middle-ton Camp, Gorebridge, the other Broom-lee Camp at West Linton.
W.V.S. set up the clothing issue stores in both camps 24 hours before the expected arrival of the refugees and were then at the station and in the camps to help settle them in for the night. W.V.S. are now on duty issuing clothing and giving every possible assistance.”
When Idi Amin expelled the Asian Community from Uganda in 1972 many came to the UK and of course the WRVS was there to welcome them with clothing suitable for the British weather.
“we really didn't do very much except sort clothes, which came in from the public. There were so many clothes, we didn't know what to do with. But they all had to be sorted because some of them were not fit to give to anybody, and some were absolutely, really super clothes. And these were all sorted into men, women, children’s and babies. And we had one, one school sent us in with the children’s clothes, in the coat pockets were, was a toy in every one, which was lovely.” – Maureen Jones Volunteer, Epping
When Kosovar Refugees arrived in the UK in 1992 once again the WRVS was there to provide clothing to them.
“The Kosovars were based in Calderstones Hospital which was just on the verge of clothing [sic], closing and there was an appeal out for clothing and it came in in droves, we were really overwhelmed. We thought we were making some progress and then another lot would come in. Some really good things, new things, and we were sorting out the rubbish as well, which you also get some rubbish. But we never, we never finished it. They, eventually the, the clothing was taken into another part of the building and arranged as a dress shop or a men’s shop so they could come in and choose enough clothing to help them through.” – Kathleen Ashburner Volunteer,
These stories and more can be found on the Archive Catalogue search the Voices of Volunteering or Bulletin collections.