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Wednesday 8th March is International Women’s Day which celebrates the social, economic, cultural and political achievement of women across the world. Royal Voluntary Service was founded in 1938 by one of the twentieth century’s most influential but seldom celebrated women Lady Reading; a woman who inspired others to make changes to British Social welfare even after her death in 1971. There isn’t simply enough time in a weekly blog to mention the millions of women who have been bold and changed Britain, with hundred even thousands of activities, but what we will focus on is how they have improved the welfare of psychiatric patients over the years.
It all began in 1946 when members of WVS Headquarters in London made investigations into helping people with mental illnesses in psychiatric hospitals. Once again WVS was one step ahead of everyone else. In 1948 the organisation was officially asked by the Board of Control to assist in hospitals providing much needed services. It became the mission of volunteers to improve the lives of patients and provide them with a connection with the outside world. In 1959 the Mental Health Act was passed it abolished the distinction between psychiatric units and other hospitals while encouraging the development of community care. This allowed the WVS to establish more occupational centres, providing training especially to help patients find occupations after being discharged. Over the years WVS/WRVS ran a number of services in psychiatric wards which ran in general hospitals and other wards which you can find more details on in our Health and Hospitals Factsheet. However their main project was to build social centres for patients and visitors.
Thirty Social Centres were established in the 1960s including St Francis Hospital Hillingdon, Friern Barnet, St Luke’s Middlesbrough St John’s Bracebridge Heath. St Francis was the first to be opened in 1961 by Princess Maria of Kent. The site was purpose built with kitchen, shop, canteen, lounge and entertainment space. It added a new dimension to hospital life as patients could assist WVS with their work and spend money how they liked in the shop building confidence. This inspired the 30 other projects which were funded through loans and repaid with the profits from the canteens and shops, though St Francis was the most pioneering. A few years after it’s opening there was a parliamentary debate discussing the lack of volunteering opportunities for young people. Lady Reading, then a member of the House of Lords, proposed that St Francis needed a swimming pool to benefit patients and staff which led to an International Volunteer Camp in 1966. Hundreds of young volunteers from Mid-Sussex and Europe met to dig the swimming pool. Once again WVS/WRVS had been a force for change which continued into the 1980s.
Although these schemes were mainly setup in the 1960s, in 1989 there was a fire at Bromham Hospital in Bedfordshire, the WRVS shop and canteen was destroyed. However Barbara Statham Bedfordshire Hospital Organiser and her team rebuilt the shop despite some adversities, here is her story:
Yesterday was International Women’s day which included an equality march in London by hundreds of Women, including the Great-Granddaughter of Emmeline Pankhurst the leader of the Suffragette movement of the early 20th century. It seems incredible to me that almost one hundred years on from the pioneering work of these Edwardian women that gender equality has still not truly arrived.
Along with the coverage on the news, I also watched Amanda Vickery’s new programme, Suffragettes forever! I have been a fan of Amanda Vickery’s work for some time, ever since I read her book a Gentleman’s Daughter over 15 years ago while at University. In the first programme she explores the role of women in politics from the 18th Century, noting that there were no women in the House of Lords until 1958. You may be thinking where is he going with this, but, I am about to get to my point. That woman, the first to sit in the House of Lords, was the founder of the WVS, Lady Reading.
There were 4 women sworn in that day, but she was chosen to be the very first, a testament to her contribution and achievements. She is probably one of the ten most important women in the 20th century, along with such well-known names as Emmeline Pankhurst , Marie Curie, Eleanor Roosevelt or Rosa Parks, but very few people have ever heard of her.
There is not time in this short blog to List Stella Reading’s achievements and sadly no biography has ever been written about her, but through the WVS/WRVS and her other work she changed the way in which women were perceived. During WWII she created the largest women’s organisation in history with over one million members and spawned copycat organisations all over the world. Her idea changed the perception of Charity, from something which was dispensed by the rich to being an everyday action of helping your friends or loved ones. Volunteering became an activity for all and an opportunity to show in a society, where they were still marginalised, what they were capable of. I do not think it is an understatement that without the WVS and the vision of Lady Reading, much like it was in Germany, the war on the Home Front would have been lost.
The role women played in the Second World war can be argued as one very pivotal step in the slow narrowing of the gender gap and the WVS had impact far beyond the end of the war, with hundreds of thousands of women giving their time up to help their communities, whether that be assisting women prisoners in Holloway Gaol or providing flatlets in cities across Britain for young professional women in the 1950s and 60s.
Lady Reading, despite being a larger than life character was always the first to shy away from claiming any accolade or applause for her achievement. Unlike many of the greatest leaders in history she would never take the honours for herself, always crediting her ‘ladies’ with the triumph.
Posted by Matthew McMurray at 00:00
Monday, 09 March 2015.
International Women's day,
Stella Reading ,
House of Lords,