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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.
We fast approach the end of another year, a year which has been one of success for the Archive. As many of our readers would have witnessed we heavily promoted our Kickstarter Campaign Hidden histories of a million wartime women
in May. With the help of 705 backers £27,724 was raised to digitise the many stories written by volunteers over 70 years ago in the form of Narrative Reports. The process has now begun to bring these stories to you and you can keep up to date with the project by following our Facebook
pages, joining our heritage bulletin mailing
list or regularly visiting our Kickstarter page for the Friday update
Our final blog for the year comes from part of Lady Reading’s Christmas Message written in 1955; I believe it highlights how important it is for us not to forget the past, how we need to be practical in going forward and relates to sharing hidden histories. I hope you enjoy.
Lady Reading's Christmas Message to WVS 1955
“As one Christmas follows another, it is ever more difficult to find the right present to send to you, and so, I send this year, the means, hidden and unsuspected, of gauging, watching and guarding the precious thing which is in your keeping.
It’s the Job that Counts Vol II
I believe that we, workers in Voluntary Service, are today enjoying the endowment bestowed on us by the previous generations, enriched by their outlook and strengthened by their experience. And I want to ask you whether you will, this Christmastide, pause and examine this thing we call Voluntary Service, for it is ours to enhance during the time it is in our keeping, and it is for us to hand on in perfect and ever better shape.
We live in an age where allegory and parable appear to be out of date, but, to my mind, they are not only the best way of teaching but, for oneself, they offer an infinite joy in the companionship of one's own mind. And so I hand into your possession the power with which to examine this thing that is in your trust, charging you to use your imagination and your vision to appraise it, to weigh it, and, above all, to treasure it.”
Devizes is home to the Royal Voluntary Service Archive and Heritage Collection, it is also home to me, Ezra Bigland. I have recently started volunteering here at the Archive during my gap year and have been given use of the archive to research the local activities of Royal Voluntary Service (then known as the Women’s Voluntary Services for Civil Defence) during the 1950s in my hometown of Devizes.
The Narrative Reports – monthly records of each branch’s activities – available here at the archive demonstrate the breadth of services WVS provided, from visiting the elderly and doing their shopping to giving lessons in First Aid and holding the 1-in-5 lectures throughout Devizes and its surrounding villages. Mrs Elsie Proudman, Centre Organiser for Devizes, and Mrs Patricia Forbes, Centre Organiser for the surrounding rural communities, were the women responsible for writing these monthly reports. Mrs Proudman focused on the social activities of the centre, pouring tea and visiting the elderly, whilst in those submitted by Mrs Forbes we see her priority shift from these social aspects to a more educative campaign on issues of Civil Defence.
The 1950s represented an important and uneasy decade. On the one hand the Allies had prevailed over the Axis powers and World War Two was over, on the other, a bipolar prism of East and West had very quickly emerged with the start of the Cold War in 1949. The prospect of peace had been dashed and the immediate post-war sentiments of hope and optimism slowly gave way to new fears as a sinister new threat emerged; Communism and its aggressively expansive incarnation – the Soviet Union.
WVS played an important part in responding to these threats, with the support of the Home Office the WVS began an educational campaign teaching ordinary women basic First Aid and practical skills required to best face the unique threats that the nuclear age presented. The Narrative Reports of Mrs Forbes, specify the number of women who had witnessed the ‘One-in-Five’ talks, lectures designed to provide at least one-in-five British women with the basic skills of Civil Defence.
It may seem a strange juxtaposition to associate Royal Voluntary Service – an organisation known best today for its work with older people - with the broad international political landscape of the 1950s, yet as the monthly Narrative Reports for Devizes show, the Women’s Voluntary Services for Civil Defence played an important educative role in equipping the women of Devizes, and those around the rest of the country, with the basic skills of Civil Defence, a programme which was approved and funded by the Home Office.
WVS also maintained an important social role; working with the elderly, visiting hospitals, arranging flowers and pouring an ever-welcome cup of tea. Whilst the Narrative Reports of Mrs Forbes extensively detail the organisation’s political role, those kept by the long serving Mrs Proudman – a pillar of charitable and civic life in Devizes, after whom a street has been named –detail the social responsibilities of the WVS. Both Mrs Proudman and Mrs Forbes gave great service to the town of Devizes, the fact that Mrs Proudman focused her time on social duties and Mrs Forbes on issues of Civil Defence demonstrates the breadth of service the WVS performed in 1950s Devizes. This variety of focus demonstrates how the WVS was personally shaped by the strong leadership of ordinary women up and down the country, women with greatly differing outlooks and priorities.
On another level it seems that the WVS filled a need for a post-war recalibration of the woman’s role, whereas a decade previously the collective effort of war had redefined the working lives of women and provided a true sense of purpose, the 1950s could have easily felt an anti-climax. The work of the WVS in 1950s Devizes can therefore be seen as a continuation of this wartime spirit, the principles of charity, selflessness and service perpetuated on a new and expanding platform. This was the realisation of what Lady Reading the WVS’s founder had envisaged.
The WVS undoubtedly had a strong presence in Devizes in the 1950s, with the matriarchal leadership of Mrs Proudman and Mrs Forbes countless elderly people were visited, innumerable cups of tea were poured and unending library books were distributed. But more than these valuable and unashamedly simple acts of service the WVS brought to Devizes and its surrounding villages an educational campaign designed to equip its people against the political and humanitarian uncertainty that loomed as the century marched on.
Posted by Ezra Bigland, Archive Volunteer at 09:00
Monday, 22 August 2016.
One in Five,
Our founder Lady Reading was, to be blunt, a force of nature, who could be both the kindest and the fiercest person one could know. To her friends she was charming, delightful and funny, to her enemies she was to be feared. She was always insightful and rarely tolerant of fools and bureaucracy. Our collection has thousands of her letters and writings all preserved for posterity, mostly as copy letters, which simply bear her squiggle of approval in blue fountain pen.
One of the volunteers came across one such letter of frustration this morning from 1967 and I thought I would share it with you (suitably anonymised).
“I am full of righteous indignation and do feel that it is maddening in the way everything is always stymied by someone inventing some reason why it can’t be done, except their own way. I can’t tell you how many letters I have written, … but each one passes the buck to the next one in such a sanctimonious way that I could shake them all.”
When Lady Reading became the first women to take her seat in the House of Lords as Baroness Swanborough her coat of arms bore the motto
“Not why we can’t but how we can”
She was also extremely modest about her contribution, saying that it was the million women members, and not her that did all the work. Without her leadership and stubborn determination the WVS would certainly not have existed or prospered for so long; but she was right, that the heart and strength of WVS was not individuals or personalities, but the collective often anonymous work of ordinary women.
“WVS was made, not by the genius of the one, but by the faithfulness of the many.”
There are only 24 hours until our Kickstarter project
finishes, and through the faithfulness of almost 700 people and a 'how we can' attitude we have reached and surpassed our target of £25,000. We are going to be able to bring into the light the first three years of the WVS’s hidden history from 1938-1941 and with an extra push we can make even more available.
If you haven’t pledged already please join in, for every pound we raise we can bring another page to light.
Lady Reading always sent WRVS members a Christmas and New Year’s message, this one is a gift from January 1963.
THERE are so many gifts I should like to send you this Christmastide - but they are either beyond my purse or my capacity. And so I send you a thing of great value and seldom found - it is the gift of being able to play a game which is interesting and intriguing in your own mind.
Decide first what line of country you wish to play it in: - memory, construction, imagination, fairy castle - and then make your own rules and go ahead.
Two things must always dominate this game - first once started, it must be carried through, for whatever length of time you assign yourself - and second whilst you are playing it you must stick to that particular subject and not wander off in other directions. If, for instance, you choose “memory” it is necessary if you wish to recall nice happenings, to tie them to time, place, or person, BUT if you want to try and strengthen your memory - then you must try simple exercises of memory - such as at bedtime trying to think how many people wearing spectacles you met during the day.
My present is, I think, an unusual one, but it has given me such endless pleasure throughout my life I hope it may do the same for you. And it comes with affection and good wishes that are so warm I hope you can feel them without being told and I trust they will bring much happiness to you in the year ahead.
Happy New Year.
I pride myself on the fact that I have an excellent memory; and especially so when it comes to the achievements, triumphs and tribulations of our charity. It is my job after all, and I think (though I try not to claim it too loudly) that I probably know more about it than anyone else alive! Well it is my job!
I have been the Archivist at the Royal Voluntary Service now for nine years this month. Sometimes it seems a long time, until I realise that the first Archivist, Mrs Doreen Harris, did the job for 24 years, and when she took up the post had already given WVS twenty years service.
In 2008 I had the unenviable task of creating timeline of the organisation’s history. No one had done this before and I spent almost a year on and off, reading through archive material and compiling lists of notable achievements and events. To say that whittling down the items to include from 70 years of history was hard would be a crashing understatement! This very long and painful process produced one of the best little booklets we have ever done a concertina timeline which became so popular we had to reprint it at least five times.
It is now seven years since we produced that and I got a call the other day asking if we could revive it. While thankfully we could re-use most of the previous one, the last seven years have to be included and while the distant past of the organisation is like an old friend to me, the recent past can sometimes seem like a foreign country! While this is the past of Royal Voluntary Service I have lived myself, it sometimes seems less real that the activities of Lady Reading, Averill Russell and those other pioneers at Headquarters in the 1930s and 40s.
Thankfully the much missed Action magazine was there to help jog my memory and below you can see a small selection of the items I chose to represent the charities achievements over the last seven years. Do you agree with me? I am sure you will let me know if you don’t!
2008 - WRVS published its first independent social impact report, which showed that 73% of the people we helped felt less isolated.
2009 - 45 WRVS rural transport schemes gave 60,000 lifts to those in need and WRVS launched its ‘Give us a lift’ campaign.
2010 - Margaret Miller celebrated her 100th Birthday and also 70 years of volunteering for WRVS.
2011 - £1.4 million was gifted by WRVS to NHS Greater Glasgow, The largest amount ever gifted in one go!
2012 - WRVS set up 67 Hubs (local offices) across the country to bring the organisation of Voluntary Service back into the community.
2013 - After 75 years, the WRVS dropped the ‘W’ from its name and becomes the Royal Voluntary Service.
2014 - Royal Voluntary Service opened its first Men’s Shed in Northumberland, giving older men a chance to make things and make friends.
2015 - Royal Voluntary Service launched the first Grandfest, a festival, celebrating the skills of older people and offering them a chance to pass those on to the next generation.
Posted by Matthew McMurray at 00:00
Monday, 12 October 2015.
NHS Greater Glasgow,
Social Impact Report,
Here at the archive much of our time is spent answering enquiries from members of the public and Royal Voluntary Service staff and volunteers, in fact we receive about 200 a year. But like London buses they all seem to come along at once.
This month we have had a small deluge of family and local history enquiries, requests from students and media companies to authors and people looking to donate material to the archive.
One of my favourite requests was from a gentleman who has donated 200 Civil Defence Welfare Section recipe cards to the archive (which as I write this have yet to arrive). Each card with a different recipe for feeding 5,000 people at a time, imagine that, the quantities are mind boggling!
We also had request for information on one of our Regional Administrators during the war, Mrs Vera Dart who looked after Region 10 (Cumberland, Lancashire and Cheshire for the uninitiated!) for an author who is publishing a book about her.
A lady rang up asking us to identify what had come in a small white cardboard box, which had “presented by Lady Reading 1940” written on the back. The answer? It was her WVS membership badge. A lucky lady to be presented with it by the Chairman!
We have also lent out this month our entire stock of wartime loan uniforms for events being held by Royal Voluntary Services around the country, they have been at the Dig for Victory Show in Bristol, as wells as other promotional events around the country from Sheffield to Hampshire, the uniforms always attracting much attention.
Finally in this small selection, we have helped an academic who is looking at how our narrative reports might be able to help track changes in society and policy over time. This may turn out to be an exciting project for the future!
Posted by Matthew McMurray, Royal Voluntary Service Archivist at 09:00
Monday, 27 July 2015.
Region 10 ,
Lady Reading ,
I had been waiting for years (literally) for the Antiques Roadshow to visit somewhere near the archive in Devizes, and last Thursday was our big opportunity and we took it! But having decided to go, what should we take from over a million items in the collection? There is so much rich history in the archive that it really was a very tough decision.
As an avid fan of the Roadshow I knew that it would have to be either something which was valuable, beautiful or could tell a fantastic story, or preferably all three!
As wonderful as the archive is, we have very few things that are intrinsically valuable, and certainly nothing which is worth the tens of thousands of pounds like some of the beautiful items which we see on Sunday nights. The value of the items in our collection is almost entirely in the fascinating stories they tell, of those millions of women (and later men too) who gave so much for society, but whose action on the whole were relatively mundane but completely vital.
Documents tell wonderful stories, but are mostly rather dull to look at, so what could we take? What had a great story, looked good and might be worth something?
The answer had of course been rolled up in unbleached cotton calico and sat safely on a shelf unseen for the past five years. It was Lady Reading’s Tapestry!
The opportunity to tell Lady Reading’s story, who I strongly believe to be one of the most important women in the 20th Century, (right up there with Marie Curie, Emeline Pankhurst and Eleanor Roosevelt) was too good to miss.
It combined not only our founder’s story, but also the story of the WVS itself in its twenty half cross stitched panels.
What is that story and how much was it worth I hear you ask! Well, you will have to tune into the Antiques Roadshow from Bowood House next series to find out!
As Christmas is nearly upon us and we are fast approaching our 75th anniversary year we thought you might like this Christmas message, written by Lady Reading in our 21st anniversary year, 1959.
The Chairman’s Christmas message
"The generosity and kindness which vast numbers of people have shown to us – the members of WVS – in this our anniversary year has made us realise how extraordinarily fortunate we are, and it is for this reason as I frame my Christmas message to you that I long to be able to transmit to you that gift which can enable you to evaluate the enthusiasm which has been so thrilling to witness and to understand not only what it means, but how it can be used better to serve the communities in which we live in the country to which we are proud to belong.
Lady Reading, December 1959
The warmth of hospitality and accommodation that WVS has had this year has been earned by the tens of thousands of members who have, each one in her own way and with her own interpretation, been true to the ideal which they try to serve; and the fact that Local Authorities have been so generous to us seems, to me, to show that they appreciate the service we, their voluntary auxiliaries, aim to put at their disposal. If this be so we have achieved, in these early years of our existence, a confidence which should make us proud of the trust reposed in us and alive to the consequent responsibility.
My message to you this Christmas of our majority is one of heartfelt joy in your achievement. May opportunity continue to be yours, so that by its constant offering you may have the chance, not only of further achievement, but of realising both for yourself and others, the true meaning of the privilege of service."