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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.
I said that we would return to the British Welcome Clubs, and here we are with the continuing story of the WVS’s entertainment of our American cousins in Leamington Spa.
After the slightly disastrous opening night of the welcome club, the situation did not seem to get much better; in fact the club lurched from one disappointment to the next.
The biggest issue at the beginning seems to have been the very poor attendance at the club by the American forces, which inevitably left the local girls who had turned up rather disappointed! The club was open two nights per week, and had a varied programme of games, dancing and other entertainments. It soon became clear that the preferred entertainment was dancing and much of the programme came to reflect this, but obtaining a suitable Master of Ceremonies (MC) was a continual issue.
Engaging bands to play was also a challenge and on many occasions, a gramophone had to be hired in. The majority of the records seem to have been loaned from the private collections of the committee members, but there seems to have been a preponderance of classical music discs, and so funds had to be spent on procuring new dance records. When a band was engaged the fee was usually three Guineas!
After about six months things started to get better, attendance was up and they had to start refusing new members (a subscription was payable), though inevitably there were some members who were late with their subscriptions and were being chased for payment.
As with all clubs involving young soldiers some trouble was inevitable. The club hall was next to the NAAFI Bar and there were problems later in the evenings with some men being a little worse for wear trying to get into the club. The military Police were asked to ‘give the club a once over’ each evening.
By far the biggest problem seems to have been finding committee members to take on responsibility. Inevitably it was left to a few individuals to carry the majority of the burden, which at one point led to mass resignations and the disbandment and reforming of the managing committee, and the regular WVS being asked to fill the gaps in helping to organise club nights.
This is not the end of the story. We shall return for the end of the war and the winding up of the club another week.
Posted by Matthew McMurray, Royal Voluntary Service Archivist at 09:00
Monday, 23 November 2015.