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Service Beyond Self

In this month’s Heritage Bulletin Blog we share with you a speech given to volunteers by our Keeper of Heritage Matthew McMurray in September.

Volunteer Event 19th September 2019 – Lancing

When I was asked to come and speak to you all today, I was told that I only had ten minutes! Anyone who knows me well will know that ten minutes for me is never enough especially when talking about the History of Royal Voluntary Service, It usually takes me 40 minutes just to get through a whistle-stop tour of the history of our service in just one hospital!

But then I thought again and realised that the achievements of the past is not what today is about.

Two weeks ago our Chief Executive Catherine Johnston asked me to find her a quote from our founder Lady Reading about ‘inspiring society to volunteer’. One of the greatest challenges we face in modern Britain is finding and encouraging those with time, talents and energy to give those things for free to help others. In an age where there are so many choices, where the pace of life seems impossible to keep up with and where there is divided opinion on our most pressing problems, what can those of us who want to make a difference do? How can we influence Society and the seemingly intractable tussle between self-interest and the common good?

However, I’ve watched with growing admiration the rise this year of movements which seemingly come from nowhere, with no formal leaders or structure, but with clear goals and a vision for the future. Ones where self-interest is sacrificed for the common good.

I’m of course principally talking about the climate change movement, which seems to have the power to galvanise people across the world whether they are eight or eighty. But the politics and subject of this are unimportant, what is important is the genius of how it was formed, has grown and begun to have an effect in achieving its aims and making Society listen.

That vitally important element is the power of individuals.

For Lady Reading the power of the individual was key to everything. It was from the actions of those individuals and the voluntary service they gave: added to that of hundreds or thousands or even millions of others which had the power to change societies, nations and ultimately the world.

She said

“The right pattern of life for the whole world will ultimately depend on individuals, not on Governments.
What must be aimed at is a pattern in which the standard of the individual is one in which character sets the sights, and not either the wish for possessions or the ambition for position.
It is not the spectacular person who is necessarily the best leader – but the one with a character in which application to the problem, devotion to duty, and integrity of service, are the dominating strengths”



In a moment we will be celebrating the contribution of twelve individuals who between them have given more than 100 years of service to this nation.

They have each made their own individual contribution to help others, what Lady Reading called “manifold smallnesses”.

Please do not misinterpret this; think of it in terms of a colony of honey bees (busy bees are part of her coat of arms). Each of the millions of bees has their part to play, each giving their all, each job added to the next and to the next and so on until each of those manifold smallnesses combine together to make a glorious whole.

But unlike those honey bees your efforts are not just added to the contributions of tens of thousands of other Royal Voluntary Service Volunteers today, they come on top of the efforts of the millions of Royal Voluntary Service volunteers who came before you, creating an inspiring legacy which has changed Society.


The culminations of these manifold smallness’s are recorded in our Heritage Collection which is one of the largest and richest records of voluntary service in the country.

Because of it I can tell you that in Brighton our work at the Royal County Hospital started in August 1960 when we opened our first canteen there, making those being recognised today from Royal County the latest in 60 years’ worth of dedicated continuous service to that hospital.

At Crawley Hospital we started serving teas to Out-patients in February 1961 and our help there has only expanded over the years, from flower arranging to trolley shops.

But our work is not just about hospitals, as an organisation we started and are still about providing help in our communities and helping people in their own homes. In Horsham by 1949 a Home Help service was up and running, the forerunner to our Good Neighbours service which still runs today, a regular, energetic and continuous connection to that community for over 70 years.

Lastly, but certainly not least, here in Lancing, Chesham House opened its doors in May 1955. Back then it was an innovative project creating something new, beyond a simple Darby & Joan Club, and today Annick and the volunteers there continue that innovative tradition which is now 64 years strong.

The services you provide today, are the stories and heritage of the future. The story of that continuity of “Service Beyond Self” is a powerful one and one which needs to be collected and told if we are to continue to inspire future generations to give those ‘manifold smallnesses’. That is the small part that the Heritage Collection has played for 60 years.

But I want to finish where I began, with the challenges we face in the world today; but now armed with the knowledge that every one of us has in our hands the power, as individuals, working together, to influence that intractable tussle and make Society hear.

Lady Reading as ever sums it up better than I ever could.

"This country believes in great intangible things, it holds its faith in that which is right, it admires that which is good, it loves that which is just. We are a proud nation. We ask for no man's pity but we want every man's respect. And so, to achieve life as it should be, we must go on building, maybe with worn-out tools, maybe with backs that ache, but always with eyes that have seen something of the sublime, and in the knowledge that we can undertake and shall achieve even the seemingly impossible."


Posted by Matthew McMurray, Keeper of Heritage at 09:00 Monday, 04 November 2019.

Labels: Volunteers, Society, Movement, Lancing, Sussex

Movement and music

Today we all know the importance of keeping fit and moving around at any age. As usually Royal Voluntary Service have a history of pioneering activities for older people before they become popular. In the 1970s WRVS was pioneering Music and Movement classes in local communities One WRVS volunteer who helped with this was Elizabeth Kay. In 2014 I interviewed her for the oral history project Voices of Volunteering. Elizabeth had first joined WVS in the late 1960s to be a speaker giving talks about Drugs, volunteering helped her develop this skill and she gave talks on many other topics which also led to  training as a keep fit instructor skills she used to help WRVS set up local Music and Movement classes in Hounslow. This is Elizabeth’s story in her own words:

“I gave a talk on history of nursery rhymes, and most people didn’t know how nursery rhymes started and why. Oh, and I’d talk about tortoises because my son had a tortoise which I was looking after, again people didn’t know about tortoises and how they were creatures of veneration. When I was in China I went to see this enormous marble tortoise which was a symbol of longevity. So yes as, I did find giving those talks were very interesting and because my husband had died I had to make an income from somewhere and so that’s what I did.

It [WRVS] gave me more that, it gave me more than just, mm, learning to do the drug talks, it gave me a feeling that people liked to listen. … While I was in the WRVS I decided because I was a keep fit teacher, I thought these old people sitting all day in chairs not talking to anybody, long before local authority had started, which they do now, and movement classes.

I went to our local care home and asked the matron there if she’d like me to go in and, and do some musical movement. And so, and I used all the old songs that they knew. Some of them I had to learn, I didn’t know there was a song called He Played His Ukulele As The Ship Went Down,  and I got the songs from these old, I say ‘old people’, I mean heavens some of them are younger than I am now. But, but they were and they sat all day and they did nothing, and so I felt that this was a really good idea. And so I, I went and we used these songs that they knew and we did actions to the songs. Now it’s done, local authorities are doing this all over, but at that time it was quite revolutionary and nobody had done that.

 …

I always wore my uniform and as you can see one or two of them are actually lifting their arms but they used to like singing the songs as well.

That was actually breaking new ground because it hadn’t been done until then. I had a woman who played the piano for me and I went to all kinds of old people’s clubs and she played the piano and I did the movements, mm, and it was, that was then sponsored by the local authority.  

One of them [the Matrons in one of the homes] apologised to me because I used to go in to this particularly [home], if they sit in their living room, the social room, in chairs all around because I used to say ‘Don’t put them in rows, I like them all round me’ because I work to every single one, which I do. And every week when I used to go in one woman used to get up from her chair, look at me and say ‘Stupid cow’ and walk out. And matron said ‘I’m so sorry’. I said ‘Look, if that’s the only exercise she gets all week it’s exercise, don’t worry, she’s moved’.

It was, it was so satisfying because I felt that the, they just loved having somebody to be with them and do these and think about how it used to be when they were young, the songs that they could sing. And we used some wartime songs as well. And before, as I say, I never knew there was a song entitled Three Pots a Shilling which is about a gypsy selling honey from door to door. And I learnt these, I actually looked them up.  I went to Charing Cross Road to the, the archive shop there and looked up all these songs and bought the music so that my pianist could play them for me. And it was great. And then sadly Greta, who was much older, was not able to do the playing anymore and so another, another lady took over and she didn’t need music at all, and it was lovely because she used to play for my keep fit classes.” 

Elizabeth Kay WVS/WRVS Volunteer July 2016
Stories from volunteers really helps to tell the story of Royal Voluntary Service and how volunteering has benefited society in many ways. If you would like to hear Elizabeth’s story or those of many other volunteers in full you can visit Archive Online and search our Voices of Volunteering oral history collection.

You can also listen to the story above on SoundCloud


The second image in this week's blog is taken from WRVS Magazine No.371 December 1970

Posted by Jennifer Hunt, Deputy Archivist at 09:00 Monday, 27 August 2018.

Labels: Keep Fit, Music, Movement, older people, WRVS, WVS