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Guest post from Charlotte Tomlinson, University of Leeds.
‘The city centre was a tortured landscape of cratered streets and wrecked buildings, some of them still wrapped in flames. Sections of pavement and roadway had split and lifted as if in an earthquake, and here and there water was gushing up from broken mains beneath…The roar of the pumps and the crackle of flames drowned out all other sounds, but occasionally there came a grinding crash as some wall or roof collapsed, and then clouds of bright sparks would mushroom up and whirl around on hot air.’
(Esther Baker, A City in Flames, p. 31).
This is how one female volunteer remembered the scene in Hull’s city centre in May 1941 -seventy-eight years ago this month - after a particularly devastating night of air raids. Over the course of the war, more than 90% of the city’s buildings were damaged or destroyed, and more than half of Hull’s population made homeless. Among the fires and rubble of this ‘tortured landscape’, hundreds of Women’s Voluntary Service (WVS) members worked tirelessly to provide food, accommodation and comfort to those in need in the city.
WVS work was extensive during the blitz. Volunteers worked across the entire country, from London to Liverpool, from Plymouth to Clydebank, as well as in the Yorkshire port city of Hull. In rest centres, thousands of civilians bombed out of their homes arrived in desperate need of shelter, where WVS members were ready to provide clean clothing, beds to sleep in, as well as a reassuring – and quintessentially British – cup of tea. WVS women also staffed mobile canteens delivering refreshments to firefighters and rescue workers, provided guidance and information at Citizen’s Advice Bureaus, and gave assistance to their neighbours through the Housewives Service. As the impact of the blitz varied from place to place across Britain, so did the work of the WVS.
As a historian, my research involves building a picture of the work done by the WVS during the blitz from the records that are available to us today. The Narrative Reports held by the Royal Voluntary Service Archive &Heritage Collection offer an intimate glimpse into the world of wartime volunteers, from which we can build a rich and detailed picture of WVS work in air raids, and the experiences of its members.
In Hull, as in other places, WVS work in the blitz centred around caring for those made temporarily or permanently homeless. The jobs to be done were seen as typically ‘feminine’ ones, such as cooking and cleaning, providing practical and emotional support, and bringing a sense of homeliness to rest centres and temporary housing. One promotional film, titled ‘WVS’, stressed the importance of maintaining the home in wartime and the special role of women had to play in this:
‘Never in all our lives has home meant so much to us. The snug feeling of protecting walls, the fire, the table set, the kettle on the stove. When we are bombed out, the government finds us new shelter, a room, a table, bed, chairs, bare essentials. It takes more than that to make a home. The little things, the sort of things a woman understands. This is where the WVS can help. They’ll lend a hand with fixing up a blackout, find a few crocks to be getting on with, maybe they’ve got a length of cretonne in their store cupboard’.
(© IWM UKY 341 Narrator Ruth Howe).
The jobs required of WVS members therefore had clear connections to their peacetime roles in the home, even if these jobs were taking place in exceptional circumstances.
Nonetheless, the work done by the WVS could be both difficult and dangerous. Two hundred and forty-five WVS members lost their lives while on duty during the war. In March 1941, the WVS centre in Hull had to relocate after being destroyed by enemy bombing. After managing for six months in spare room in the city’s Guildhall, the centre found a more permanent home in the repurposed Ferens Art Gallery. Narrative Reports reveal that Hull’s volunteers were well-prepared for raids – receptions centres had organised regular ‘mock air-raids’ from February 1940 while in May 1940 volunteers in each location were trained in maternity basics and stocked with ‘maternity bags’ in case of untimely deliveries. This proved to be quite necessary in May 1941, during Hull’s most intense raids, when the first baby was delivered successfully in a hostel for those made homeless, and ceremoniously wrapped in a green WVS blanket gifted by Lady Reading. Four more babies followed that month.
Unsurprisingly, the experiences of blitz volunteers could be deeply emotional. It isn’t hard to imagine how aiding people who had lost their homes, helping to register missing loved ones and working amongst the ruins of the city could be upsetting or traumatic. Lady Reading acknowledged this in the WVS Bulletin in April 1941:
The emotional strain of life in the blitz is hinted at in the Narrative Reports too, such as that written by volunteers in Haltemprice, a suburban area to the West of Hull, in May 1941:
Haltemprice North May 1941
In the central Hull reports, the ‘strenuous’ nature of this work was spelled out in numbers:
Narrative Report Hull May 1941
On the nights of the 7th and 8th May, in which hundreds of lives were lost, more than 14,000 people passed through WVS reception centres and another 40,000 through its district centres. More than 380,000 meals were sent out in the first two weeks of May, and WVS cars ‘covered about 15470 miles’ driving back and forth across the city.
While the story of WVS in the blitz is one of voluntarism in the face of danger, it is also one of neighbourliness. During the Second World War, WVS was organised along regional and local lines and members worked closely with their local communities. For example, members of the Housewives Service provided hot drinks for their local wardens and people in nearby shelters. In many cases they assisted wardens by keeping track of neighbours and their ‘raid arrangements’, so that people could be easily located during bombing. Much of this work took place on their own streets or within their own homes, where a ‘Housewives Service’ card was displayed in the window (example abaove). Like members of the Royal Voluntary Service today, wartime WVS volunteers provided much-needed to support, first and foremost, in their local communities.
Neighbourliness extended from area to area too. During the worst attacks on Hull, volunteers from the suburb of Haltemprice and nearby market town Beverley were called into action and their reception centres opened:
Narrative Report, Beverley, May 1941.
In the East Yorkshire village of Hedon, members of the Housewives Service formed search parties and scrambled to find spare clothing and other essentials for the homeless. Meanwhile, eight of York’s volunteers quickly drove their mobile canteens to Hull to help distribute much needed refreshments in the aftermath of heavy bombing, and stayed for several days. Hull’s WVS were extremely grateful:
Narrative Report, Hull, May 1941.
When we think about the blitz today, what images first spring to mind? Londoners in the East End are probably first. The devastated landscape of Coventry might be next. These are important stories, but the Narrative Reports now held by the Royal Voluntary Service Archive & Heritage Collection offer us an insight into wider experiences of bombing and the incredible work volunteers undertook across Britain. They help us to understand the variety and scale of the jobs done by women in cities targeted by bombing, and also in the suburbs and rural areas which surrounded them – stories which are often forgotten. From these records I’ve been able to build a fuller picture of the neighbourliness that characterised WVS work, from individual to individual, and from area and area. I’ve also been able to better understand the experiences of wartime volunteers and the difficult and dangerous challenges they faced. Through the records of the Royal Voluntary Service Archive &Heritage Collection I can begin to reconstruct the stories of WVS’ one million members - ordinary women who lived and volunteered in extraordinary times.
Charlotte Tomlinson is a PhD researcher in the School of History at the University of Leeds. Her PhD explores experiences of female civilian volunteers in Second World War Britain and is generously funded by the White Rose College for the Arts and Humanities.
Guest post from
Charlotte Tomlinson, University of Leeds.
Why do we volunteer? This is an incredibly
important question for charities in the 21st century. Volunteering
is as significant as it was in 1938 when Lady Reading was asked to found the
WVS, we rely more and more on those people who dedicate their skills, energy
and time to supporting those in need. Today, Royal Voluntary Service currently has c20,000 volunteers who provide much-needed support to older people in
hospitals and local communities in an increasingly ageing population.
As a historian, my own research looks a little
further back in Royal Voluntary Service's history. My PhD project, based at the
University of Leeds, studies the everyday experiences of the women who
volunteered with the Women’s Voluntary Services (later Women’s Voluntary
Service (WVS)) during the Second World War – of which there were more than one
million at its peak. These women came to volunteer in countless different ways,
helping civilians before and during air raids in rest centres and canteens,
knitting for troops and running ‘Make Do and Mend’ classes, staffing Citizen’s
Advice Bureaus, collecting pots and pans for salvage, and much more.
Lately I’ve been trying to understand how and
why these women volunteered, and what this tells us about life in wartime
Britain. Answering the question ‘why do people volunteer?’ can be tricky, but
the rich records held by the Royal Voluntary Service archive give us clues by
detailing how the organisation tried to recruit new members.
In its earliest
years, the WVS focused heavily on recruiting more and more women to help
support those in need, and each centre was encouraged to record its own efforts
in attracting new members. Using the Narrative Reports created in 1938 and 1939,
I’ve been able to build a rich picture of how the WVS recruited its volunteers
Like many propaganda campaigns in wartime
Britain, attempts to recruit women to volunteer often happened on a national
scale. Printed material such as posters and pamphlets were distributed widely
from 1938 onwards, calling on women to enrol at once for Air Raid Precaution
services. Some made broad calls, but
others were more specific, asking women to offer their time as ambulance
drivers or to help with evacuation. Films such as ‘Britannia is a Woman’ celebrated
the voluntary spirit of the WVS, hoping that it would inspire others to sign up:
‘The call is sounded, and women fall in for service in their country’s call’.
(IWM MGH 171). Lady Reading herself travelled extensively around Britain to
speak at public meetings and recruit women for the WVS, covering more than one
thousand miles each month.
Like today, the wartime WVS worked closely with local communities, and at the local level a wider variety of methods were used to recruit new volunteers – the extensive Narrative Reports accessible online today paint a detailed picture of how women were encouraged to join the WVS differently from place to place. In July 1939 in Gateshead, sixty representatives from various women’s organisations in the area met to discuss creating a new WVS centre, whose first job would be to help with evacuation in the event of war. This new centre therefore drew on a pool of women already involved in organisational life.
At the same time in Bradford, Yorkshire, a Mrs Cook attended the Yorkshire Show as a representative of the WVS, attempting to recruit new members from the general public, many of whom had probably never volunteered before. In 1939, the popular agricultural show was held in Halifax, not far from Bradford. The Bradford centre also distributed their own posters, instead of national ones, which advertised introductory meetings for potential WVS members at a local school.
Local efforts often worked alongside national campaigns, too. After the film ‘Britannia Is A Woman’ was screened at the Plaza Cinema in Portsmouth, existing WVS members set up a table to distribute leaflets and talk to cinema-goers as they bustled through the cinema’s vestibule. Similarly, at Leamington Spa volunteers displayed WVS posters after another recruitment film, ‘The Warning’, stressed to the audience that it was ‘the duty of everyone’ to play a part in the war effort. By 1940 Narrative Reports for Lewes, Sussex, simply recorded ‘cinemas usual posters’, suggesting that the practice had become a routine form of recruitment.
The Narrative Reports written by the WVS in York during 1939 are particularly rich records which describe in detail how women enrolled for volunteer work in the city and surrounding area. Over the summer of 1939 the centre organised for notices to be published weekly in the local press, and at the same time existing WVS members canvased potential members on their doorsteps while completing evacuation censuses, and while fitting gas masks.
York’s Narrative Reports also hint at potential barriers for women wanting to volunteer, such as a lack or free time, or not knowing where to enrol:
Narrative Reports, York, March 1939
Furthermore, reports from York reveal that while some methods were very successful, others were less so. In June 1939 the WVS sent a speaker to the Odeon Picture House to give a short talk on the work of the local centres, and this was so popular that she was asked to return to future film showings. In the same report, the centre leaders decided that placing more notices in the local press was ineffective, comparable to ‘flogging a dead horse’!
But sometimes efforts to recruit new members weren’t needed at all. A report from Bath in September 1939 suggests that after war was declared, women became acutely aware of the necessity of volunteers to help the war effort, and often came forward with little prompting from recruitment propaganda:
Narrative Reports, Bath, September 1939
Understanding how the WVS recruited its
members in the early years of the war is just one piece of the puzzle of how
and why women volunteered. Women’s own stories, revealed through their diaries,
letters, memoirs and other sources, give us more clues as to how women saw
their own relationship to volunteering. But the Narrative Reports held by the Royal
Voluntary Service Archive & Heritage Collection are crucial to this overall
picture. They are unique sources, which help us to dismantle the idea of war as
played out on a national level, and better understand how women’s relationship
to volunteering was tied to their local communities too. Through the Narrative
Reports, I have been able to build a picture of women’s lives as they were
lived, through the streets, neighbourhoods and communities of wartime Britain.
Charlotte Tomlinson is a PhD researcher in the School of History at the University of Leeds. Her PhD explores experiences of female civilian volunteers in Second World War Britain and is generously funded by the White Rose College for the Arts and Humanities.
The Second World War started (in Europe) on 1st September 1939 nearly 80 years ago. WVS had been established just over a year; not long after the start of the war it was Christmas. As I was thinking about writing this blog to go out the week before Christmas Eve I wondered what the WVS were up to at this time of year. I could have chosen anywhere but one of the first documents to jump out at me was a programme of Christmas activities from Rickmansworth WVS 1939. Looking at the Narrative Reports from the area for December 1939 to 1944 you can clearly see that just because it was Christmas WVS work didn’t stop. These are just a few examples of activities in Rickmansworth, taken from the Narrative Reports.
WVS Rickmansworth, like all other WVS centres in Evacuation zones, during the war organised various entertainments for children and adults who were a long way from home just after being evacuated in September 1939. Activities included film showings, dancing, gymnastics, games, singing and parties. Over the years activities changed, in 1941 the Evacuee Club held an exhibition of needlework including clothing such as frocks, dressing gown and children’s clothes. In 1942 the WVS held two parties for under-fives which was considered a great success as you can see in the extract below from December that Year.
Of course the WVS didn’t just spend December running children’s parties they also had other duties to perform. Activities included salvage in 1941 they campaigned to collect paper from houses driving around using the loudspeaker on the WVS Van. Knitting also continued during the season of good will in 1941 47 pull overs were knitted for the Merchant Navy and members began knitting gum boot stockings for Russia. In 1942 they received an urgent request for sweaters and socks for Malta; 114lb was distributed to knitters for the job. Work with the Red Cross also continued in 1941 they had the Russian Red Cross sale for Mrs Churchill’s Fund and the WVS were able to raise £210 (c£8262.74 in today’s money). In 1942 a WVS party made soft toys and raised £59.16.8d (c£2,354.23 in today’s money) for the local Red Cross group. As you can see many activities were business as usual for WVS of Rickmansworth.
Supporting the Armed Services based in Hertfordshire was a large part of WVS Rickmansworth’s work in 1941 and 1942 with a variety of activities in December of Both Years. In December 1941 The Troops Hut was completed with electricity and lino installed. It also had a radio gram and ping pong table. The WVS opened the Hut on Christmas day for 200 men who spent the evening playing games. In Both years WVS held a concert for the RAF Benevolent Fund in 1942 they raised £18.10.0d (c£727.91 in today’s money) for the fund. Looking after the services didn’t just include the Army and RAF there was also the Home Guard to support. In Both years the Home Guard were on exercises and WVS served tea to them from a mobile canteen. Another Service provided by the WVS all year round was camouflage nets. WVS’s role garnishing camouflage nets began in the early years of the war but the scheme wasn’t official until June 1943. Rickmansworth WVS were already working on this before it became official and included other work for the services in this role as you can see from this Narrative Report Extract, December 1942.
This week’s blog has focused on WVS Rickmansworth’s work during the Decembers of 1939, 1941 and 1942. Unfortunately in our Headquarters collection of Narrative Reports there are not many for this area in Hertfordshire and we haven’t been able to look into the Christmases of 1943 and 1944. It is more than likely that these missing reports were written and one of the quadruplet copies arrived at Headquarters. However in 1970s Region 4 was heavily weeded as all regions had different rules for what was kept at that time we have less information about local offices in the Home Counties and East Anglia areas. Although this is the case for Rickmansworth you can see from just a few reports how much was going on during the Second World War and how much time the women of Rickmansworth were giving to help people keep up moral at this time of year.
It’s been a while since we last looked at the early roles of
WVS, so this week I thought we would explore the services provided for the
homeless. Due to enemy attack and bombing raids during the Second World War many people
were made homeless. The WVS had many solutions to help ease the situation and supplied
food, clothing and accommodation to those in need from 1939-1945. There was
also assistance provided in the immediate post-war period a WVS began to
reshape itself and society. Volunteers were vital in keeping up people’s moral
particularly when they were victims of air raids; most of this work took place in
In September 1939 WVS was called upon to take a new role
care of the homeless, alongside evacuation of children, mothers and under-fives
and other vulnerable people. Homes and building were earmarked as rest centres.
This was the first place to go for help if you had lost your home before being
billeted or rehoused. The phony war did not bring as much evacuation and rest
centre work as expected or feared however once heavy bombing started in 1940
WVS swung into action.
Rest centres were
mainly established in cities and in some coastal towns with 180,000 volunteers
ready to help when needed. In many cases WVS ran the rest centres and
maintained them when they were not in use. Services run from the centres
included: food, gift from overseas, rations, clothing, bedding and information
desks/Citizens Advice Bureaux. This was also an area where WVS showed its
innovative and forward thinking side with the development of new schemes to
ease the pressure on rest centres in times of crisis this encompassed the
The unpleasant possibility of being suddenly made homeless
in the night threatens all of us with varying degrees of imminence. The
Emergency Shelters, which in many places are staffed and organised by W.V.S.
volunteers, have done much to relieve the sufferings of bombed- out victims of
air raids, but any scheme which lessens the pressure upon these shelters would
obviously be welcomed both by their staffs and those who are forced to seek
refuge in them. In one city the workers in the Emergency Shelters have
canvassed the householders, suggesting that each household should pair off with
friends living not less than half a mile away, so that, if one house is struck,
the other affords shelter to both families. The exchange of a small reserve of
clothing also spreads the risk of losing the entire family wardrobe. The W.V.S.
Housewives' Service has helped to organise this short-term emergency
hospitality in several places, and they have been so successful that, in some
cases, it has not been necessary to open the Emergency Shelters even after
serious incidents.” – WVS Bulletin April 1941 p.4
A war is won on the success, support and effort provided by
the Home Front without vital assistance those who suffered may have lost hope
and this would have had negative impact on the battle fields. WVS was fundamental
to keeping up moral and continued to provide help to those who lost their homes
throughout the war especially during emergencies and bombings in London. The
service also included helping to reunite people, families and friends, who had
been separated during a raid. Towards the end of the war WVS also saw the need
to help those who had lost everything and help them return to some kind of
Towards the end and after
the war there were many people who needed to be rehoused who had nothing to
furnish their homes with or plant in their gardens. WVS ran two schemes to help
them one of these was the Re-homing Gift Scheme which involved centres in areas
which had not suffered serious collecting gifts of furnishings to send to
London Boroughs for distribution. WVS helped 100,000 families distributing
8,000 tons of furniture, crockery and hardware. The second activity was the
Garden Gift Scheme, established in
April 1945 to collect help the owners of blitzed gardens and those who had been
rehoused in prefabs. The scheme
asked for flowers; vegetable seedlings; shrubs; trees and hedging plants. If
you got in touch with your local WVS they would collect your plants; distribute
them to prefab owners in London and other blitzed cities and pay for postage or
Care of the homeless was very important to WVS and involved
many of aspects of its wartime services and a few post-war. As we have seen
this included rest centres, feeding, clothing, Citizens Advice Bureaux,
rehoming and gardening. WVS was vital to the war effort, without it who knows
how the development of wartime and immediate post-war British society would
have been effected.
On Twitter the other day I
noticed a tweet from the Royal British Legion saying that Remembrance Day was
not just for the fallen but for those who have lived through conflict as well.
While Royal Voluntary Service’s blog on 10th November focused on
remembering the 245 WVS women who died during the Second World War, this week I
thought we’d look at how the WVS fought on the home front to keep everyone safe
When we think of evacuation we
often think of the process from escorting evacuees to the country side to
billeting them in the reception areas; we don’t think always think about the effects
on the householders and the relationship they had with evacuees. There are always
two conflicting view points on how evacuees where received by people in the
Evacuation broke down class barriers and
evacuees were received with love affection and treated as one of the family.
Ideas of class continued and evacuees were seen
as dirty or verminous and were mistreated by their hosts and hostesses.
There is truth in both opinions
and as our Archives show WVS were ready to smooth out any problems which arose
even from arrival they took care of evacuees cleaning them up and providing
clothing when needed. They also produced a number of publications which didn’t
take sides but advised everyone in the art of diplomacy or allowing for as one
leaflet was titled give and take. This was a leaflet designed to inform housewives
and visiting mothers on how to behave while relatives are visiting evacuated
children. It was a way of advising both parties without taking sides and helping
to easy worries and tensions; breaking down class barriers and dispelling
Another example comes from a
circular on advising householders on bed wetting stating ‘do not punish the child or do anything to humiliate
him and do not let him think he is a "problem" child and of special
interest’. Again WVS were trying to change public attitudes before bedwetting
was viewed as a dirty habit and the organisation worked towards changing this
view wanting people to see it as an effect of being removed from one’s home, a
result of a traumatic experience.
All the WVS’s hard work to bring communities together and
change opinions of town and country must have had an effect. By the end of the
war when it introduced its furniture scheme those areas which had been less
affected by the bombing were ready and willing to send tons and tons of
household items to blitzed areas. Also WVS was able to pioneer its Children’s
Holiday Scheme in Post-war Britain where children who would not have otherwise
had a holiday spent a week with a hostess family either by the sea or in the
So do remember while the men were away fighting to stop our
society changing for the worse over a million women on the Home Front were
working to transform it for the better.
From February 1940 the WVS became involved with assisting local authorities with salvage, which continued throughout the Second World War. It involved collecting a verity of items such as pans, newspapers, milk bottle tops and books. The WVS also enlisted children for salvage work in the Cog Scheme, so called because of the idea that salvage was a vital part of the war machine, which became very popular. I have recently been working on the cataloguing and repackaging of our collection of Narrative Reports. In these reports were some interesting stories about the WVS’ role in Salvage.
I thought that I would share some of those stories.
Lancashire, Cadishead, April 1943
A Cog decided to play an April Fool’s Joke on his Headmaster resulting in him losing his salvage badge for a fortnight.
‘On April 1st he went into school and reported to the Headmaster that a certain Lady had a large sack of paper which she wanted collecting that day. A little later in the morning the Headmaster came to the classroom where the boy was busy working and said “after you have finished your work you can go in and bring the sack of paper”. Imagine the Surprise of the headmaster when he replied “She hasn’t any Sir you are an April fool” The headmaster told me he was greatly amused although he dare not show it in front of the class.’
Some Members also recruited the services of the local police force to collect items for the campaign.
Devonshire, Axminster Rural, January 1944
‘On the 15th and 20th went round the district in a police car with a loud speaker. The driver and I took it in turn to talk, which we did to varied audiences, apparently empty villages, where windows opened, and people appeared, or to crowds, and to above all to enthusiastic school children, who showed us their badges with pride.’
Picture: Bringing in salvage for COG Scheme in Thurston 1939-1945 WRVSA&HC/WRVS/HQ/P/SAL/COG001.