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The WVS Clothing Department was established in 1939 to run Regional Clothing Depots which provided garments, shoes and boots for children. Clothing was donated, sent from overseas by the Canadian and American Red Cross, and handmade in working parties. Volunteers would run regional and sub-depots; sorting, and distributing clothing as part of WVS’s Civil Defence role.
Clothing was also supplied to adult evacuees and the homeless from 1941 resulting in six and a half million garments being distributed between 1940 and 1943. The WVS also opened Clothing Exchanges from 1943 allowed parents to swap clothes for their growing children without using valuable coupons. As a result millions more garments were given out during 1944, 1945.
Although Depots began to close in 1946 many people still needed assistance and WVS carried on its vital role in clothing setting up County, Centre and County Borough Clothing Depots. It was also a huge part of WVS Civil Defence work providing clothing to flood victims in 1947 and 1953.
Clothing Depots were for people who had no other way of clothing themselves and they had to be recommended by certain bodies or organisations. This included the NSPCC, Ministry of Pensions, Hospital Almoners and Prohibition Officers, Doctors and Social Services.
Over the years clothing was also distributed to refugees from Hungary in 1956 and then Ugandan Asians in 1972. The demand for clothing continued to be high and by 1976 1.5 million garments were given out each year. In the late 1980s they were renamed Clothing Stores and distributed around 2 million garments a year. At that time stores could be found in Area, County, Scottish Regional, Metropolitan, District, Local and London Borough Offices.
As part of the Voices of Volunteering
project 2014-2016 over 80 volunteers shared their experiences including for some clothing stores. Barbara Sparks a volunteer in Somerset was one of those volunteers.
"Then I started to work in the clothing store and thoroughly enjoyed it, absolutely
[Interviewer] Who would come into the clothing store?
[BS]: It, they were sent by Social Services, they had to have a need. And they
would be supplied with up to three changes of clothing twice a year so they
could come in the summer for summer clothes and then in the winter for their
winter stuff. And everything was logged down in a book and, if they came back
in between time and tried to swing the lead that they needed more because
they hadn't got any, the ladies would go and produce the book and say ‘Look, is
that your signature? Because on the such and such a date you were given this,
this, this, this, this and this, what have you done with it’? ‘Ah, I, well it wore out’
or well, and that was fair enough, that was fair comment. But if it was just that
they'd sold it because they thought they'd get a couple
of pennies for it, well no, they didn't get anything else. The ladies were quite strict like that, but you
needed to be. And it was quite, quite sad to see some of the people that came
in some days because one lady came in, no names obviously, but she’d, she’d
been pregnant and she's got a maternity grant and she’d blown the lot on a pink
baby dress because it was something she’d never had when she was a child,
and she just loved this dress, and she blew the entire maternity grant and then
she had a red headed boy. And poor lady, she came in and she said ‘What am I
going to do’? And they said ‘Don't worry, don't worry, we’ll sort you out’. And
they gave a complete layette, so she had everything from nappies right the way
through to vests and booties and, and, and little rompers, everything that the
baby needed for a little boy. And it was so tragic to think that she’d, she’d been
so much in need when she was a child that all she wanted was this dress for
her child. Really, really sad. And yes, I used to go in
there on a regular basis, well three times a week.
Some people you, you thought ‘Well, why did you do it’? One of my relatives
was quite high up in Social Services elsewhere and he said he loved WRVS,
absolutely loved WRVS clothing stores because their s
taff were being asked for
money and they knew it wasn't being spent on what it was being asked for
whereas they could give them a letter for our clothing store and we would make
sure that they actually got what they are supposed to need. And that they could
use it that way. He, he couldn't sing their praises high enough. So it was a much
needed facility at the time."
You can find more oral histories and information about clothing stores by serching Archive Online.