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In 1939 WVS first began to recruit volunteers to work in mobile canteens which were largely used to feed Civil Defence workers and civilians in need. WVS volunteers also gave their support within hospitals during the war, working in hospital canteens, answering telephones, doing domestic jobs and completing other duties of every kind to help assist with staff shortages. When the NHS was established in 1948 Lady Reading and the Minister for Health, Aneurin Bevan, agreed that WVS would expand into running out-patient canteens.
Towards the end of the 1960s there were three types of hospital canteens: two of these were static, the first situated within the hospital building and the second in separate buildings in the grounds. Finally, trolley services were provided which toured wards selling goods and refreshments to bedridden patients.
The canteens provided an area within hospitals that allowed patients and visitors to escape from the wards. A 1969 Health and Hospitals News Sheet stated that WRVS offered the opportunity to experience a place run by ‘“normal” people, i.e. non-professionals’. It allowed long term patients to feel independent and to have real connections with the outside world.
Over time the food served at the hospital canteens changed from simple snack foods to hot meals. In the early years the canteens’ leading provisions were sandwiches with lentil, pea or bean spread and cream cheese fillings. However, by the 1970s the food provided had changed to include meat pies and sausage rolls, available due to the introduction of hot counters and freezers.
Any profits made were gifted back to the hospital to enable them to purchase new equipment needed to help the patients. One example of this was the WRVS shop and canteen service in Bedford’s South Wing Hospital. They were able to raise £148,522 in the 12 years before it was refurbished and expanded in 1994. These profits allowed the WRVS to gift the following equipment to Bedford’s South Wing Hospital:
• Aesculap drill - £4014
• Surgical telescopes - £720
• Two heart monitors - £6000
• Many smaller items such as furniture, patient trolleys and medical utensils
Today there are approximately 900 hospitals in which the RVS provides its services ranging from shops to canteens and trolley services. The proceeds from these are still gifted back to the hospital in order to provide better care for patients as well as better standards for staff and visitors.
In this month’s Heritage Bulletin Blog I would like to bring you all a little Christmas Spirit. To help assist me I have searched through the December issues of the WVS Bulletin
and thus have enlisted the help of Lady Reading and Eleanor Roosevelt. These two very important (though somewhat forgotten) figures of the twentieth century were great friends and supported each other in their philanthropic work in the UK and USA. The following are their messages to members of WVS in 1942
“The fourth Christmas of the war is with us, and although this is obviously no time for ordinary Christmas festivities, it is an opportunity for me to send to all W.V.S. members a message of my very real admiration for the work achieved, the way it has been done and the strength shown in carrying it through.
We all realise on looking back through these years of war how much we have learned, how often we have had to attune ourselves to difficult circumstances and how great a volume of undertaking has been accomplished.
Looking forward we know there is much more to be done with far fewer members to do it, but because we have learnt to work as a team and because of the difficulties we have overcome together, we can now regard ourselves as seasoned and tried and capable of yet greater undertakings. However hard the times ahead, we are in a better position to meet them because of what we have been through.
In our service our aim is not recognition of success-nor are we wishful of public thanks, but we are determined on achievement. No task is so slight that it falls below our notice-no effort so great that it lies beyond our attempt.
We fight for our country with unspectacular but unceasing determination, and my wish to you is that this New Year may hold for you steadfastness of endeavour, strength of resolution and undiminished courage.”
“I am so deeply impressed by the work of the Women's Voluntary Services that I want to send them this Christmas greeting, for they exemplify the true spirit of the Christmas season. This year the Christmas spirit reminds us again of the fact that there is no joy in living as great as that of giving, particularly when we give of our own strength and effort. This is the ideal of the women in this organisation, and therefore, I send you my
warmest Christmas greetings and my hopes that before long we will again, all over the world, be able to say "A Merry Christmas" with the knowledge that we are working in peace to bring it about for all peoples.”
Today the greatest gift we can give to others is still our own time. Across Britain our volunteers can still be seen working as a team in a number of undertakings from serving tea in hospital canteens to giving companionship to those who are lonely in their own homes; even now at this busiest and for some hardest time of the year. I continue to be inspired by their dedication to voluntary work. With the opportunity to curate the exhibition at Kelvingrove
I have seen first-hand how our volunteers meet the needs of today in their local areas. I look forward to seeing them again in the New Year when I go to collect our Archives.
From all of us here at the Heritage Collection we wish you our readers a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year.
The Royal Voluntary Service Heritage Collection is the sixth largest collection of charity archives in the country. If you stacked all the boxes in the collection one on top of the other they would be 108m higher than the Glasgow Tower. In those boxes you will find over 2 million documents, 30,000 photographs and more than 1,000 objects and uniforms. These archives tell the story of Britain and its people, not through the eyes of those who ruled but through the eyes of a hidden army of women (and men) ready to volunteer their time and energy where they were needed, ready to give compassion in crisis.
The tellers and protectors of this story are known as the Keeper of Heritage and the Archivist. Over the last eight months Jennifer (our Archivist) has had the monumental task over of choosing 8 objects, four photographs and three posters as well as producing a film to represent the compassion of Glasgow’s volunteers in times of crisis. In this month’s blog Jennifer is going to expand on and share with you just some of the stories behind the archives featured in the Compassion in Crisis Exhibition at Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum (running till 31st January 2020).
Hello my name is Jennifer and I am the Archivist for the Royal Voluntary Service, many of you who are regular visitors to this blog will know me but for those who aren’t essentially I am the protector and story teller of the (somewhat hidden) history of one of the most important organisations in Britain’s social history. Did you know that since 1938 over 2 million people have volunteered all over the UK for Royal Voluntary Service. They have done everything from making “magical” cups of tea to telling people how to build a refuge room in case of nuclear attack to supporting soldiers on army bases all over the world. This week I would like to tell you a story, the story of how Glaswegian volunteers have helped their local communities and people worldwide with their compassion in times of crisis.
In 1938 Britain was on the edge of another war with Germany, in anticipation the government wanted to mobilise women to help in the event of an air raid. These women could sign up to Air Raid Precautions (ARP) as wardens however the men enrolling them didn’t know what to do with them. Que Lady Reading and a revolutionary idea called the Women’s Voluntary Services for ARP. To bring this revolution to Glasgow Lady Reading enlisted the help of Lady Ruth Balfour, appointing her chairman of the WVS in Scotland in May 1938. By the autumn she had established an office in Glasgow with a team of volunteers to run it. As I have said the original aim was to recruit women for ARP work such as fire watching and getting people into shelters.
However volunteers in Glasgow were soon being asked to help wherever they were needed. You have to imagine the original organisation was like a very large recruitment agency. By 1939 WVS had evolved radically and was involved in many activities to plan for the war effort including evacuation, salvage and mobile canteens. By then they had become known as ‘the women in green’. This was due to the colour of their uniform an example of the jacket and blouse can be seen in the exhibition.
Their role was ever expanding as was the number of volunteers involved; over 4,500 Glaswegian women were joined WVS during the war. Can you imagine that many focusing all their time and energy on the war effort. Nearly half those volunteers were focused on services for his majesty’s forces including clubs, canteens and hospital visits. They weren’t just giving their time to do these roles they also gave their skills and thoughtfulness.
One volunteer called Margaret Miller, a member from 1939 to 2015, was such a woman living in Glasgow. During the war she visited soldiers in hospital. Many of the men she visited couldn’t see their families as they lived to far away so Mrs Miller wanted to do something special for them. She convinced her local grocer to give her some oranges’ those of you who know of the shortages during the war will know how hard this would have been to come by and the soldiers were delighted with these gifts. The WVS didn’t just looking after service men staying in Glasgow they also helped those who were passing through. In 1940 station guides were established in all stations in Glasgow.
We don’t know how many women volunteered to be station guides during the war although the statistics show that in 1943 158 where engaged in other work for HM Forces. One of these women was Mrs Wyle Young. She kept diaries of her time in WVS and her wartime entries focus on this service. Here are two extracts from those diaries.
I hope that this gives you an idea of the sort of situations volunteers found themselves in and how through compassion they managed to help ease peoples suffering.
Throughout the war WVS volunteers continued to support the people of Glasgow as well as visitors and new communities moving in to the city. At the end of the war however it was thought that volunteers would not be needed to continue in many of the roles WVS had created or taken on. Thinking about your own experiences in relation to volunteering can you conceive of a world without them?
Before the welfare state was established the Poor Laws provided support for the poorest in society including work houses. Throughout the early twentieth century the support offered by these laws was declining as they were slowly replaced by new support mechanisms which helped to create the welfare state such as national insurance and later the NHS. Between 1945 and 1948 very little support existed to help those in need and here WVS saw an opportunity to take the skills and services it used during the war and turn them to peace time activities; this included clothing, meals, transport to hospital and many more. They also identified that loneliness needed to be tackled and continued to develop clubs to provide people with the opportunity to make new friends. While volunteers were developing their roles in social welfare their role in Civil Defence appeared to have come to an end.
However as the cold war began to heat up in the late 1940s the Civil Defence Corps was re-established and asked WVS to form the Welfare Section of this service. In the event of a nuclear attack volunteers would be a first aid point and source of comfort. Volunteers also joined the Food Flying Squad Convoys; fleets of blue vans ready to fly into action during a disaster. There were 20 convoys across the country and each convoy could serve 3,000 people. Fun fact each convoy had a motorbike apart from Scotland I have never been able to find out why; a set of dinky toys have been displayed as part of Compassion in Crisis to represent the convoy. The Scottish convoy was kept at Kirkintilloch and used on a number of training exercises.
In 1953 the biggest Civil Defence exercise in the UK was held at Kelvin Hall opened by the Lord Provost of Glasgow, it was named Thistle. On the last day the WVS fed 4,500 Civil Defence personnel in ¾ of an hour. The WVS was very keen to boost morale in a time when people lived in fear of the world ending.
In 1955 the WVS established the One in Five department, the aim was to tell one in five women, a fiftieth of the population what to do in the event of a nuclear attack. Over the years I have spoken to a number of volunteers who gave these talks and many have told me that looking back the information was useless “but it did make you feel a little bit better”. Information included hiding in a field with a coat over your head, filling the bath and covering it with a door to keep it fresh and building a refuge room. One volunteer decided to be very practical about this and cleared out her pantry, built herself a refuge room and then gave tours to local women so they could do the same. For Britain the Cold War began to thaw in the late 1960s and in 1968 the Civil Defence Corps were disbanded.
However WRVS as it was known by then decided to keep providing assistance in times of great distress. We’re very lucky they did the late twentieth century saw a number of disasters which were utterly devastating including Piper Alpha and Lockerbie. WRVS was at them all wearing an orange tabard, a cup of tea in hand as well as a willing ear to hear any problem and to help solve them however they could. On 21st December 1988 Pan Am Flight 103 was destroyed by a bomb killing 270 people it is the deadliest terror attack in the history of the United Kingdom. This is an extract from a Report on the work of the WRVS Emergency Services Department after the bombing.
While all this work to help people at home affected by the Cold War and the actions of others the WVS of Glasgow was also very involved in supporting people in distress all over the world.
Imagine that you have lost your home through natural disaster, war or your just no longer welcome your own country because a new political regime has swept in and they simply don’t like your beliefs or lifestyle. This was the situation facing 1000s, in Twentieth century, who simply had to flee their homes. Imagine how they must have felt arriving in Britain who would they turn to, can anyone guess who I’m going to name?
Yes absolutely the Royal Voluntary Service or WVS/WRVS as they were known in the past.
The WVS in Glasgow had a vast wealth of experience caring for refugees, during the war they helped Polish, Belgian and Dutch refugees settle in the UK and afterwards they supported EVWs who had volunteered to come and work in jobs which couldn’t be filled due to the loss of life in the Second World War. We’ve already spoken about the cold war and the boiling point it reached in the 1950s and 60s. In 1956 there was an uprising in Hungary which was crushed by the Soviet Union, many had to leave and 21,500 arrived in the UK. The WVS provided clothing, translators and advice to Hungarians who need help and support. I mention clothing as this was the main focus of the refugee part of our exhibition. You’ll have seen or hopefully you will see the clothing store model from East Kilbride. WVS set up 1,000s of clothing stores across the country to supplier good clean second hand clothing to those who couldn’t afford new or to those who had lost everything.
They were also experts in mass clothing drives, 1959 was World Refugee Year and WVS was tasked with collecting clothing to send to the Middle East to displaced Palestinians. In one year WVS Scotland collected 2,693 bales of garments weighing 105 tons. Support from Glasgow to Refugees around the world didn’t just end with World Refugee Year in 1960; members made layettes through the 1960s to send abroad and from 1961-1974 adopted Refugee families in Germany and Poland sending them letters and small gifts. This work formed the main focus of this section of the exhibition displaying the model East Kilbride Clothing Store, a souvenir booklet about the drive and a poster encouraging donations.
Volunteers in Glasgow were particularly keen to adopt families from Poland and their kindness and hospitality didn’t just involve sending gifts and letters. In 1962 one two of Glasgow’s adopted families arrived in the city. WVS had found them two council houses side by side in Milngavie, on arrival they found the table laid and a home cooked meal waiting for them as well as their friends from the WVS.
If you volunteer I want to think about why you decided to volunteer. In my case as with many it was an enthusiastic caring person who inspired me to take on a voluntary role. For girls at Park School the Glaswegians of the WVS inspired them to adopt a refugee and helped her to complete her education. They corresponded for 4 years between 1968 and 1972 but unfortunately as with the two families we don’t know what happened afterwards. Hopefully the support from volunteers gave them everything they needed for their future lives.
WRVS volunteers continued to support refugees through the 1970s including Ugandan Asians expelled by Idi Amin in 1972. Although no refugee camps were established in Scotland volunteers travelled all the way to the South West of England to help. Other refugee crises supported by volunteers also included Chilean Refugees in 1974, Vietnamese Refugees in the 1980s and in the 1990s Kosovan Refugees.
The twenty first century still sees many of these same problems, people losing their homes through war and politics. However attitudes have changed, or those displayed by the media makes it seem like they have changed. For those willing to help it is becoming increasingly difficult and with a change in focus for WRVS in the late 90s early 2000s major crisis is no longer an area we are seen.
So far I have been telling you the stories of volunteering in cases of emergency, extreme circumstances and times of war or political turmoil. While these problems still exist in the twenty first century the meaning of crisis has broadened to include circumstances in people’s everyday lives. Due to changes in funding and a move from crown service to charity through the 90s and 00s WRVS began to develop the areas in which it focused – mainly health and wellbeing in hospitals and communities.
Volunteering to enhance social welfare, health, wellbeing and fight loneliness have already been alluded to. Today in Glasgow you’ll find 300 volunteers involved in hospital shops, cafes and trolleys. For over 80 years our volunteers have been helping in hospitals in many ways from making supplies to promoting blood donations to providing tea and comfort. Lady Reading worked closely with the Ministry of Health to support the creation and establishment of NHS in 1948, a support role which is still very important today. This leaflet from 1951 has a very interesting introductory paragraph.
I think this applies as much today as it did then and over 70 years later we are still supporting the NHS. Last year volunteers were on wards not just supporting patients but staff to easing the stresses brought on by the time of year. Our volunteers love their work; in our exhibition is a long service medal and clasp which together represent 27 years of voluntary service and over 1080 shifts in the Glasgow ambulatory hospital. This particular medal and clasp represent the dedication of Wilma McDonald who has actually volunteered for 31 years. Wilma doesn’t just provide teas and coffees to people; it’s here time, her smile and listening ear which they really appreciated. It’s all about that human contact; but what about those in crisis in the community, how do we help them.
There are around another 1,100 volunteers in Glasgow working in the community tackling loneliness, keeping people active and involved. Every day in the news we see stories about people not seeing anyone for days and living alone. This doesn’t just apply to older people the epidemic of loneliness has spread across the whole of society. Loneliness and our awareness of it is nothing new, I think we just treat it more like a crisis than we used to. As early as 1946 WVS volunteers were running clubs to support older people in their communities and help them make friends. In 1970 WRVS’s guidance for club organisers stated:
“The purpose of the clubs is to provide companionship in comfortable, cheerful and warm surroundings, to help members to continue to play a role in the life of the community, to keep up or awaken their interests and to give them the opportunity to put to account their aptitudes and skills.”
These ideas have evolved today and clubs are taking the concept of awakening interests and using skills with clubs that focus on specific hobbies such as fishing, art and wood work. As part of the exhibition you’ll see a tenement house covered in different pieces of art work covering it. You might think what does this represent? Well I have shared with you some traditional types of archives so now I’m going to share an extract from a much more modern one, it’s an email form Jennifer Hanlon who runs Art Club 1 who created this piece called OOT Tha Box.
This club was set up as part of Drink Wise Age Well a special initiative run by Royal Voluntary Service to support health and wellbeing in relation to drinking enough water and not too much alcohol. Originally this club was setup to help older people but now has a range of members enjoying art, long may it continue.
While these clubs aren’t preparing us for nuclear war or helping in major disasters they are still tackling more personal everyday crisis; loneliness; wellbeing and many other challenges of today. All this is done through compassion and willing volunteers wanting to help others.
I hope that you have been inspired by the stories of some of the thousands of Glaswegians who have volunteered since 1938. Through this whistle stop tour of our history I hope I have expressed just how much:
And Dedication there is and has been in Glasgow, Scotland and Britain over the last 80 or so years
Studying the history of the Royal Voluntary Service has lots to tell us about the past. What did volunteering look like in the 20th century? What was the impact of the Second World War on the development of a welfare state? How have the lives of women, or the elderly, changed since 1938?
At the same time, the records held by the Royal Voluntary Service Heritage Collection can teach us a lot about solving current problems, too. According to recent reports, more than two tonnes of clothing are bought every minute in the UK – and a hefty portion of those are thrown away after only a handful of washes. Current pushes on sustainability are asking us to rethink our attitudes to clothes consumption, and take action by buying less and making more of the clothes we already have. ‘Mend and make do to save buying new’, the approach adopted by millions of women to clothing during the Second World War, is one which might be usefully applied almost eighty years later. WVS volunteers were at the heart of putting this mantra into action, from assisting with rationing and running clothing exchanges, to giving lectures on sewing and organising thrift competitions. Using examples from WVS Narrative Reports, this blog post asks: what can we learn about making clothes more sustainable today from the work done by the WVS during the war?
here are some important differences, of course, between the challenges posed by clothing in wartime and modern Britain. Today we enjoy a surplus of cheaply made clothes which are quick and easy to buy. Pressures from magazines and social media encourage us to indulge in ‘fast fashion’, buy more and more clothes, but wear them only a handful of times to avoid ‘outfit repeating’. By contrast, people living in wartime Britain faced a shortage of clothing caused by restrictions on shipping and the need to maintain supplies for the military. After the declaration of war in September 1939, essential items such as shoes and stockings became much harder to find and much more expensive to buy. British men and women had little choice but to make do with less, whereas living more sustainably today requires a great deal of voluntary effort on our parts. While those living in the 1940s were motivated by the war effort, in 2019 our efforts to reduce clothes consumption are driven by environmental concerns. Yet the goals of austerity fashion and sustainable fashion remain strikingly similar – to buy less clothes, and make more of those we already have.
To limit how many clothes people could buy, and make sure that limited stocks were distributed as fairly as possible, the British government introduced a clothes rationing scheme in June 1941. This worked by assigning each type of clothing a ‘points’ value (for example, eleven coupons were needed for a dress) and allocating people a certain number of ‘points’ to spend each year. The Women’s Voluntary Services helped with the scheme by distributing clothes coupon books and answering questions from the public at centres and advice bureaus – of which there were plenty. Volunteers in York reported that they had been ‘exceptionally busy’ in June 1941 due to clothing enquiries. Meetings were held around the country for WVS members to hear from representatives from the Board of Trade, who would brief them on the new rules and what advice to pass on to the wider public.
‘The big excitement of the month was, of course, the rationing of clothes etc. The meeting asked for by the Board of Trade was duly held and was well-attended on June 3rd’
Narrative Report, Hull, June 1941
WVS also set up ‘Clothing Exchanges’ to help people deal with the shortages and avoid buying new. At exchanges people could swap their old (but still wearable) items for those donated by someone else, which was particularly useful for mothers struggling to keep up with buying clothes for their growing children. By 1944 there were around 400 exchanges in operation and more than six and a half million garments had been distributed.
At clothing depots WVS helped evacuees, refugees and people made homeless by bombing, who sometimes owned little more than the clothes they were wearing when they arrived at the centre. This could be a huge task – Narrative Reports reveal that in March 1941, Brighton volunteers helped to fit clothes and shoes for more than 1000 children:
Narrative Report, Brighton, March 1941.
WVS volunteers were also involved in a range of events and initiatives as part of the ‘Make Do and Mend’ publicity campaign. ‘Make Do and Mend’ was designed to encourage women to repair clothes that might be damaged or remake them into new garments. Narrative Reports held by the Royal Voluntary Service Archive & Heritage Collection reveal the many different ways this campaign came to life at the local level. For example in February 1943, volunteers in Worcester held a ‘Thrift Exhibition’ in February 1943 where members ran ‘Make Do and Mend’ stalls, showed informational films created by the Ministry of Information and organised competitions and prizes for the public to get involved in. The event was described as a ‘great success’.
Later in the year, the Worcester centre ran a series of ‘Make Do and Mend’ lectures where women could learn to properly clean and care for clothes to make them last longer, brush up on their sewing skills and learn to darn holes, or be shown how to turn old hats into shoes and felt slippers. In the autumn of 1943 WVS centres across the country were involved in ‘Make Do and Mend’ competitions, where submissions of clothing were judged on their utility, ingenuity and originality. In Worcester an exhibition was organised for the start of December where the public could view the various garments sent in, creating a sense of community fun for the event, and the winner was announced by the Mayor to a ‘packed audience’ – a frock made from an old coat. WVS support for the ‘Make Do and Mend’ campaign therefore involved a mix of providing useful information and training for the public, alongside encouragement to get involved and a healthy dose of competition.
Although WVS volunteers were involved in a wide range of schemes to help wartime communities buy less and make more of what they had, not all of them could apply today. It’s unlikely that rationing clothes on a coupon scheme would work in the ‘fast fashion’ context of 2019. But others might help us turn our clothes from ‘throwaway’ to ‘forever’ items. Clothes swap initiatives, like the clothing exchanges operated by the WVS, can be a fun, inexpensive, and more sustainable way to create new outfits and put unloved items to good use, while learning skills in basic clothing repairs, like those taught by the WVS in ‘Make Do and Mend’ classes, might help us to wear our favourite items for much longer. The records held by the Royal Voluntary Service Heritage Collection give us an insight into the many ways women used creative thrift to face clothing challenges in wartime, which might spark our own ideas about ways to live more sustainably. Perhaps though, most of all, it is the impressive voluntary spirit that the WVS deployed in their work with clothes that we should draw inspiration from today.
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.
‘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.
This week’s blog is an
updated version of an article from Volume 6 of the Heritage Bulletin and The
Good Neighbours Fact Sheet on the Voices of Volunteering School Resources pages.
During the Second World War WVS started to develop its work
to help people be active in their communities such as setting up Darby and Joan
Clubs. WVS also realised that they needed to provide services for those who
were housebound or needed help in their homes. Over the years there have been
different schemes before the current service Community Companions. The first
scheme to develop was one which doesn’t really resemble the visiting service
which provides practical help. Home Helps was setup to provide help which would
eventually be given by the NHS after it was established in 1948.
Originally intended to be the Home
Workers Scheme, Home Helps assisted those in need of domestic service for
thirty years. During that time it was an essential part of social welfare in
In 1944 the WVS Centre Organiser
for the City of Oxford, Theresa MacDonald, asked the Local Authorities
permission to pioneer a new scheme, Home Helps. Its purpose was to work
alongside and form an attachment with the Local Health Services. At first it
dealt with maternity as its top priority and then concerned itself with old
people as well as chronic cases. Eventually the Helps took on any cases which
were a health emergency.
As a public health service, Home
Helps took on jobs such as washing, cooking and child care. They were employed
by the Local Authority but administration was in the hands of a voluntary
organiser. The WVS trained the Helps and promoted the scheme, at first very
little formal training was given but later Helps could work towards the
National Institute of Houseworkers’ Diploma.
WVS Bulletin January 1947 p5
In 1946 WVS opened a Home Helps
Department at headquarters in London and used its network to publicise the
scheme. The department also ran residential training for Home Help Organisers.
Different local schemes added their own flare to training meetings including
celebrations such as Christmas, birthday and anniversary parties.
Buckinghamshire went further and held a county rally for its Home Helps.
When the National Health Service
Act (1948) came into force the Ministry of Health stated that Home Helps was
vital to the new service. Many Health Services however wanted to take full
control of the scheme. In some areas the WVS remained very involved with Home
Helps, though over the years many handed over to Local Authorities and paid
organisers. By 1964 only a few WVS run schemes remained in counties such as
Cornwall, Worcestershire and East and West Sussex. Home Helps was finally
wrapped up in 1974 with the closure of the final scheme in East Sussex. However
this wasn’t the end of WVS visiting people in their homes and providing support
From the late 1960s onwards WRVS
tried to get a scheme off the ground to help people who were having difficulty
with running their home. Good Neighbours was originally called Good Companions
and had a number of forerunners and names including: the Home Aid Scheme (in 1967
it was merged with the Home Helps Scheme) and Voluntary Daughters. Pilot
schemes were launched in East Sussex in 1971 and by the end of 1972 the 12
regions had at least one scheme each.
The aim of the scheme was to
alleviate loneliness and encourage people to help others in their local
community. Volunteers did not need to sign up as WRVS members but were assigned
people to help by the organisation who were usually referred to them by Social
Services or Doctors. Good Companions
were drawn from a range of people including men, women with young children,
young people (mostly from the WRVS London Evening centre) and even Darby and Joan
club members. Those who need them as a Good Neighbour were usually older
people, disabled, housebound or anyone in need of help.
Good Neighbours allowed people to
stay independent and continue to live in their own homes. Volunteers would
often escort people on outings, go shopping, collect pensions, send post, mend
clothes, change lightbulbs, cook, and do other odd jobs around the home as well
as taking time to talk to the person they were visiting.
From 1977 to 1985 the service
also ran campaigns with the Department of Health and Social Security to raise
awareness of the needs of older people and the disabled. These campaigns also
included work with the police to raise awareness of ‘bogus officials’ calling
on older people.
Royal Voluntary Service continued
to provide Good Neighbour schemes for older people through the 1990s and into
21st Century which included practical help, home visits and telephone calls. In
March 2019 with the ASDA Foundation they launched funding for Community
Companions to continue the work started by Good Companions in the 1960s and
1970s. You can find out more about today’s Community Companions service on thiswebsite.
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.
Originally known as Luncheon Clubs, Lunch Clubs were a place where ‘older people, not housebound or in need of Meals on Wheels, may get a good nourishing meal on several days each week, find friendship and help whenever they ask for it, and where they can enjoy a hot meal in the company of others, always a stimulus to those living alone.’
During the Second World War
WVS provided meals for older people in British Restaurants. In the immediate
post-war period meals were provided through Meals on Wheels services to some Darby
and Joan Clubs.
The first mention, in the
Archives, of a dedicated Luncheon Club is the Malvern Luncheon Club in 1949 it
had 220 members and met once a month. Other Luncheon Clubs appeared through the
1950s in different areas including St Marylebone, Bakewell Rural and Mablethorpe.
However it was not until
1962 when the scheme really took off and WVS realised the need to increase the
number of clubs providing midday meals. Clubs provided tea,
coffee, a two or three course meal and in some clubs activities such as Bingo,
a quiz or a raffle.
Every Luncheon Club had a
club leader, cook(s), pot-washers, and servers, all of whom were volunteers
though in some cases the local authority paid for permanent cooks. In some clubs
members who came for a meal would help volunteers with the washing-up. However
in some areas the meals were cooked in kitchens outside the clubs, such as Guys
Marsh Open Borstal for the Parish Centre luncheon club in 1974.
WRVS continued to provide Luncheon Clubs all over Britain for older people to enjoy a hot mid-day meal into the 1980s, 1990s and 2000s. Today Royal Voluntary Service volunteers still run Lunch Clubs and there is now a Cooking for a Crowd cookbook, a collection of favorite Royal Voluntary Service Lunch Club recipes.
 RVS A&HC, Luncheon Clubs, 812, 1967
 RVS A&HC, Report on 25 Years Work 1938-1963, 1963,
Report of Ten Years Work for the Nation 1938-1948
 RVS A&HC, Bulletin, WRVS/HQ/PUB/BUL/BUL-1949-04,
April 1949, pp10-11, Bulletin, WRVS/HQ/PUB/BUL/BUL-1953-01, p15, Bulletin, WRVS/HQ/PUB/BUL/BUL-1954-06,
June 1954 p14, Narrative Report, WRVS/HQ/NR/R3/1958-LINC/MTP, Mablethorpe,
Lincolnshire, May 1958
 RVS A&HC, 807, Work for Old People, 1962
 RVS A&HC,
WRVSA&HC/WRVS/HQ/PUB/BUL/BUL-1974-09, Sept 1974 p11