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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.
In this week's Blog we share with you our Archivist Matthew McMurray's speech given at the OXO Tower Launch on 31st October. Although we can't recreate the electric atmosphere of that event I would encourage you to listen to get the true message of what photographic archives are all about.
Recently I have been doing
a lot of interviews.
Usually I am asked
What did the WVS do during
or even; What is your favourite
picture in the exhibition?
The first is an easy list
of over 40 different services from garnishing camouflage nets to knitting
comforts for troops and of course the provision of food and hot drinks from
mobile canteens. The list goes on but I
have been told I only have 10 minutes!
The latter is harder, and
I am not sure I could really pick any.
There are so many beautiful and iconic images here, but perhaps these
aren’t truly representative of our organisation and the work of our members and
volunteers over the past 80 years.
Displayed here are Just 35
of about 30,000 images we have in our archive.
Despite our surroundings here at the OXO tower the work of our
volunteers has never been glamorous, in fact our founder Stella Reading said to
an audience in 1960
“In these days we are not
living in the atmosphere of drama, we are no longer being called out at night
for Evacuation or the Blitz. We are
working on day to day work which has perhaps no glamour at all, and yet which
is much more worthwhile, because in-fact it can only be appraised in terms of
For every one of these
beautiful atmospheric images there are hundreds more,
less beautiful and less
More than a few are
slightly blurry candid shots of volunteers going about their everyday work
making a difference to ordinary peoples’ lives through their selfless gift of
their time and there energy. But a
photograph on its own can only tell you so much, and with history context is
Behind these 35 archive
images and the thousands more we have are millions of pieces of paper which give
that context, they are the stories behind these pictures which I, my colleagues
and my volunteers protect on behalf of all past, present and future volunteers
and for the nation as a whole. Our
archive is recognised by UNESCO as one of the most important sources for
Women’s history in the 20th century in Britain, and it is only
through truly understanding where we have been that we can truly know where we
Some of you will be thinking,
‘he hasn’t answered the question yet’ but I promise that I am getting to my
Anyone who has read a good
novel will understand exactly what I mean.
For me photographs, like
anything else, infrequently tell the whole truth.
For me, the pictures I
paint in my mind from the first-hand accounts of our volunteers held in our
archive are the most real, the most honest and the most vivid.
Whether that is the
description of a damp, filthy basement flat occupied by an old man in late
1940s London, or the hard, unchanging and endless struggle faced by centre
organisers over the years to recruit volunteers to help them make a
These are my favourite
Going back to the
questions though: I always like a
slightly more challenging one, it keeps me on my toes, and the other day a lady
asked me a good question.
“Why is Royal Voluntary
Service celebrating its 80th Anniversary?” the tone of her voice
said a million things the question itself did not.
That was a very good
question in the way she meant it and in the probably less than three seconds
before I opened my mouth with my mind doing a million miles an hour, which
seemed like a panicked eternity, a very simple answer came.
Why would you not
celebrate the contribution of over 2 million women and men to British society
over 80 years? A recent estimate I did,
suggests that between them they have given 14 million years of service. Placed end to end that quickly covers off the
whole of human history, passing beyond the origins of Rome, ancient Egypt and way
back into geological time when the first apes started to emerge in Africa.
To be honest I find that a
little difficult to properly comprehend; that so many people have given so much
of themselves to help others.
Looking across the river
to the City of London reminds me that ultimately the strength of a nation is
not measured by its banking operations nor by its financial transactions, it is
measured by something much more important, the character of the men and women who
are that nation.
The contribution of the
men and women of the WVS/WRVS and now Royal Voluntary Service is woven into the
very fabric of this nation. Lady Reading
called Voluntary Service a coloured thread which runs through that fabric, and without
it the fabric is neither as strong nor as beautiful.
These pictures then and
the eight new ones by Nicky which will join those 30,000 others I already look
after, are like the light shining through the crack under a door, they tempt
our innate curiosity to open that door, to look inside and to discover
Once upon a time the role of an archivist was very clear, to preserve records for future generations to access. However more recently as I stated in the blog who are we?
“There appear[s] to be a move away from the traditional archivist protector of records and preserver of history with a set of core skills which stood them apart from the museum curator. In their place stands the postmodern archivist who is all things to all men, a heritage professional, throwing open the doors of the archive, engaging with the community and letting go of their control.”
With access becoming more important archivists have to find different ways to show off their collections. In the past this may have been allowing museum professionals to take part of the collection and display them. However it appears that in some cases the archivist must take on the role of the curator and interpret information form their collections making them user friendly and telling a story to the public. I am sure Jenkinson is turning in his grave but as I have said before it is now time for us to move away from the traditional theory and look to a new way of thinking.
One way of providing access to different audiences is to create an exhibition on a particular theme. Currently Royal Voluntary Service’s Compassion in Crisis exhibition is running at Wiltshire Museum until 24th June. The exhibition has taken the theme of WVS/WRVS/Royal Voluntary Services role in times of crisis using objects, photographs, documents, uniform, posters, cartoons and text. The story starts in 1938 and finishes in the modern day. Even though the exhibition tells you a story there are still hallmarks of the traditional archivist as this exhibit doesn’t always interpret the archival information allowing you to come up with your own view on the title Compassion in Crisis. If you would like to know more about the theme you can listen to Coloured Thread on SoundCloud.
Thus while Royal Voluntary Services Archive & Heritage team have strayed into the world of Museums and the world of the post-modern archivist there is still an element of the traditional archivist in their which demonstrates the two roles of archivists and museum professional are still separate and have different elements to them which make them unique. However don’t take my word for it why not interprets this for yourself by visiting Compassion in Crisis.
The Exhibition at Wiltshire Museum will run till 24th June, we hope you will take the opportunity to get a rare glimpse at some of the objects, uniform and records preserved by the Royal Voluntary Service Archive & Heritage Collection. If you have children we also have an exciting trail to follow round the exhibit and the chance to build a model emergency cooker.
If you would like to know more about the history of Royal Voluntary Service or WVS in Devizes during World War II there are lectures from Matthew McMurray and David Dawson on 6th and 20th June.
It may surprise you to learn that for three days last week the Archivist, Deputy Archivist and Archives Business Manager were setting up a new exhibition at Wiltshire Museum in Devizes. The Archive team have been planning this since the middle of last year writing content, selecting objects and preparing resources. Finally it is already in place ready to be seen by the public, this is a taste of what to expect from Compassion in Crisis.
In 1938 Lady Reading started to mobilise an army of women who would be essential in winning the Second World War. By 1941 this was over 1,000,000 who were often referred to as ‘the women in green’ because of their uniform and they were known for offering tea and comfort to all who needed it in a time of crisis. At the end of the war dangers to civilians didn’t just fade away and a new threat of nuclear war was ever on people’s minds.
The exhibition looks at the emerging role of WVS inemergencies during the war and how this developed in the post-war world. Part of the exhibition explores the One-in-Five scheme which aimed to educate one in every five women on what to do in the event of a nuclear attack. Women also joined the Food Flying Squads part of the Civil Defence Welfare Section. These women didn’t just have training exercises they also provided relief to those affected by floods in 1953. There were also other skills and services providedby WVS during the war which did not become obsolete in the post war era.
Dutch and Belgium refugees as well as evacuees had been helped by WVS; with the war, revolution and natural disaster in other nations fresh waves of refugees arrived in Britain in 1950s to 1980s. WVS or WRVS by the time Vietnamese, Ugandan Asian and Kosovan refugees arrived were always ready to comfort those in need and give them a safe place to stay. Compassion in Crisis looks at how WVS/WRVS showed compassion to refugees and gave them comfort intheir time of crisis. It also reflects on how voluntary service and what itmeans to be a volunteer has changed as we have moved into the twenty first century.
The Exhibition at Wiltshire Museum will run from the 7th May to 24th June, we hope you will take the opportunity to get a rare glimpse at some of the objects, uniform and records preserved by the Royal Voluntary Service Archive & Heritage Collection. If you have children we also have an exciting trail to follow round the exhibit and the chance to build a model emergency cooker.
If you would like to know more about the history of Royal Voluntary Service or WVS in Devizes during World War II there are lectures from Matthew McMurray and David Dawson on 6th and 20th June.
This month we have been taking part in #Archive30 along with many other Archives on Twitter. Each day has had a different theme and I thought those of you not on Twitter or who haven’t seen what we’ve been sharing might be interested in learning something new and finding out about the different things we hold. This is just a selection and some may surprise you.
Day 2 – Favourite Item
My favourite item from the archive has to be knitted doll Stella who kept me company while collecting #oralhistory and is now part of the collection #archive30
Day 5 – Something Small
#Archive30 day 5 something small which is difficult to choose because we have quite a lot of small items including all the items in this #ARP First Aid Box which forms a Model Rest Centre #WW2 #postwar #emergency includes a green model toilet.
Day 9 – Animal
#Archive30 day 9 #animal - during #WW2 WVS members collected dog hair to make wool for jumpers. This week's Heritage Bulletin #blog looks at some of the other clothing related work done by WVS and WRVS members in the 20th century http://www.royalvoluntaryservice.org.uk/hbblog
Day 13 – Journey to work
Day 13 - #archive30 day 13 Journey to work, some WVS members would travel to work in vans here is a model version from our collection. Green painted wooden WVS Model Van BUG 44T, metal wheels painted front and side windows, W.V.S. painted in red on side, back doors function. 1940-1960.
Day 18 – Friendship
Day 18 #Archive30 #friendship during our Voices of Volunteering #oralhistory project many #volunteers spoke of the camaraderie between themselves and other volunteers: https://www.royalvoluntaryservice.org.uk/about-us/our-history/archive-online/voices-of-volunteering …. #photo: Emergency Feeding Exercise, Velmore Camp (food Flying Squad) 1955
Day 20 – Something Fun
#Archive30 There are so many #fun things to choose from! Members of the WRVS Books on Wheels service enjoyed delivering books to those who had requested them. #volunteering #reading
A large green mocked up book with pages, titled 'WRVS BOOKS ON WHEELS' on the front cover and spine, mounted spine up on four wheels, the hubs of which contain the WRVS monogram in black on gold. Used for advertising the Books on Wheels service.
#Archive30 continues until the end of April why not see what else we are posting about by visiting @RVSarchives. Today’s theme is self-portrait.
"The archivist is dead long live the archivist"
Last week I attended my first
Archives and Records Association (ARA) Conference in Manchester, where the main
theme appeared to be how we identify ourselves as Archivists and how the heritage
sector is changing. Ideas ranged from the definition of appraisal, search room experience,
community engagement and skills. However the main topic of discussion was the
role of the Archivist.
There appeared to be a move away
from the traditional archivist protector of records and preserver of history
with a set of core skills which stood them apart from the museum curator. In their
place stands the postmodern archivist who is all things to all men, a heritage professional,
throwing open the doors of the archive, engaging with the community and letting
go of their control. By this they mean allowing others use the archive how they
want and not be told how it should be used or how they can access it.
Looking into the theory is all
well and good but what about the practicalities of being an archivist, how are
these ideas applied.
Let’s put this into the context
of the Royal Voluntary Service Archive & Heritage Collection and a more practical
definition of an archivist. In my career I have worn a few different guises as
a cataloguing coordinator, project archivist and deputy archivist and have
moved from traditional to sort of post-modern to somewhere in-between. Most of
what was said at conference applied to local record offices who are becoming
destinations for tourists like museums and facing different situations to a
Here the role of an archivist is
to preserve the history of the WVS, WRVS and Royal Voluntary Service and to
make sure it is accessible now and in the future through cataloguing,
digitisation, and a remote enquiry service and through working with colleagues
managing our services. The Archivists are also there to support the work of the
charity. It is not yet time for us to let go but we can still be innovative e.g.
Voices of Volunteering and Hidden history of a million wartime women. These
were projects which came from and where directed by the archives but upheld the
values of the postmodern archivist and did them well; including community
engagement (local, national, global) and providing access to records and
information about the charity. We also hold what might be deemed a museum
collection of objects and uniform but we care for them as archivists. We don’t
yet have exhibition space to display these items but make them accessible
through remote outreach such as our timeline. In this archive we are a mix of
the two perhaps we should be called revisionist archivists not quite in the
time of Jenkinson but pragmatic enough to change and develop when necessary. Essentially
we don’t prioritise preservation or access but try to balance them out.
As with many things there is no definite
definition of an archivist because it depends on many factors including where you
work and the collections you work with. The Archivist is whoever we or our
collections need us to be.
First I think I should apologise for not posting anything in January. It has though been rather a busy month for us, with the inevitable last minute preparations for the launch of the Archive online and the opening of the enquiry service on the 14 January. We have had a minor flood of enquiries come in on subjects ranging from the classic “My grandmother was in the WVS, what can you tell me about her?” to a rather more difficult request from a postgraduate student on very specific aspects of WVS post war Civil Defence work. This has given the volunteers and myself a whole new purpose and we are really enjoying the varied nature of the research and the opportunity to learn more about the many aspects of WRVS’ history.
So over the next couple of months we will be concentrating on continuing to answer enquiries (do please keep them coming) and helping people prepare for the 75th anniversary celebrations which kick off in May.
I thought I would finish off with a little bit about one of five WVS members who received the George medal for Bravery during WWII, something I came across while doing an enquiry the other day. Some of you may already know Grace Rattenbury’s story, but others may not.
Grace was a member of Bermondsey WVS and with little regard for her own safety assisted in the evacuation of women and children from the Surrey commercial docks in Rotherhithe at the beginning of the London Blitz in September 1940. The docks were alight and the fire threatened to cut people off from the mainland. There was only one singles span bridge left, and the road was extremely dangerous because of the growing fire, bomb damage and delayed action bombs. In spite of all this Grace using a WVS van maintained a shuttle service between the docks and the first line Rest and feeding centres, until every woman and child had been evacuated. She not only managed to rescue fleeing families, but also firemen who had been injured fighting the flames. The van on her return was full of steel helmets, blood-soaked bandages and a fireman’s axe, and other marks of a very heavy nights work.
The question was how we could achieve this without having to spend money; thankfully technology has come to our rescue and allowed us to reach the largest possible audience by starting an online blog or diary.
As the Heritage Bulletin is only a bi-annual publication and at current the only way we can show you
the work we do here at the Archive, the blog, which is launching this month, will be a different way for us to keep you up to date with what is happening here in Devizes.
The monthly entries will be based around a day’s work in the Archive and will include accounts from both the volunteers and the Archivist.
It will allow you the chance to see new arrivals into the collection and any new projects we may be involved in. You will also get an insight into the varied items we hold in our collection and the amusing tales of volunteers which have been recorded in the Narrative Reports.
Unfortunately you can't subscribe to our blog just yet, but all our posts will remain on the site permanently so you can catch up with our Archive news at any time. There is also a comments section which will allow you the chance to share your stories or any comments you may have.
We look forward to sharing our experiences of the Archive with you and hope you enjoy reading our entries!
I thought that it would be nice to give you a flavour of what we are doing here in Devizes to help prepare for the 75th anniversary in 2013 which is only now five months away.
Apart from our fevered preparations for the re-opening of our enquiry service, which is still on track for January 2013, and all of the ‘behind the scenes’ work that is going to make searching our collections possible, we are working bringing the archive (virtually) to you.
Over the next four weeks the volunteers and I are going to be looking for 75 items from the collection which tell the story of WRVS, whether that be, our first poster (pictured), a letter from Charles de Gaulle, or the packaging from a sandwich from one of our hospital shops.
These might not necessarily be the most exciting or eye catching items, but it is the fascinating and engaging stories behind the items, about WVS/WRVS at a national, local and even personal level, which is important.
Our first poster caused quite a bit of controversy, when it was discovered that the model was in fact German and all of the posters had to be recalled. This means that there are now only two that we know of in the world, one here in Devizes and the other in the Imperial War Museum in London.
Perhaps if you have an item which tells a story, you might like to share it with us. Either post a comment or perhaps send us an email
I’m looking forward to your suggestions...