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WVS during the Second World War: Care of the Homeless

It’s been a while since we last looked at the early roles of WVS, so this week I thought we would explore the services provided for the homeless. Due to enemy attack and bombing raids during the Second World War many people were made homeless. The WVS had many solutions to help ease the situation and supplied food, clothing and accommodation to those in need from 1939-1945. There was also assistance provided in the immediate post-war period a WVS began to reshape itself and society. Volunteers were vital in keeping up people’s moral particularly when they were victims of air raids; most of this work took place in rest centres.

In September 1939 WVS was called upon to take a new role care of the homeless, alongside evacuation of children, mothers and under-fives and other vulnerable people. Homes and building were earmarked as rest centres. This was the first place to go for help if you had lost your home before being billeted or rehoused. The phony war did not bring as much evacuation and rest centre work as expected or feared however once heavy bombing started in 1940 WVS swung into action.

Rest centres were mainly established in cities and in some coastal towns with 180,000 volunteers ready to help when needed. In many cases WVS ran the rest centres and maintained them when they were not in use. Services run from the centres included: food, gift from overseas, rations, clothing, bedding and information desks/Citizens Advice Bureaux. This was also an area where WVS showed its innovative and forward thinking side with the development of new schemes to ease the pressure on rest centres in times of crisis this encompassed the following:

“EMERGENCY HOSPITALITY.

The unpleasant possibility of being suddenly made homeless in the night threatens all of us with varying degrees of imminence. The Emergency Shelters, which in many places are staffed and organised by W.V.S. volunteers, have done much to relieve the sufferings of bombed- out victims of air raids, but any scheme which lessens the pressure upon these shelters would obviously be welcomed both by their staffs and those who are forced to seek refuge in them. In one city the workers in the Emergency Shelters have canvassed the householders, suggesting that each household should pair off with friends living not less than half a mile away, so that, if one house is struck, the other affords shelter to both families. The exchange of a small reserve of clothing also spreads the risk of losing the entire family wardrobe. The W.V.S. Housewives' Service has helped to organise this short-term emergency hospitality in several places, and they have been so successful that, in some cases, it has not been necessary to open the Emergency Shelters even after serious incidents.”
– WVS Bulletin April 1941 p.4

A war is won on the success, support and effort provided by the Home Front without vital assistance those who suffered may have lost hope and this would have had negative impact on the battle fields. WVS was fundamental to keeping up moral and continued to provide help to those who lost their homes throughout the war especially during emergencies and bombings in London. The service also included helping to reunite people, families and friends, who had been separated during a raid. Towards the end of the war WVS also saw the need to help those who had lost everything and help them return to some kind of normality. 

Towards the end and after the war there were many people who needed to be rehoused who had nothing to furnish their homes with or plant in their gardens. WVS ran two schemes to help them one of these was the Re-homing Gift Scheme which involved centres in areas which had not suffered serious collecting gifts of furnishings to send to London Boroughs for distribution. WVS helped 100,000 families distributing 8,000 tons of furniture, crockery and hardware. The second activity was the Garden Gift Scheme, established in April 1945 to collect help the owners of blitzed gardens and those who had been rehoused in prefabs. The scheme asked for flowers; vegetable seedlings; shrubs; trees and hedging plants. If you got in touch with your local WVS they would collect your plants; distribute them to prefab owners in London and other blitzed cities and pay for postage or transit.

Care of the homeless was very important to WVS and involved many of aspects of its wartime services and a few post-war. As we have seen this included rest centres, feeding, clothing, Citizens Advice Bureaux, rehoming and gardening. WVS was vital to the war effort, without it who knows how the development of wartime and immediate post-war British society would have been effected.  

Posted by Jennifer Hunt, Deputy Archivist at 09:00 Monday, 22 January 2018.

Labels: Second World War, WVS, Homeless, Bombing, Evacuation, rest centre