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In this month’s Heritage Bulletin Blog we share with you a speech given to volunteers by our Keeper of Heritage Matthew McMurray in September.
Volunteer Event 19th September 2019 – Lancing
When I was asked to come and speak to you all today, I was told that I only had ten minutes! Anyone who knows me well will know that ten minutes for me is never enough especially when talking about the History of Royal Voluntary Service, It usually takes me 40 minutes just to get through a whistle-stop tour of the history of our service in just one hospital!
But then I thought again and realised that the achievements of the past is not what today is about.
Two weeks ago our Chief Executive Catherine Johnston asked me to find her a quote from our founder Lady Reading about ‘inspiring society to volunteer’. One of the greatest challenges we face in modern Britain is finding and encouraging those with time, talents and energy to give those things for free to help others. In an age where there are so many choices, where the pace of life seems impossible to keep up with and where there is divided opinion on our most pressing problems, what can those of us who want to make a difference do? How can we influence Society and the seemingly intractable tussle between self-interest and the common good?
However, I’ve watched with growing admiration the rise this year of movements which seemingly come from nowhere, with no formal leaders or structure, but with clear goals and a vision for the future. Ones where self-interest is sacrificed for the common good.
I’m of course principally talking about the climate change movement, which seems to have the power to galvanise people across the world whether they are eight or eighty. But the politics and subject of this are unimportant, what is important is the genius of how it was formed, has grown and begun to have an effect in achieving its aims and making Society listen.
That vitally important element is the power of individuals.
For Lady Reading the power of the individual was key to everything. It was from the actions of those individuals and the voluntary service they gave: added to that of hundreds or thousands or even millions of others which had the power to change societies, nations and ultimately the world.
“The right pattern of life for the whole world will ultimately depend on individuals, not on Governments.
What must be aimed at is a pattern in which the standard of the individual is one in which character sets the sights, and not either the wish for possessions or the ambition for position.
It is not the spectacular person who is necessarily the best leader – but the one with a character in which application to the problem, devotion to duty, and integrity of service, are the dominating strengths”
In a moment we will be celebrating the contribution of twelve individuals who between them have given more than 100 years of service to this nation.
They have each made their own individual contribution to help others, what Lady Reading called “manifold smallnesses”.
Please do not misinterpret this; think of it in terms of a colony of honey bees (busy bees are part of her coat of arms). Each of the millions of bees has their part to play, each giving their all, each job added to the next and to the next and so on until each of those manifold smallnesses combine together to make a glorious whole.
But unlike those honey bees your efforts are not just added to the contributions of tens of thousands of other Royal Voluntary Service Volunteers today, they come on top of the efforts of the millions of Royal Voluntary Service volunteers who came before you, creating an inspiring legacy which has changed Society.
The culminations of these manifold smallness’s are recorded in our Heritage Collection which is one of the largest and richest records of voluntary service in the country.
Because of it I can tell you that in Brighton our work at the Royal County Hospital started in August 1960 when we opened our first canteen there, making those being recognised today from Royal County the latest in 60 years’ worth of dedicated continuous service to that hospital.
At Crawley Hospital we started serving teas to Out-patients in February 1961 and our help there has only expanded over the years, from flower arranging to trolley shops.
But our work is not just about hospitals, as an organisation we started and are still about providing help in our communities and helping people in their own homes. In Horsham by 1949 a Home Help service was up and running, the forerunner to our Good Neighbours service which still runs today, a regular, energetic and continuous connection to that community for over 70 years.
Lastly, but certainly not least, here in Lancing, Chesham House opened its doors in May 1955. Back then it was an innovative project creating something new, beyond a simple Darby & Joan Club, and today Annick and the volunteers there continue that innovative tradition which is now 64 years strong.
The services you provide today, are the stories and heritage of the future. The story of that continuity of “Service Beyond Self” is a powerful one and one which needs to be collected and told if we are to continue to inspire future generations to give those ‘manifold smallnesses’. That is the small part that the Heritage Collection has played for 60 years.
But I want to finish where I began, with the challenges we face in the world today; but now armed with the knowledge that every one of us has in our hands the power, as individuals, wor
king together, to influence that intractable tussle and make Society hear.
Lady Reading as ever sums it up better than I ever could.
"This country believes in great intangible things, it holds its faith in that which is right, it admires that which is good, it loves that which is just. We are a proud nation. We ask for no man's pity but we want every man's respect. And so, to achieve life as it should be, we must go on building, maybe with worn-out tools, maybe with backs that ache, but always with eyes that have seen something of the sublime, and in the knowledge that we can undertake and shall achieve even the seemingly impossible."
the Heritage Bulletin Blog comes to you in the form of our second podcast. As
it’s Explore Your Archive Week
we thought we would treat you to a clip from one
of our oral histories. We're exploring the ideas behind why people volunteer and Mary Gibbons a volunteer in South Wales told the project why girls taking part in volunteering for Duke of Edinburgh got involved and the impact that had.
Hopefully you will then be inspired to visit Archive
Online and explore the Voices of Volunteering
collection for yourself. Clips
and resources based on oral histories are also available on the Voices of Volunteering School Resources page.
who can't listen to the podcast, which I whole heartedly recommend, the
transcript is below.
The Duke of Edinburgh
Award. There was a school in, in Swansea, a girl’s school, and one of the
Masters at the girl’s school had always been interested in Duke of Edinburgh
Award, and he persuaded the Head Mistress there to let him use some of his
pupils for Duke of Edinburgh. Now he was using girls who were challenged. They
seldom went to school, they had got very little home support, they really were
not bright. And he had said to them would they like to do this, you see,
because in Duke of Edinburgh you have to do a certain amount of service. And so
the service was our service, helping out at WRVS Luncheon Clubs for the
elderly, which the girls thought was wonderful. So he sort of said to us ‘Will
you do the rest of it’? Because they obviously had to know all about WRVS and
they had to do a certain amount of, of work with it, so we had said ‘Yes’, and
the girls were good. But the girl, he said to the girls ‘You only go to the
Luncheon Club if you go to school’.
Now truancy was the
thing. So in fact, for the year that we
were doing it there, or for the two years, they went to school every day
because they wanted to go to the Luncheon Club. And we used to go and we would
do lessons with them, but we knew that they couldn't really take things down
because possibly they couldn't write, they couldn't read and it was just very
unfortunate for them. But we, even when it came to the test or, or sort of
making sure they'd got it all, we had an oral rather than a written. Now for
other schools we would do written things whereas with them it was… And we
didn't do the testing at the end, but other people did, and that was quite
amazing because they all got through.
And I can see it now,
we had the Head Mistress was there the last, they, they had to have the
certificates given to them and the badges. And they had got, he had organised a
very special coffee morning. All the girls had been in the day before to help
make cakes and things. And their parents had been invited. And it, she had sort
of introduced the girls, and how superb they had been, and the WRVS had been
doing this and that, and then I had to say something about them because I was
Emergency Services, I had to say something about what we’d done with them. And
then, you know, sort of say, we had given them their things and praise and
And afterwards I was
going round talking to the parents who were there. And I can remember going up
to this dad and his daughter was there as proud as punch, and I said to him
‘Well, what did you think’? He said ‘Oh’, he said ‘how I didn't cry’, he said,
‘I had to take time off work because I never ever thought she would get
anything’. And I thought that was lovely. He’d, he was so chuffed that she’d
got something, you know. you know. Out of all of this, so different, so
different. So it did do very well, and actually he [the Duke of Edinburgh] came
to Swansea on one occasion and we were there, there were two of us, somebody,
Julie, another girl, and the two of us were there with some of our, with some
of us, the school girls. And, and he had talked to them, which was, he thought,
they thought was wonderful. But, no, that was good.
Mary Gibbons Volunteer
“Too many People think of volunteer service as
cheap labour. Real voluntary service is nothing of kind. It is the gift of
one’s skill, one’s time, and one’s energy, given by an understanding human
being for a special reason”
Lady Reading, It's the Job that Counts I,1953
Five/six years ago I wrote and submitted my dissertation for
my Msc Econ in Archive Administration. The focus was the value of volunteers in
county and community archives in North West England and how archives could or
couldn’t conform to Government policy. This was at a time when the MLA had just
become defunct and ideas like the Big Society (remember that?) were floating
around. Five/six years is a long time and many things have changed included my
move from an interest in county/community archives to specialist ones. However the
value that volunteers provide to archives hasn’t.
Here at the Royal Voluntary Service Archive & Heritage collection we have a team of volunteers who come on a regular basis and
take on roles such as: repackaging, digitisation, cataloguing, occasionally
giving talks to local groups and accessioning to name a few. Everything they do
helps to make our work a success and volunteers improve access and knowledge about
material; work which staff cannot complete is taken care of by volunteers; the preservation
needs of material are met by volunteers and the archives is promoted to other members
of the public.
Volunteers also bring specialist knowledge for example skills from
previous professions such as specific knowledge of photography or computer
skills. In our case most volunteers bring knowledge of the history of WVS/WRVS/Royal
Voluntary Service through their own experiences of services such as meals on
Wheels, Books on wheels, being District Organisers, Vice-chairmen or office
secretaries. This helps us to understand the context of the material they are
working with and allows them to learn more about their different interests in
the charity. Volunteering doesn’t just benefit the Archives it also advantageous
to the volunteers.
Back in 2011 I interviewed several volunteers about their
different roles in archives this included people who were retired, unemployed,
seeking work experience or in the case of community archives they were
volunteers interested in telling the story of a certain group in society. While
they helped the archives volunteering also gave them something. This can be
split into two categories educational benefits and social benefits. I concluded
that in county and community archives education came second and social came
first as primarily volunteers went to the archives to socialise with other
Here at the Royal Voluntary Service Archive & Heritage Collection most
of our volunteers are retired and occasionally we have student and graduate
volunteers however it seems there is more of a balance between education
(Knowledge and skills) and the social aspect. In just over five years I have
seen volunteers learn new skills such as cataloguing, blog writing and handling
or other preservation skills. Many of our volunteers who meet on the same day
have also formed friendships and meet outside the Archive. We have also
celebrated their achievements and time with service awards.
So remember volunteering is a two way thing volunteers give
archives their valuable time, knowledge and skills, in return volunteers can
make new friends and learn new skills. Also archives will always need
volunteers without them we would not have been so successful in many projects.
“There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies, and statistics” so goes the eponymous quote popularised by Mark Twain.
Every once in a while we all have to admit we have been wrong and so that is what todays blog is in part about. It is the wonderful thing about archives, especially large ones like ours, that we are always finding new things and new evidence, refining and re-writing history and making ‘new’ discoveries.
Here in the archive we have the most fabulous set of statistics for the period 1938-1945. The WVS were compelled by the Government to keep them for the purposes of assisting with Civil Defence. Early on this data tracks WVS volunteer recruitment and numbers monthly, and from 1943 quarterly, but in much more detail. But when the war ended, so did the statistics; the need was no longer there.
We know for certain that in November 1941 the WVS reached its zenith in terms of the number of women who it could call upon, with 1,043,423 members; the largest volunteer organisation in British history. But what happened at the end of the war and afterwards has always been rather sketchy.
We knew that there were very significant resignations at the end of the war, with speeches given by women at the closing of WVS centres about having done their bit and wanting to look after their homes, families and returning husbands, but no figures survived. In fact it would appear no figures were gathered from the end of 1945 until 1949, a period of rapid and dramatic transformation of the WVS from one centred around Civil Defence to one at the forefront of post-war social welfare development.
In 1949 however, with the re-establishment of the Civil Defence Corps after the Russian’s successful Nuclear test in August, the WVS formed the Welfare Section of the CD corps and the statistics started again. Unfortunately we only had a few glimpses of these through a few returns which had been kept by some local offices, which had found their way to the archive. The Headquarters summary books were missing. By comparing these few centre examples against the data from 1945 we made best guesses about the change in national volunteering numbers over the late 1940s.
We also applied that to the period up to 1982 (which were the first post war national statistics we had) and took into account significant events and the start and finish of major branches of work.
Our best guess was that after the war the WVS lost about half its membership to about 500,000, with an increase in 1949 with the formation of the CD corps and then a steady decline with some larger drops at the closure of the corps in 1968 and the death of Lady Reading in 1971.
We have recently been undertaking a whole collections review. I spent five weeks looking in every box in our collection, and managed to find many things I had ‘lost’ and some things which I had never seen before. One of these was the missing 1949-1970 membership statistical returns.
How wrong I turned out to be! After ten years of telling one story, I now have to tell another, but at least it is now more accurate. It just goes to show you what unintentional lies can be wrought from making assumptions based on limited data.
The graph below shows just how dramatic that end of war exodus of members was with the membership between 1945 and 1949 dropping by 88% from 968,242 to 118,960. The majority of that probably occurring in the immediate period after VJ day.
Membership, rose slightly with the onset of the Cold War in 1949, until fatigue set in in the md 1950s, with a flat membership until Lady Reading’s death in 1971 and then a very slow decline until the early 1990s.
The more pronounced decline in the early 1990s through to 2010, should perhaps be seen in the context of the professionalisation of the charity sector and wider social change. This included dramatic changes in the role of women in society and ideas and enthusiasm about volunteering. That said the 1990s and early 2000s were a particular turbulent time for Royal Voluntary Service as its role fundamentally changed from doing just about everything to focusing only on older people and its Government grant was withdrawn incrementally from 1997 - 2008 when it stopped completely.
I think Mark Twain had it just about right, but I’m glad I can put the record straight; at least for the time being.
This is the kind of story that I don’t write that often. I am not sure why, and perhaps I should write more updates. It is, I suppose a bit like an American President’s State of the Union address, and perhaps it should only come round once a year. We will see.
With an archive as large as ours, the pace of change is necessarily slow, that is especially in relation to projects and tasks most of which are carried out by our fantastic volunteer team. Running the collection day to day is a full time job and can be quite frantic and fraught; answering enquiries from inside the organisation and from the public, monitoring and adjusting the environment in the stores (with electric heaters, hand filled portable humidifiers and dehumidifiers), changing a leaky tap washer (as I did last week), photographing objects, managing computer servers and of course writing this blog. As a lone archivist you have to be a jack of all trades and also a master of quite a few of them too.
Our stalwart volunteer team plough on with their projects, most have been working on these for years. Pete has been working on his photograph cataloguing project for almost three years now and comes in every Monday for five hours. After sorting and appraising a collection of over 5,000 images from about 1997-2008 he is now cataloguing the 717 that we have selected for permanent preservation. He manages to catalogue about ten images per day and we are both optimistic that he might be finished by the end of the year. Other volunteers are still working on our Narrative Report collection, and are approaching after two years finishing sorting and repackaging those reports from 1965-1980, some have been working on this since 2010. Nora has recently finished sewing identification labels into over 500 unique items of uniform in the collection, a task which took her a year and our newest recruit Sheridan is fast approaching completion of her cataloguing of a collection of five large boxes of material from the NE of England, a task which has taken her just over eight months so far.
The biggest piece of work we are currently just beginning though is our Archive development project, which received support from our trustees in November. This project, which will run for 18 months, will allow us to put together a plan for the future of the archive and discover how we can integrate the archive and our history more into the everyday running of the charity, how we can provide better access for all to use the collections in the future and importantly how we can affordably house our nationally important collection to make sure that it is preserved for future generations. This project properly kicks off in April, but it has, as you can imagine, involved a lot of meetings, engaging people inside and outside the organisation, and writing of plans, which have kept me very busy. To paraphrase the nuns in the Sound of Music “how do you solve a problem like an Archive?” Watch this space …
Posted by Matthew McMurray, Royal Voluntary Service Archivist at 00:00
Monday, 15 February 2016.
State of the Union ,
Sound of Music,
As Christmas is nearly upon us and we are fast approaching our 75th anniversary year we thought you might like this Christmas message, written by Lady Reading in our 21st anniversary year, 1959.
The Chairman’s Christmas message
"The generosity and kindness which vast numbers of people have shown to us – the members of WVS – in this our anniversary year has made us realise how extraordinarily fortunate we are, and it is for this reason as I frame my Christmas message to you that I long to be able to transmit to you that gift which can enable you to evaluate the enthusiasm which has been so thrilling to witness and to understand not only what it means, but how it can be used better to serve the communities in which we live in the country to which we are proud to belong.
Lady Reading, December 1959
The warmth of hospitality and accommodation that WVS has had this year has been earned by the tens of thousands of members who have, each one in her own way and with her own interpretation, been true to the ideal which they try to serve; and the fact that Local Authorities have been so generous to us seems, to me, to show that they appreciate the service we, their voluntary auxiliaries, aim to put at their disposal. If this be so we have achieved, in these early years of our existence, a confidence which should make us proud of the trust reposed in us and alive to the consequent responsibility.
My message to you this Christmas of our majority is one of heartfelt joy in your achievement. May opportunity continue to be yours, so that by its constant offering you may have the chance, not only of further achievement, but of realising both for yourself and others, the true meaning of the privilege of service."
On Wednesday 12th September, we had a little party here at Devizes and we invited the local press to come along. We try and have at least one get together of all the volunteers every year, It gives them a chance to meet each other (many had never met before as they all come in on different days) but this was a special occasion.
We had an important visitor, John Chambers the Chief Executive of the Archives and Records Association (ARA). He came to present the volunteers with a unique ‘Highly Commended’ award in the annual Archive Volunteer of the Year competition. We had very narrowly missed out to Wolverhampton City Archives for the win, but as one of the volunteers told the local paper “Wolverhampton have got all the resources in the world whereas we operate on a shoestring.” While I would say that this is probably a little bit of an exaggeration, the Wolverhampton project is supported by both the National Cataloguing Grants Scheme and the National Manuscript conservation trust. The judges clearly thought our project was something very special indeed though, as this will be the first and last of this special award to be given.
I am very proud of our volunteers here, in four years from nothing, we have built a team that gives over 900 hours every year, that’s the equivalent of another one and a half members of staff. The volunteers cover all ages and abilities we have graduate students such as Hannah and now Natalie as well as the ‘old lags’ who have done over 40 years service with WRVS. Without the volunteers we wouldn’t have gained our UNESCO UK Memory of the World status and we wouldn’t be about to open our enquiry service to the public. In fact the archive probably wouldn’t be here at all.
All I can say is thank you, and here’s to the continuing future of the archive.