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