Up for 8 weeks in Cambridge

As students go back to their universities for the new academic year this month, we thought we would take a look at the contribution that they made to the war effort. An enquirer wanted to know what connection the WVS had to the Cambridge colleges, so after a couple of hours of research, through quite the best and most detailed Narrative Reports I had ever read, came an answer of sorts.

It appears that the WVS certainly in the period before shortly before the war saw the colleges as both a place to hold training events and also as a ripe recruiting ground. In April 1939 Newnham (the second oldest Women’s college in Cambridge) hosted a training course for the WVS for Catering managers, presumably those who were to staff communal feeding centres when the inevitable war came. The college at the same time allowed the WVS to make a speech and to enrol students.

After this initial enthusiasm, the contact between the WVS and the colleges seems to have gone very quiet. Whether this is because the war up to this point had passed the university by or that the university were just not co-operating with the WVS, I do not know. I am sure there is an enterprising university historian out there who could tell us…

It was not until April 1940 we again find any co-operation between the university and the WVS. This is a special appeal to the University colleges for Musical Instruments and clothing for evacuees. The appeal was championed by Lady Spens who held a party for 60 members of the colleges to encourage them to participate.

In September members of the university entertained foreign troops (who had been stationed there after the withdrawl from Dunkirk). The specialist language skills of the students and staff helping to make their stay easier.

It is not until 1941 that involvement really picks up, particularly when a camouflage net garnishing workshop is set up in the city in an old billiards hall in November. By December that year they had over 150 women students helping at this work.

They key to getting students to involve themselves in activities seems to have been the type of jobs. There is an interesting discourse about the troubles of getting undergraduates to help at all, it is said because the short periods during which the students were up (only 8 weeks at a time) made assigning them to longer term projects particularly difficult. Also they had found it impossible to attract students to emergency work as the colleges were ‘not able to be contacted by telephone’ meaning they could not summon their help in a hurry.

Garnishing Camouflage nets seems to have been the perfect job, as students could pop in for a couple of hours when they had the time, with no long term commitment required.

By the winter of 1941 students were also starting to get into assisting with the clubs for evacuated mothers, giving talks. One of the colleges (Homerton) even ran one of the war nurseries in the city.

That is where I ran out of time to do any more research, but perhaps we will get the chance to research from 1942 to the end of the war for a future blog …

Posted by Matthew McMurray at 09:00 Monday, 20 October 2014.

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