Guest post from
Charlotte Tomlinson, University of Leeds.
Why do we volunteer? This is an incredibly
important question for charities in the 21st century. Volunteering
is as significant as it was in 1938 when Lady Reading was asked to found the
WVS, we rely more and more on those people who dedicate their skills, energy
and time to supporting those in need. Today, Royal Voluntary Service currently has c20,000 volunteers who provide much-needed support to older people in
hospitals and local communities in an increasingly ageing population.
As a historian, my own research looks a little
further back in Royal Voluntary Service's history. My PhD project, based at the
University of Leeds, studies the everyday experiences of the women who
volunteered with the Women’s Voluntary Services (later Women’s Voluntary
Service (WVS)) during the Second World War – of which there were more than one
million at its peak. These women came to volunteer in countless different ways,
helping civilians before and during air raids in rest centres and canteens,
knitting for troops and running ‘Make Do and Mend’ classes, staffing Citizen’s
Advice Bureaus, collecting pots and pans for salvage, and much more.
Lately I’ve been trying to understand how and
why these women volunteered, and what this tells us about life in wartime
Britain. Answering the question ‘why do people volunteer?’ can be tricky, but
the rich records held by the Royal Voluntary Service archive give us clues by
detailing how the organisation tried to recruit new members.
In its earliest
years, the WVS focused heavily on recruiting more and more women to help
support those in need, and each centre was encouraged to record its own efforts
in attracting new members. Using the Narrative Reports created in 1938 and 1939,
I’ve been able to build a rich picture of how the WVS recruited its volunteers
Like many propaganda campaigns in wartime
Britain, attempts to recruit women to volunteer often happened on a national
scale. Printed material such as posters and pamphlets were distributed widely
from 1938 onwards, calling on women to enrol at once for Air Raid Precaution
services. Some made broad calls, but
others were more specific, asking women to offer their time as ambulance
drivers or to help with evacuation. Films such as ‘Britannia is a Woman’ celebrated
the voluntary spirit of the WVS, hoping that it would inspire others to sign up:
‘The call is sounded, and women fall in for service in their country’s call’.
(IWM MGH 171). Lady Reading herself travelled extensively around Britain to
speak at public meetings and recruit women for the WVS, covering more than one
thousand miles each month.
Like today, the wartime WVS worked closely with local communities, and at the local level a wider variety of methods were used to recruit new volunteers – the extensive Narrative Reports accessible online today paint a detailed picture of how women were encouraged to join the WVS differently from place to place. In July 1939 in Gateshead, sixty representatives from various women’s organisations in the area met to discuss creating a new WVS centre, whose first job would be to help with evacuation in the event of war. This new centre therefore drew on a pool of women already involved in organisational life.
At the same time in Bradford, Yorkshire, a Mrs Cook attended the Yorkshire Show as a representative of the WVS, attempting to recruit new members from the general public, many of whom had probably never volunteered before. In 1939, the popular agricultural show was held in Halifax, not far from Bradford. The Bradford centre also distributed their own posters, instead of national ones, which advertised introductory meetings for potential WVS members at a local school.
Local efforts often worked alongside national campaigns, too. After the film ‘Britannia Is A Woman’ was screened at the Plaza Cinema in Portsmouth, existing WVS members set up a table to distribute leaflets and talk to cinema-goers as they bustled through the cinema’s vestibule. Similarly, at Leamington Spa volunteers displayed WVS posters after another recruitment film, ‘The Warning’, stressed to the audience that it was ‘the duty of everyone’ to play a part in the war effort. By 1940 Narrative Reports for Lewes, Sussex, simply recorded ‘cinemas usual posters’, suggesting that the practice had become a routine form of recruitment.
The Narrative Reports written by the WVS in York during 1939 are particularly rich records which describe in detail how women enrolled for volunteer work in the city and surrounding area. Over the summer of 1939 the centre organised for notices to be published weekly in the local press, and at the same time existing WVS members canvased potential members on their doorsteps while completing evacuation censuses, and while fitting gas masks.
York’s Narrative Reports also hint at potential barriers for women wanting to volunteer, such as a lack or free time, or not knowing where to enrol:
Narrative Reports, York, March 1939
Furthermore, reports from York reveal that while some methods were very successful, others were less so. In June 1939 the WVS sent a speaker to the Odeon Picture House to give a short talk on the work of the local centres, and this was so popular that she was asked to return to future film showings. In the same report, the centre leaders decided that placing more notices in the local press was ineffective, comparable to ‘flogging a dead horse’!
But sometimes efforts to recruit new members weren’t needed at all. A report from Bath in September 1939 suggests that after war was declared, women became acutely aware of the necessity of volunteers to help the war effort, and often came forward with little prompting from recruitment propaganda:
Narrative Reports, Bath, September 1939
Understanding how the WVS recruited its
members in the early years of the war is just one piece of the puzzle of how
and why women volunteered. Women’s own stories, revealed through their diaries,
letters, memoirs and other sources, give us more clues as to how women saw
their own relationship to volunteering. But the Narrative Reports held by the Royal
Voluntary Service Archive & Heritage Collection are crucial to this overall
picture. They are unique sources, which help us to dismantle the idea of war as
played out on a national level, and better understand how women’s relationship
to volunteering was tied to their local communities too. Through the Narrative
Reports, I have been able to build a picture of women’s lives as they were
lived, through the streets, neighbourhoods and communities of wartime Britain.
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.