Royal Voluntary Service diaries of wartime women go online

Tuesday, 04 July 2017 Over 30,000 pages of previously unseen diaries from the Second World War – hidden histories of a million wartime women – are being made available online today for free by the Royal Voluntary Service Archive & Heritage Collection.

These million ordinary women who volunteered for the charity, previously known as the Women’s Voluntary Services (WVS), played a vital role on the Home Front and worked tirelessly to help win the war. As well as sewing, cooking, knitting and helping their communities recover after raids, they learnt new skills such as extinguishing incendiary bombs, driving in the black-out and garnishing tens of thousands of camouflage nets; helping transform the way in which women were viewed by society.

The driving force behind the WVS was Stella Reading who founded the organisation in May 1938. A charismatic and persuasive speaker, she toured the country throughout 1938 and 1939 and told her audiences that “the greatest disservice a woman can do at the moment is consider herself useless.” By the end of August 1939, over 300,000 women had joined the organisation and more than 1,200 WVS centres had been set up around the country. A dedication event will take place today, attended by Royal Voluntary Service Ambassador, Dame Patricia Routledge, at the Blue Boar Bar in Westminster, the former headquarters of the Women’s Voluntary Services.

To coincide with the event, Royal Voluntary Service is releasing 31,401 pages of diaries from 1938-1942 from more than 1,300 different cities, towns and villages across Great Britain. Written at a time when one in ten women in Britain was a member of the WVS, they tell the extraordinary stories of ordinary women and they are all available for free.

UNESCO Inscribed on the UNESCO UK Memory of the World register in 2010 as one of the most important historical documents in the UK, these diaries have sadly remained beyond the reach of the public until now. The online archive, funded by a highly successful Kickstarter Campaign, allows anyone to access and search previously unpublished material, which describes how the largest volunteer organisation in British history supported ‘Civil Defence’ in the widest sense. To many they were the ‘women in green’, ‘the army Hitler forgot’.

The diaries give a fascinating insight into the ups and downs of daily life during the war.

Visit the Archive Online

In Ventnor on the Isle of Wight the Housewives Section of the WVS sprang into action assisting the victims of a raid in 1942. One member whose house was damaged by a blast turned her stirrup pump on a nearby building and fought the fire caused by incendiary bullets. At the same time other members attended to bullet wound casualties in the road staunching the blood until medical help arrived. Elderly people suffering from shock were taken to safety from a badly damaged house and provided with hot drinks. In all the WVS was on duty for three days providing assistance to the homeless and the rescue and salvage teams.

Amongst all of the hardship caused by the war though humour and muddling through usually won the day as in the tiny village of Stone in Hertfordshire where one canteen organiser had to think on her feet. “The canteen has been very busy – a very pleasant change after months of inactivity. The organiser found catering a little difficult, one night the teas served numbered 28 and the next 430, and the cake permits were almost negligible. However, thanks to dried eggs, dried milk, and even powdered saccharin, the organiser, with a cookery book in one hand, managed to make what at any rate looked like cakes. She was very thankful that she didn’t have to eat any of the efforts herself.”

"For the past year, we have been photographing tens of thousands of fragile pieces paper to enable us to share these remarkable stories online for everyone to enjoy. With the support of over 700 backers our Kickstarter Campaign raised over £28,000. Our initial plan was to cover the period from 1938-1941, but we’ve managed to include reports from 1942 as well, that’s over 31,000 pages available to everyone today.

“It is quite remarkable that Stella Reading managed to set up such a huge organisation in such little time. At the outbreak of war, the WVS had only existed for little over a year, but they had spent that year preparing for the worst. Her vision was that every woman could help and have a role to play in the defeat of Hitler and the defence of the nation. In 1939 she said “We believe we belong to the finest country in the world. We also know that we must pay for everything we have. Surely we should pay for our citizenship by voluntary service”. Over a million women answered that call and their contribution to Britain’s finest hour and their embodiment of Stella Reading’s vision is encapsulated in these diaries."

Matthew McMurray, Royal Voluntary Service Archivist

"Stella, Lady Reading's pioneering work with the Women’s Voluntary Services has secured her reputation as one of the most remarkable women of the age. During World War Two she almost single-handedly recruited a million volunteers who provided all kinds of practical support to emergency workers, servicemen and bombed-out families throughout the darkest days of the conflict. After 1945 she sustained this extraordinary momentum, directing the volunteer effort to helping the sick, imprisoned and elderly; 'Meals on Wheels' and 'Home Help' visits were among the innovations introduced with great success. Her organisation survives today, as the Royal Voluntary Service.

“Lady Reading's energy, tenacity and compassion brought together an army of volunteers in the service of those who needed them most and established a model which continues to thrive. We recognise her considerable achievements with a blue plaque at her original WVS headquarters. The London Blue Plaques scheme prides itself on linking extraordinary people to the places where they actually lived and worked, so I am delighted that we can commemorate a building so important to Stella, Lady Reading and the Women’s Voluntary Services."

Anna Eavis, Curatorial Director at English Heritage

"The women of the WVS made great sacrifices for this country, but the breadth of their contribution has been hidden from view until now. We hope that in making their stories available to everybody, that the value of their contribution will gain the recognition it deserves. It will be an honour to see the remarkable Stella Reading commemorated by English Heritage with a blue plaque at the organisation’s original headquarters. A pioneer of the Women’s Voluntary Services, she was tireless in her efforts during the Second World War and it’s wonderful to see both her legacy and that of the WVS founding building recognised."

Dame Patricia Routledge, Royal Voluntary Service Ambassador
Visit the Archive Online

For further information

Royal Voluntary Service is one of the largest volunteering charities in Britain powered by more than 35,000 volunteers who regularly provide practical help to over 100,000 older people in their homes, communities and in hospitals.

To become a local volunteer search for volunteering opportunities in your area. Or help make a difference by making a secure online donation.

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