The hidden history of a million women to go online

Sunday, 08 May 2016

Men carry a wounded service person to a WVS ambulanceTransporting toddlers in donkey carts, knitting dog-hair and running mobile canteens are just a few of the hidden histories of over a million wartime women documented in never-before-seen diaries in the Royal Voluntary Service archive.

The charity, previously known as the Women’s Voluntary Services, will be the first in the UK to use crowd-funding website Kickstarter to help fund the digitisation of previously unseen records of life on the Home Front, so they are accessible to all.

The Hidden Histories of A Million Wartime Women project is live on Kickstarter and calls on public support to help reveal a unique insight into life during World War II, unlocking access to thousands of diary entries awarded UNESCO UK Memory of the World status in 2010.

Support the project


More than 300,000 pages of diary entries spanning over half a century of British history tell stories of everyday heroism from female volunteers from over 2,000 cities, towns and villages across Great Britain – documented at a time when one in 10 women in Britain was a member.  If the project hits its £25,000 target, the Archive & Heritage Collection team will begin by digitising the first 28,000 pages covering 1938 to 1941.

The Archive Online will allow the public to access previously unpublished material, which catalogues how the largest volunteer organisation in British history supported Civil Defence. To many, they were called ‘the Army that Hitler forgot’.

One example report illustrates a volunteer from Bath cleaning an array of children’s gas marks. The accompanying narrative describes a particularly busy month for the Bath Centre following a major Blitz on the city between 28 and 29 April 1941. This saw volunteers fit 80 children with masks and issue 205 helmets for babies. The centre was also responsible for serving 3,350 meals and helped coordinate housing for more than 9,000 people made homeless following the raids.

Another more unusual entry comes from Portsmouth in November 1943, and details how the Centre’s ‘dog hair expert’ attended a special demonstration day at Harrods. The training session taught volunteers how to salvage fur from dog grooming and spin it into a warm and hardwearing alternative to wool. The entry remarks how Portsmouth’s contributions were highly praised at the event, which was organised at the request of the Board of Trade.

The archive’s UNESCO status means the diaries are considered to be as important as other historical texts such as the Doomsday Book and the Death Warrant of King Charles I – and certainly some of the most important in 20th Century British history.

"The women of the WVS made great sacrifices for this country, but thebreadth of their contribution has been hidden from view until now. Wehope that in making their stories available to everybody, that the valueof their contribution will gain the recognition it deserves."

Patricia Routledge, Ambassador

"It is often the quiet voices of history which are the most revealing. They can be easily overlooked amongst the clamour of parliamentary speeches, gunfire and official pronouncements, but the diaries and letters of a host of less celebrated lives speak of the true temperature of the times. It is these unassuming thoughts, feelings and reports which tell us what was really happening behind the rhetoric. The Royal Voluntary Service archive offers an all too rare opportunity to hear directly the voices of the twentieth century."

Ruth Goodman, historian and television personality

"For six years we have been sorting, protecting and preserving tens ofthousands of pieces of fragile paper to get to a point where we canstart to capture and share these remarkable sto-ries with everyone.Those million women, the army that Hitler forgot, were pivotal in theallied victory in the Second World War, but their efforts have almostcompletely been forgotten.

"We want to be able to share these talesof everyday heroism and those million ordi-nary women who made thedifference. Please go to our Kickstarter page, get drawn into the story,pledge your support, get your part of the story and help us reveal theHidden Histories of A Million Wartime Women."

Matthew McMurray, Royal Voluntary Service Archivist

You have 30 days to pledge your support to the Hidden Histories of A Million Wartime Women project.  As well as further background information on the project, the page will also highlight the ‘thank yous’ available to those who donate:

  • £2 – For those who wish to show their support
  • £10 – Donor’s name appears on the Archive website
  • £20 - Set of ten exclusive postcards depicting how the women of the WVS relieved suffering during war
  • £60 - Limited edition print of Miss Mercury, a WVS motorcycle messenger in London during the war
  • £60 – An opportunity for donors to read narratives from their town of interest before anyone else has access
  • £1,000 – An exclusive behind-the-scenes tour of the RVS Archive and Heritage collection, closed to the public, and lunch at a local 5 star Bistro

Find out more about the Hidden Histories of A Million Wartime Women project and donate.

For further information

Royal Voluntary Service is one of the largest volunteering charities in Britain powered by more than 25,000 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.

If you are a member of the press and have a media enquiry please contact the Media Team. For all other enquiries, contact us.

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