Royal Voluntary Service - Women Wanted"This war does not call for the dashing and spectacular qualities of daring that get people's name into the papers. It calls for endurance, calmness and a capacity not to be got down by boredom or loneliness. It calls for a sense of proportion, and for a spark of vision that can still look forward, with hope, …"

One could be forgiven for thinking that the above quote was about the current war on the corona virus that the world is fighting. But it was spoken over 80 years ago at the outbreak of the Second World War by one of the most important - but little known - women of the 20th century; Stella Reading.

She was tasked by the then Home Secretary to recruit 30,000 women to bolster the country’s Civil Defence forces, to literally defend the civilian population from the hardships of a coming war.

Without the 24 hour news media of today or the current social distancing measures, she travelled over 1,200 miles a month, speaking to halls packed with women wanting to hear her call to arms at over 100 towns and cities across Great Britain.

By the start of the war the volunteers of the Women’s Voluntary Services (WVS) numbered 300,000 and, in a task of similar scale to that we face today, evacuated 1.5million children from cities to safe zones in the countryside in just three days. But they had a full year to prepare.

We find ourselves with just weeks and perhaps days to do the same thing.

Royal Voluntary Service historyIn the month of September 1939, with war declared and the crisis very real, WVS recruited 93,500 volunteers an almost unbelievable task for the time. But today with the help of 21st century technology Royal Voluntary Service has recruited over 500,000 in only 24 hours to help our NHS.

Within two years the WVS had over a million volunteers defending civilians and assisting the war effort in every way imaginable. They never said no!

The parallels between then and now go well beyond the mere recruitment of volunteers, it was that ‘spark of vision’ of which Stella Reading spoke which set these volunteers apart.

They did not only set up the Volunteer Car Pool (VCP) to deliver anyone and anything to anywhere, but made and distributed Hospital Supplies through a nationwide network of workshops and depots. But the story doesn’t end there; crises tend to lead to the discoveries of hidden problems.

Royal Voluntary Service supports the NHS
During the war WVS volunteers gained unprecedented access to peoples’ lives and homes, revealing the social deprivation which had lain beneath the thin veneer of pre-war society.

The loneliness of the elderly became a cause close to their hearts and one to which they had to find solutions. Another epidemic (that time of influenza in the winter of 1942/3) was the spark needed, and led the WVS in Welwyn Garden City to create the first Meals on Wheel Service and the women of Oxford WVS to create the first successful Home Help Service. The latter delivering help, for example with shopping, to those who needed it, from pregnant women to the elderly and disabled.

Royal Voluntary Service Meals on Wheels
Once the crisis of the war was over these services and others such as the Hospital Car Service, which emerged as the successor to the VCP in 1945, and our home visiting for the elderly, which began nationally in 1946, became the bedrock of social care in this country. The war had fundamentally altered society, the way we cared for the most vulnerable changed forever, and all of this will change again once this crisis is over.

Royal Voluntary Service car
Almost all these services pioneered by WVS and developed over the last 80 years are still operating today, many carried out by volunteers. They all happen invisibly, working behind the scenes, always quiet, but always supporting our society. Today this invisible support network has come into the spotlight again and it is calling upon us all to do our part in whatever way we can.

As Stella Reading said:

"W.V.S. was made, not by the genius of the one but by the faithfulness of the many. We started without knowing where we were going. We do not know how far we shall have to go, or what we shall be asked to do, but we know that nothing will be too hard.."

After over 80 years Royal Voluntary Service is proud to be at the forefront once again of helping everyone in Great Britain to do their part in this war against an invisible enemy; continuing to make a difference every day and supporting our health service as we have done since 1938.


  1. Extract from WVS recruiting poster 1939
  2. WVS members evacuate London children under five on the Baby Bus, 1939
  3. Stella Reading (Founder/Chairman of WVS) interviews new recruits at WVS Headquarters London, 6 September 1939
  4. Gibraltarian refugees in London make hospital supplies for WVS, 1941
  5. A WVS member delivers Meals on Wheels Willesden, c.1947
  6. Hospital Car Service, 1948

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