Eight years of caring

Eight years of caring

Nicola Lisle explores the history of the Women’s Voluntary Service, which is marking its 80th anniversary this year

Header Image: Lady Worsley trying out a WVS snack bar trailer, 19 June 1943

Nicola Lisle, A freelance journalist specialising in the arts and family/social history.

Nicola Lisle

A freelance journalist specialising in the arts and family/social history.

If it hadn’t been for the Women’s Voluntary Service, we would never have had the Darby and Joan Club, Meals on Wheels or the many other charitable schemes that owe their existence to the pioneering ‘ladies in green’.

Formed 80 years ago this month, the WVS – or Royal Voluntary Service (RVS), as it is now known – was one of the mainstays of life on the Home Front during the Second World War, providing practical help and sympathetic support wherever they were needed. By the end of the war there were more than a million members, making it the largest volunteer force in British history.

Lady Worsley trying out a WVS snack bar trailer, 19 June 1943
Lady Worsley trying out a WVS snack bar trailer, 19 June 1943 Royal Voluntary Service/Hastings and St. Leonard’s Observer

The original purpose of the WVS was to encourage women to join the Air Raid Precautions (ARP) service, which had been formed the previous year in response to the increasing hostilities across Europe. Although there had been a good response to the appeal for volunteers, few women were coming forward.

From early in 1938, Home Secretary Sir Samuel Hoare and Stella Isaacs, Marchioness of Reading (usually known as Lady Reading), had a lengthy correspondence about the possibility of setting up a women’s volunteer service. Eventually, on 20 May 1938, Sir Samuel wrote to Lady Reading authorising her to form a voluntary force to work with the Home Office and local authorities in encouraging women to enrol in the ARP.

Toys for wartime nurseries made by group at Scots Hill Court, Croxley Green
Toys for wartime nurseries made by group at Scots Hill Court, Croxley Green Royal Voluntary Service

On 16 June 1938 he announced the establishment of the Women’s Voluntary Service for Air Raid Precautions in a speech in the House of Commons, and the WVS officially came into being two days later. Within a year, more than 300,000 women had signed up.

By the time war broke out in 1939, the WVS had already expanded beyond its original role as a recruiting agency for the ARP and had an ever-increasing range of duties, its members easily recognisable by their distinctive green skirts, maroon blouses and green berets.

WVS in the Second World War
WVS members played a major role on the Home Front during the Second World War. In September 1939 they offered both practical and emotional support during the evacuation of more than a million people from high-risk areas, accompanying children on train journeys, identifying areas of safety and arranging accommodation. They also campaigned for clothing donations for people in need, resulting in vast quantities of clothes being sent to Britain by the American Red Cross and distributed from the WVS Emergency Clothing stores.

Lady Reading visiting services welfare vegetables for minesweepers, June 1944
Lady Reading visiting services welfare vegetables for minesweepers, June 1944 Royal Voluntary Service

When British troops returned after the Dunkirk evacuation, it was WVS ladies who were on hand to welcome them and provide food, drink and clothing. As the war progressed, the WVS set up canteens at railway stations throughout Britain to cater for returning soldiers.

Another vital part of the WVS’s war effort was working in hospitals, initially helping them prepare for war during 1938 and going on to provide valuable support throughout the war, from covering staff shortages and helping with emergencies to mending linen, answering phones and undertaking clerical duties.

The Housewives’ Service was established in 1940 for women who wanted to help but were unable to commit to full-time volunteering. The idea originated in Ilford in 1938, but it was the WVC Centre in Barnes that first set up an unofficial Housewives’ Service in December 1938. Other centres seized on the idea, and a national Housewives’ Service was officially announced in April 1940. By 1942 there were nearly 240,000 members, who displayed the official WVS badge in the windows of their houses and helped out whenever they could.

But the WVS was not just about offering tea and sympathy. For most of the war WVS Volunteers played a major role in the National Salvage Scheme, which was set up in 1939 to cope with increasing demand for materials essential for the war effort. The WVS launched its own salvage campaign in February 1940, and was hugely successful in salvaging materials such as paper, cardboard, rags, bones, metals and kitchen waste that could be used to produce weapons, tank armour, aeroplane parts and other wartime essentials.

Towards the end of the war, the WVS centre in Welwyn Garden City established the first Meals on Wheels service, set up for the elderly and infirm who, according to the Welwyn Times of 28 October 1943, ‘were experiencing a difficult time owing to the fact that the able and stronger people who had assisted them were now performing war-time duties’. The idea took hold, and the service gained official status in 1945.

By the end of the war, there were few aspects of wartime life in Britain in which WVS volunteers hadn’t played a part.

A mobile canteen after a bombing raid, 12 December 1940 -Royal Voluntary Service
A mobile canteen after a bombing raid, 12 December 1940 -Royal Voluntary Service Royal Voluntary Service

The Post-War Years
After the war, the WVS continued with its charitable work, becoming a frontrunner in the provision of social care and welfare work in the UK. One of its first post-war projects was the establishment of the Darby and Joan clubs, which offered tea and companionship for the elderly. The first Darby and Joan club opened in Lincoln on 26 July 1946, offering ‘books, games, music and tea’. The idea quickly caught on, and Darby and Joan clubs are still flourishing, more than 70 years later.

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The threat of a nuclear attack during the Cold War led to the establishment in 1955 of the Home Office-approved One-in-Five Scheme, which involved trained WVS speakers giving advice on coping with the effects of a nuclear explosion. The aim was to talk to three million women, at the time a fifth of the population, in the hope that those women would pass the advice on, hence the name ‘One-in-Five’. The scheme ended in 1985.

Other high-profile events in which WVS members have offered support include the Merthyr Vale Colliery disaster at Aberfan in 1966, the Lockerbie air crash in 1988, the death of Diana, Princess of Wales in 1997, the arrival of Kosovan refugees in 1999 and the 7/7 terror attacks in London in 2005.

In 1966 the WVS was awarded the honour of adding ‘Royal’ to its name, to become the Women’s Royal Voluntary Service, in recognition of its services to the country. In 1992 the WRVS became an independent charity, and in 2013 changed its name again to the Royal Voluntary Service. Today the organisation has 25,000 volunteers, who continue to offer advice and companionship in the best tradition of the Women’s Voluntary Service.

WVS members collecting salvage of bones, May 1941 -Royal Voluntary Service
WVS members collecting salvage of bones, May 1941 -Royal Voluntary Service Royal Voluntary Service

Finding WVS/RVS ancestors
The RVS Archives and Heritage Collection (royalvoluntaryservice.org.uk/about-us/our-history/heritage-collection/) was set up in 1958 to mark the organisation’s 20th anniversary, and it is the main resource for finding out more about all aspects of WVS history. The catalogue is fully searchable online, and includes around two million documents, thousands of photographs, historical objects and oral histories. There are also downloadable versions of the WVS/WRVS Bulletin 1939-74 and the WVS Narrative Reports 1938-42, as well as a range of fact sheets exploring different aspects of the WVS.

There are few personal records in the collection, but you might be able to discover some information about your ancestor if you search by place or by service. The WVS/WRVS had more than 2000 centres across England, Wales and Scotland, so if you know your ancestor’s location this is a good starting point. In some cases, copies of relevant records were deposited with local record offices, so that’s another avenue worth exploring. You can also download lists of the centres from the RVS website. Similarly, if you know which service your ancestor was involved in (Meals on Wheels, for example), that’s another useful way of searching.

If your ancestor was one of the 245 WVS personnel to lose their lives during the Second World War, there is a downloadable Roll of Honour on the RVS website. Each entry includes the person’s full name, WVS centre, occupation and how they died. The original Roll of Honour is on display at Westminster Abbey.

The RVS website has detailed advice on searching the collection, as well as a downloadable Guide to the Archive Online. The organisation also runs a free enquiry service, so if you are struggling to find your ancestor in the online catalogue it’s worth getting in touch. Again, the website has details and a downloadable guide. Bear in mind that there are restrictions on some records.

The National Archives holds original copies of the correspondence between Sir Samuel Hoare and Lady Reading in the Home Office series (HO 356/2), as well as training records, medal files and other general papers in the Ministry of Health, Treasure and Cabinet Office series. A search for the WVS in the Discovery catalogue points to numerous regional archives holding local WVS records such as log books, reports, correspondence, photographs and other documents.

The Imperial War Museum in London has a collection of posters, uniforms and other papers, as well as a full set of the WVS and WRVS bulletin and magazine, while the National Archives of Scotland has papers relating to Scottish WVS and WRVS centres.

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