Eighty years of volunteering remembered
More than one million woman joined the Royal Voluntary Service during the Second World War and ran canteens, made clothes and helped during air raids
They were the backbone of the home front during the Second World War, and to many they were the Army that Hitler forgot.
More than one million women joined the Royal Voluntary Service, and thanks to their tireless efforts the “women in green” – as they became fondly known – were central to winning the war.
The organisation was founded in 1938 by Lady Stella Reading as the Women’s Voluntary Service for Air Raid Precautions as Britain prepared for war.
They assisted civilians during air raids by providing emergency rest centres, they also ran mobile canteens and helped with the evacuation and billeting of thousands of children.
By 1943, the Royal Voluntary Service was involved in almost every aspect of wartime life from the collection of salvage to the knitting of socks and gloves for merchant seamen.
To mark 80 years of the Royal Voluntary Service, a new photography exhibition was held in London to tell the remarkable history of the organisation.
And the charity, which has now transformed itself into a leading provider of social care, has also opened its extensive archive in Wiltshire to tell some of the extraordinary stories of its members during the Second World War.
Many of these accounts of everyday heroism are contained within the “monthly narrative report” that each centre had to complete in quadruplicate with one copy kept by the centre, one sent to the county office, one to the regional office and one to headquarters London.
Examples of the reports detail the difficulties faced with helping thousands of families and unaccompanied children who were escaping the Blitz – including many who went home.
The centre organiser for Dorchester & Rural District wrote in March 1941: “WVS did all waiting, washing up and bathing of children.
“The girls were washed two at a time in one bath, which had to be thoroughly scrubbed between each lot.”
In May 1941, West Dorset District report noted: “So long as fares are paid and re-evacuation is possible at any moment, evacuees, including families with children, constantly return to London.
“This makes great difficulties for the country organisers, as the village hostesses quite naturally resent being used by the evacuees as in-expensive lodging-house keepers.”
In nearby Wimborne, a report in June 1941 detailed how locals were helping the evacuated children cope with their new lives.
“I thought this advisable as formerly when the evacuated children were asked if they had made any friends the answer was nearly always ‘the other children do not want to make friends with us’,” the report said.
As well as helping evacuees, members of Royal Voluntary Service attended anti-gas lectures and learnt how to tackle fires.
They also knitted, sending parcels overseas to British troops, as well as to the Soviet Union and the occupied countries.
By November 1942, a work party in St Austell Rural centre had completed 4,042 articles since the war began and raised £213 for “comforts for the troops”.
A report noted: “Mrs Tucker, aged 82, is the oldest member of the Party and her record to date is 118 pairs of socks, 21 scarves, 18 pairs of cuffs and 89 squares for blankets.”
Volunteers in Portsmouth taught the men to mend their own clothes who were becoming “quite enthusiastic” about learning new skills.
They also complained about “severe pilfering” of knitted sweaters, scarves and socks from a parcel sent to the Merchant Navy.
In Wareham, the Bridge House Canteen served 50,399 cups of tea or coffee and 27,019 meals during 1940/41.
Another more unusual entry comes from Portsmouth in November 1943 and details how “our dogs’ hair expert” attended a demonstration at Harrods of knitting jumpers from dog hair.
“We hope to have some garments on show soon, so that we may make the need known to all local dog owners, and to make a large increase in our wool salvage,” the report said.
As the war was drawing to a close, some of the members of the Royal Voluntary Service complained about the complexities of the needlework they were being asked to do.
A report from Lyme Regis in February 1945 noted: “Many workers have asked us to mention that they think it is a pity that the Board of Trade patterns for Skirts for Europe make so much work.
“A simpler pattern would have been just as good and so many more could have been made in the time.”
But they were not exempt from suffering casualties, with 235 members killed during the war.
With the Luftwaffe targeting the port of Penzance, the centre offices were bombed and in September 1942 had to find new accommodation.
“In spite of falling ceilings and plasterless walls and the eventual falling in of the roof we managed to carry on for a fortnight in the remains of our old premises until the Surveyor forced us to leave because the building was unsafe,” the report noted.