Earlier this summer, the Women’s Royal Voluntary Service celebrated its 75th birthday – and a change of name more in keeping with modern times.
But, it was a different story, back in June 1938, when another war with Germany seemed imminent. Once again, women were needed to serve on the home front.
So, a new service, originally called the Women’s Voluntary Service for Air Raid Precaution, was established, calling on women to help civilians cope with air raids as well as the day to day hardships of wartime.
In 1966, in recognition of the sterling work done by its members, the service was granted the right to add the word “Royal” to its title.
But, as of this year, to reflect the work it does with both sexes, the organisation will be called the Royal Voluntary Service.
From the outset, volunteers were mostly women unable to do essential war work or “join up”, such as older or very young women, or those with dependants. By the day war broke out, they numbered 165,000. A uniform of bottle green coat and hat was made available, but volunteers had to pay for it.
Fairly quickly, the women were given tasks that were daunting, by anyone’s standards.
With fears of gas attacks and devastating bombing raids uppermost, the ladies were asked to organise the evacuation of women and children from dangerous urban areas to the countryside. They were also responsible for making vital medical supplies, transforming old sheets into bandages and nursing gowns.
By February 1939, the women’s role had expanded and the name changed to the Women’s Voluntary Service for Civil Defence. But, to most people, they were known simply as the WVS. Most of their duties still involved helping air raid victims and supporting civil defence workers. But, as time went on, they took on more varied roles on the Home Front.
Pioneers of the “Make Do and Mend” spirit, WVS ladies were experts at salvaging, their zeal for re-cycling putting our attempts in the shade. Under their guidance, re-cycling became a patriotic duty.
Before long, parks and public buildings were stripped of iron railings. And, even the most recalcitrant housewives chivvied into surrendering pots, pans and kettles to make Spitfires and weapons. The WVS also ran rubber and paper drives, even collecting artificial limbs.
Old bones were also collected to make glue and garden fertiliser. Nothing was safe - if it could be recycled for the war effort, the WVS seized it.
They also asked for donations of old clothes for WVS clothing stores. These were a godsend to thousands bombed out of their homes, and left with nothing.
Hard-pressed mothers also used them to swap clothes their children had outgrown.
And, with so few toys available, the WVS ran Christmas Toy exchanges, making sure kids found something in their stockings on Christmas Day.
With the Government desperate to ensure the health of a nation on meagre wartime rations, the health of mothers and babies became a priority. The ‘Dig For Victory’ campaign urged everyone to grow their own fruit and vegetables, wherever they could. People were also encouraged to scour hedgerows and waste land for any free food to supplement the wartime diet. Those of a certain age will recall being given spoonfuls of Rose Hip Syrup, at some point during their childhood.
During wartime, rose hip harvesting was organised by the WVS.
The women also distributed the vitamin packed syrup to mothers with young children. WVS volunteers also worked as ‘Food Leaders’ giving talks on nutrition and recipes for making the best of rationed foods. They also showed people how to cook in difficult circumstances, when power supplies were severely disrupted by air raids.
Giving information and advice was another major WVS task and they produced and distributed leaflets on a whole range of topics.
During their role supervising the evacuation, one such leaflet gave practical advice and ‘information on bed-wetting for householders taking in unaccompanied children’.
The ‘Housewives’ Service’ was another WVS initiative, with volunteers helping in their local neighbourhoods. This could be giving aid in emergencies, or visiting and comforting the elderly, who often felt the strain of wartime conditions more than the young did. Above all, they gave encouragement and practical help wherever needed.
The WVS also supported other essential services, running canteens and rest centres, providing hot meals for ARP workers, fire fighters, paramedics and ambulance drivers, public transport staff and the Home Guard.
During the Blitz, the rest centres and mobile canteens were a godsend, providing food and comfort to shocked bomb victims and rescuers alike. Setting up and running these canteens was no mean feat. A WVS booklet, entitled Communal Feeding in War Time (HMSO, 1940), gives an insight into how they managed to feed such large numbers at fairly short notice.
Outlining equipment needed, a range of suitable menus and separate diets for adults, children and the elderly, it makes fascinating reading.
To make porridge for a thousand children, you needed four and a half stone of oatmeal, 60 gallons of water and 28lbs of sugar.
And, to cater for a thousand you simply acquired 12 roasting tins, four large cooking forks, four vegetable brushes and one yard broom – not forgetting the trusty boiler to make 500 cuppas in just ten minutes. It was like a military operation and the WVS made it run like clockwork.
Surprisingly, the menus were quite varied, including vegetarian options. On the whole, it was good, plain food, just what was needed after a day in the munitions factory or a long night on ARP duty.
In the aftermath of air raids, WVS volunteers also organised re-homing schemes, finding temporary accommodation for those made homeless by the bombing.
They also ran a re-homing gift scheme for those who had lost everything in the raids.
To do all of this was a mammoth task, and their achievements seem all the more worthy when you consider they were a voluntary organisation, with no concrete rank structure at local level.
Yet, this allowed the organisation to draw on its strengths, doing what women do best – teamwork, networking and getting on with the job in hand. The closest most WVS women ever came to positions of authority were designated roles as centre leaders or regional organisers.
One day a woman could be group leader on a specific task.
The next day she could be working as a team member in a different group – just as well we’re known for our ability to multi task! And just as the organisational structure was fairly informal, so was the dress code.
Despite the existence of the uniform, its cost, plus the shortage of materials, meant most women wore ordinary civvies. Many simply wore the WVS badge pinned onto everyday clothes.
Another vital WVS service was running Incident Inquiry Points (IIPs). These were places where people went to find information about missing loved ones, following air raids. Originally, these had been manned by the ARP, with assistance from WVS volunteers.
The women proved so effective they were asked to take over, freeing ARP workers to work with the fire services. WVS women were often the first to break bad news to those bereaved during the bombing, often going out of their way to accompany relatives to the mortuaries to identify the dead.
Many WVS roles placed volunteers in great danger. Yet they carried on, despite the bombs raining down. More than 200 WVS members were killed during the Blitz, yet their selfless service passed largely unnoticed.
But, as most WVS women would have responded, it was all part of the job.
Five members, however, did receive the George Medal for Bravery during World War Two, for acts of true heroism under extreme conditions.
Throughout the war, the WVS was involved in most aspects of daily life on the Home Front. At their heart lay a strong sense of duty and self sacrifice.
Above all, it was simply a matter of getting on with the job. 75 years on, the women – and men - are still quietly getting on with it.
Were you a member of the Women’s Voluntary Service or are you still a member of the RVS? What were your memories. Email us at editor@black countrybugle.co.uk or go to www.blackcountrybugle.co.uk or write to us at 41 High Street, Cradley Heath, B64 5HL.