The Women’s Voluntary Services (WVS) was established in 1938 by Stella Isaacs, the Dowager Marchioness of Reading. The Women's Voluntary Service was to act as a support unit for the ARP and the ‘terms’ of its work was set out in the Air Raid Precautions Act, which came into being on January 1st 1938, and in the 1938 pamphlet “What You Can Do”.
Prior to the start of the war, Stella Isaacs had been asked by the government to draw up proposals for women to work with the ARP. She found the whole topic was riddled with lack of clarity and detail, especially over the exact role women would have. In response to the government’s request, Isaacs wrote a detailed account of just what should happen with regards to the part women could play in a war that many were certain would come. She wanted a small but effective committee that would oversee and administer the work done by the many women’s voluntary organisations that did exist in 1938. Her proposal looked at the issue at a national, regional and local level with each section supporting the others.
On May 16th, 1938, the government set out the objectives of the WVS:
It was seen “as the enrolment of women for Air Raid Precaution Services of Local Authorities, to help to bring home to every household what air attack may mean, and to make known to every household in the country what it can do to protect itself and the community.”
At the end of May, representatives from many women’s organisations met in London and promised to give support to the WVS. With Lady Reading in charge of the WVS, it is not surprising that the senior posts in it were held by those women she knew and trusted – though, invariably, this meant that the hierarchy of the WVS came from a specific social class. The Vice-Chairperson of the WVS was Priscilla Norman, the wife of the governor of the Bank of England. The Chief Regional Administrator was Mrs. Lindsay Huxley, Honorary Treasurer of the National Federation of Women’s Institutes.
The WVS was a voluntary organisation, so no one held a specific rank at a local level. If someone existed as a group leader for a certain task one week, she could simply be part of a team with another group leader the next week but for a different task.
As a voluntary body, the WVS did not have a compulsory uniform. It did have a uniform – designed by Digby Morton – but it was not free. Many WVS members went about their work simply wearing a WVS badge on their lapels.
The work of the WVS covered a very broad spectrum. Lady Reading had a simple philosophy for the WVS – if the job needed doing, it was done. As an example, the WVS organised first aid courses in the cities that were thought to be likely targets for the Luftwaffe. However, while the WVS organised such course, they did not provide the training as this had to be done by qualified staff.
The WVS played a key part in evacuation. However, the reality of moving children out of danger areas to areas of safety proved far more difficult than anybody had expected. The WVS had been asked to pin point areas of safety and billeting for the evacuated children. Moving children out of the cities proved reasonably easy. Getting them to a known area of safety proved a lot more difficult as trains did not always arrive at an expected destination or would turn up at a reception point unexpectedly. Regardless of such problems, the WVS is credited with helping to move 1.5 million people (primarily children) out of cities in the early days of September 1939.
The WVS also played a major role in the collection of clothing required for the needy. In October 1939, Lady Reading broadcast to the United States about the need for clothing in the UK. The broadcast led to large quantities of clothing (known as ‘Bundles for Britain’) being sent over to Great Britain by the American Red Cross. These were distributed from WVS Emergency Clothing Stores.
When troops returned to ports after the evacuation at Dunkirk, members of the WVS were there to greet them and hand out food, drink and warm clothing. The WVS base at Headcorn rail station in Kent was an especially busy place for feeding returning soldiers before they dispersed - even a spit was installed so that meat could be roasted there and then. The WVS also played a vital part during the Blitz of London and other cities. By the time of the Blitz, women in the WVS were adept at providing food and drink around the clock. While ARP wardens and firemen fought the fires, women in the WVS set up mobile canteens to keep them refreshed. By doing this, they placed themselves in the heart of danger with collapsing buildings a constant threat. When the raids had ended, the WVS also played a part in looking after those who were injured and had lost their homes. Again, the provision of clothes from their Emergency Clothing Stores proved vital. Records indicate that the WVS dealt with and helped over 10,000 people every night of the Blitz. As the Blitz lasted for 57 nights, the WVS helped in total a vast number of people who went to their rest centres. Some people stayed just for a night - many stayed for much longer and stretched the resources of the WVS to the limit. In Barnes, one WVS member fed 1,200 bomb victims in just one day, cooking in her own kitchen.
It would be difficult to overstate the importance of the work done by the WVS during the Blitz. People who had lost their homes and possibly even members of their family had people they could turn to. The rest centres may not have been palatial but they provided a roof, food and, importantly, sanitation.
But working so near to the centre of the bombing inevitably led to casualties. 241 members of the WVS were killed during the Blitz and many more were wounded. Twenty five WVS offices were also destroyed.
Having been met with a degree of scepticism in the initial stages of its development, the WVS proved its huge worth during the onslaught of the Blitz. The role of the organisation was developed as the war proceeded. During the Blitz, ARP's were officially in charge of the Incident Inquiry Points (IIP). These were places where people came to find out about their loved ones who were in an area that had been bombed. However, the WVS ran these IIP's to free the ARP to work with the fire brigade. The running of the IIP's was officially handed over to the WVS - a mark of recognition as to the efficiency with which they had handled this task during the Blitz. The WVS also helped with the Queen's Messenger Food Convoys which took food to areas in need after a bombing raid. The people who survived the bombing of Coventry received help from one of the Food Convoys with 14,000 meals being served.
By 1941, 1 million women belonged to the WVS. Their work did not slacken after the end of the Luftwaffe's bombing raids. The Battle of the Atlantic and the devastating toll of merchant ships sunk by U-boats led to shortages in Great Britain. The WVS did all that it could to assist in the collection of required material for the war effort and also to educate people in not wasting what they had. Each WVS centre had its own Salvage Officer and Food Leader. The Food Leader did whatever was required at a local level to assist the authorities in the complicated task of food rationing. Educational pamphlets were produced and lectures held. The WVS organised campaigns such as 'Salute the Soldier', 'Wings for Victory', 'Spitfire Funds' and 'Warship Weeks'. Local initiatives were vital. The Rural Pie Scheme was one such initiative. As the title suggests, WVS members in rural areas baked pies to feed those working in the fields at harvest time. In the autumn of 1941 alone, Cambridge WVS members cooked and distributed over 70,000 pies to farm workers.
In the build up to D-Day, the expertise the WVS had in catering was put to use again. The skills learned during the Blitz were again put to good use when the V1 and V2 rockets fell on London. Once again, the WVS played a key role in evacuation. With the success of D-Day, the WVS moved into Europe to support troops there. The first WVS abroad had landed in Italy with the success of the invasion there. Foreign WVS units were also established - the Indian WVS had 10,000 members. The Australian WVS worked in occupied Japan and their work included helping the people of Hiroshima.
When the war ended it was inevitable that membership of the WVS would fall. However, it still operated after 1945 as food rationing was still in place. Such was the work that it did, that the new Labour government funded the WVS from central government funded.
know we look shabby and we know our members are not young, but we are
proud of the fact that we are trusted by the ordinary people."