Hidden histories of a million wartime women: WVS records to go online

By Richard Moss | 01 May 2016

The Royal Voluntary Service is to digitise a new collection of records showing the vital work of the Women's Voluntary Service on the home front in World War Two

Almost 30,000 pages of never-before-seen diaries written by female volunteers of the Women’s Voluntary Service during World War Two are to be released online in a new project from the Royal Voluntary Service.

Established by the Dowager Marchioness of Reading in 1938 to fully engage women in the role of civil defence, at its height 960,000 women were involved in the WVS, working alongside local authority personnel and the Air Raid Precautions Service. 

Their work became vital to the war effort on the home front, with women from all walks of life volunteering to undertake a range of duties - from the collection of green waste in "pig bins" and the co-ordination of metal salvage to the running mobile canteens and rest centres in the blitz-torn streets of Britain.

The project to reveal the stories of this army of volunteers, The Hidden Histories of a Million Wartime Women, will launch a fundraising campaign on the crowdfunding site Kickstarter in early May 2016. The hope is that the public will support digitisation of the insight into life during World War II and help unlock the thousands of diary entries, which were awarded UNESCO UK Memory of the World status in 2010.

a photo of a group of smiling women carrying dustbins
Salvage workers from the Women's Voluntary Service in East Barnet, Hertfordshire, during 1943, carrying bins containing kitchen scraps that will be distributed to local farmers as food for pigs© IWM D14251
More than 300,000 pages of diary entries tell stories of everyday heroism from female volunteers from more than 2,000 cities, towns and villages across Great Britain – documented at a time when one in 10 women in Britain was a member.
If the project hits its £25,000 target, the Archive and Heritage Collection team at the Royal Voluntary Service will begin by digitising the first 28,000 pages covering  1938 to 1941.

"For six years we have been sorting, protecting and preserving tens of thousands of pieces of fragile paper to get to a point where we can start to capture and share these remarkable stories with everyone,” says Matthew McMurray, the service's Archivist.
“Those million women, the army that Hitler forgot, were pivotal in the allied victory in the Second World War, but their efforts have almost completely been forgotten.”

McMurray has spent the past 10 years working to turn what was a very large pile of boxes in a self-storage warehouse into a collection that is available to everyone.

One example report reveals how a volunteer from Bath cleaned an array of children’s gas masks. The accompanying narrative describes a particularly busy month for the Bath Centre following a major Blitz on the city between 28 and 29 April 1941, with volunteers fitting 80 children with masks and issuing 205 helmets for babies. The centre was also responsible for serving 3,350 meals and helped coordinate housing for more than 9,000 people made homeless following the raids.

Another more unusual entry, from Portsmouth in November 1943, details how the Centre’s "dog hair expert" attended a special demonstration day at Harrods. The training session taught volunteers how to salvage fur from dog grooming and spin it into a warm and hardwearing alternative to wool. The entry remarks how Portsmouth’s contributions were highly praised at the event, which was organised at the request of the Board of Trade.

The online archive will allow the public to access these previously untold stories, shedding more light on the way the largest volunteer organisation in British history supported Civil Defence.

“We want to be able to share these tales of everyday heroism and those million ordinary women who made the difference. Please go to our Kickstarter page, get drawn into the story, pledge your support, get your part of the story and help us reveal the Hidden Histories of A Million Wartime Women."

Today the WVS successor's, the Royal Voluntary Service focuses its work on helping older people to remain independent and get more out of life. It now supports more than 100,000 older people each month to stay independent in their own homes for longer running services such as Good Neighbours (companionship), Meals-on-Wheels and Books-on-Wheels and other projects that alleviate loneliness and help older people.

Royal Voluntary Service also provides practical support for older people who have been in hospital through its On Ward Befriending and Home from Hospital services and via its network of retail shops and cafes.

The Hidden Histories of A Million Wartime Women page will go live for 30 days from early May. Supporters who donate £10 will see their name appear on the Archive website, while £100 will ensure a copy of the diaries for one local centre as soon as they are digitised. Donors of £1,000 will receive an exclusive behind-the-scenes tour of the archive – not usually open to the public – plus lunch with the services' Archive and Heritage team.

After tea, a group of Royal Engineers help Patience 'Boo' Brand fill up the washing up bowl with hot water from the water urn.
After tea, a group of Royal Engineers help Patience 'Boo' Brand fill up the washing up bowl with hot water from the water urn. Somewhere in London in 1941. © IWM (D 2173)
Three places to discover women's history in

Tower Hamlets Local History Library and Archives, London
In July 1888, more than 1,400 women and girls employed at the Bryant & May match factory in Bow successfully went on strike to improve their working conditions. In 1988, East End artist Alison Marchant marked the centenary of this pivotal moment in feminist and labour history with a range of public installations and a national touring exhibition. See it restaged until May 21 2016.

Manchester Art Gallery
From the doyenne of British fashion, Vivienne Westwood, to Belgrade-born, London-based designer Roksanda Ilincic and rising star J JS Lee, Fashion and Freedom (May 13 - November 27 2016) shows the work of female fashion designers creating contemporary pieces inspired by the profound changes in women’s dress that occurred during the First World War. These exclusive designs are being presented in an exhibition alongside historic wartime selections drawn from Manchester Art Gallery’s renowned costume collection.

The Postal Museum, London
In the current exhibition, Unstitching the Uniform, the museum has worked with The Amies - a group of ten women who were brought together by PAN Arts - and The Poppy Project, an organisation that provides support, advocacy and accommodation for women who have been trafficked. The project has unravelled many of the stories about the wide variety of uniforms held in our collection and sewn their own versions of key uniform items. Until June 30 2016.
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