Women volunteers’ wartime diaries go online

By Rosemary Collins, 5 July 2017 - 8:20am

The Royal Voluntary Service reports offer an insight into women's contribution to the war effort

During the war, one in ten British womem was a member of WVS. Credit: RVS

The Royal Voluntary Service has made thousands of pages of Women’s Voluntary Service monthly reports available for free.

Over 30,000 pages of diaries by members of the Women’s Voluntary Service (WVS) will be available to view for the first time.

To coincide with the unveiling of an English Heritage Blue Plaque for the charity’s founder, Stella Reading, Royal Voluntary Service (RVS) is releasing 31,401 pages of monthly narrative reports from local WVS sections.

The diaries date from 1938-1942 and cover more than 1,300 different cities, towns and villages across Great Britain.

They were inscribed on the UNESCO UK Memory of the World register in 2010 as one of the most important historical documents in the UK, but have only just been digitised after RVS raised £28,000 for the project from over 700 members of the public via the website Kickstarter.

The diaries provide an insight into day-to-day life during wartime. Credit: RVS

Stella Isaacs, Marchioness of Reading, founded the WVS in May 1938 and toured the country throughout 1938 and 1939, telling audiences “the greatest disservice a woman can do at the moment is consider herself useless”.

By the end of August 1939, over 300,000 women had joined the organisation and more than 1,200 WVS centres had been set up around the country.

During the war, one in ten British women was a member of the WVS. As well as contributing to the war effort by sewing, cooking, knitting and helping their communities recover after raids, members learnt new skills such as extinguishing incendiary bombs, driving in the blackout and garnishing camouflage nets, helping transform the way in which women were viewed by society.

The WVS eventually became the Royal Voluntary Service, now a charity focused on helping older people through services such as lunch and dining clubs, exercise and dance classes, Books-on-Wheels and Good Neighbours.

The blue plaque commemorating Stella Reading was unveiled on 4 July at 41 Tothill Street, the wartime headquarters of the WVS, by Dame Patricia Routledge, an RVS ambassador.

The new archive provides a remarkable insight into the ups and downs of life in wartime Britain.

Many WVS sections helped communities recover after raids. Credit: RVS

In Ventnor on the Isle of Wight, the Housewives Section of the WVS sprang into action after an air raid in 1942.

One member whose house was damaged by a blast turned her stirrup pump on a nearby building and fought the fire caused by incendiary bullets.

Other members attended to bullet wound casualties in the road, and elderly people suffering from shock were taken to safety and provided with hot drinks.

The WVS was on duty for three days providing assistance to the homeless and the rescue and salvage teams.

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