Royal Voluntary Service
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The Royal Voluntary Service (known as the Women's Voluntary Service from 1938 to 1966; Women’s Royal Voluntary Service from 1966 to 2005 and WRVS from 2005 to 2013) is a voluntary organization concerned with helping people in need throughout England, Scotland and Wales. It was founded in 1938 by Stella Isaacs, Marchioness of Reading as a British women’s organization to aid civilians.
On 16 May 1938, the British government set out the objectives of the Women's Voluntary Service for Civil Defence:
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.”
In the words of the then Home Secretary, Sir Samuel Hoare, "as regards their civil defence functions, the Minister regards the Women's Voluntary Service as occupying ... much the same relationship as that of the women's auxiliary services for the armed forces of the Crown."
The WVS was a voluntary organization, 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 Norman Hartnell - The Queen's couturier-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 organized first aid courses in the cities that were thought to be likely targets for the Luftwaffe. However, while the WVS organized such courses, they did not provide the training as this had to be done by qualified staff.
World War II
Evacuation, clothing distribution and returning soldiers
The WVS played a key part in the evacuation of civilians from urban areas. The WVS had been asked to pinpoint areas of safety and billeting for 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. The WVS is credited with helping to move 1.5 million people (the majority were 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 the railway station in Headcorn, Kent was an especially busy place for feeding returning soldiers before they dispersed—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, thus placing themselves in serious physical danger with collapsing buildings a constant threat. When the raids ended, the WVS also played a part in looking after those who were injured and had lost their homes. 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: the rest centres 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. 25 WVS offices were destroyed.
The WVS began running IIPs (Incident Inquiry Points), places where people came to find out about their loved ones who were in an area that had been bombed in order to free the ARP to work with the fire brigade. 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 convoys with 14,000 meals being served.
By 1941, one 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 not to waste 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 Week.
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
After WWII the WVS still operated because food rationing was still in place. Such was the work that it did, that the new Labour government funded the WVS from central government funds.
In 1956, Queen Elizabeth II agreed to become patron of WVS and ten years later, in 1966, she awarded WVS the honour of adding 'Royal' to its title.
The organisation evolved to helping isolated and lonely people, particularly the elderly. They are particularly well known as providers of the Meals on Wheels service which delivers hot meals to the housebound. Their mission is ‘To help people to maintain independence and dignity in their homes and communities, particularly in later life.’
In 1968, the Government dismantled the Civil Defence Corps, to which WRVS had been affiliated, and WRVS was registered as a charity from 16 January 1968.
The services they now provide are practical services delivered with warmth and care to thousands of older and housebound people every day such as Meals on Wheels, Good Neighbours and community transport.
They also run hospital shops and cafés where any profits are returned to the hospital to improve services for patients, staff and visitors.
Royal Voluntary Service emergency teams provide back-up to the professional services and members of the public in times for major incidents such as the Lockerbie disaster, Hillsborough disaster, Buncefield fuel depot blast and flooding crises in July 2007 by running rest centres and providing emergency feeding to members of the public, fire crews and police.
In 2004, the organization's name was changed from the Women’s Royal Voluntary Service to simply WRVS in an attempt to modernise its image and in recognition of the fact that 11% of its 60,000 volunteers were men. In 2013, it changed its name to Royal Voluntary Service, to further dispel the myth that it is an organisation for women only; currently about 5% of its volunteers are men.
- "Charity WRVS drops 'women' from its name to attract men". BBC News. 20 May 2013. Retrieved 20 May 2013.
- "WRVS becomes Royal Voluntary Service". 20 May 2013. Retrieved 20 May 2013.
- Beauman, Katharine Bentley (1977) Green Sleeves: the story of WVS/WRVS. London: Seeley Service & Co. (extensively plagiarised in this article).
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