Women’s Voluntary Service

Charlotte Tomlinson, a PhD researcher at the University of Leeds, tells us about the Royal Voluntary Service Heritage Collection.

Tell us a little about one archive collection you have used as part of your research? My research focuses on the Women’s Voluntary Services (now Royal Voluntary Service) in Britain during the Second World War, so the official archive of this organisation is absolutely crucial to my work. I study the everyday experiences of the women who volunteered with the Women’s Voluntary Services during the war – of which there were more than one million at its peak. These women volunteered in countless different ways, helping civilians during air raids in rest centres and canteens, running ‘Make Do and Mend’ classes, staffing Citizen’s Advice Bureaus, collecting pots and pans for salvage, and so much more.

I use two main types of material held by the archive: the Narrative Reports (monthly accounts of voluntary activity in each WVS centre) to build a picture of what work was being done across Britain, while the WVS Bulletin newsletter, which was published monthly during the war, gives me an insight into the messages and guidance women were receiving at different
points in the conflict.

What was significant about the collection? How did it benefit your research? The Royal Voluntary Service Heritage Collection informs and enriches my work in really important and exciting ways. These records provide essential context for, and act as a counterpoint to, the personal papers of volunteering women I focus on, helping me to understand how wartime voluntarism was imagined as well as experienced. For example, using these records allows me to compare women’s actual experience of volunteering in air raids with the ways it was presented in ‘official’ WVS material. I have been able to build up a picture of how women were recruited into the WVS, and argue that volunteering was much
more locally motivated than literature on wartime citizenship and patriotism might suggest.

Most fundamentally, the records are a window into the wartime lives of a million women whose stories, so far, have been very much overlooked. The fact that the Narrative Reports are inscribed on the UNESCO UK Memory of the World Register is a reflection on their significance.

A baby weighing clinic in the 1950s. Reproduced with kind permission of Royal Voluntary Service.

Do you have any top tips for other researchers accessing this collection? There’s limited public access to the collections on-site at the archive, so do make the most of the material that’s available online. The Narrative Reports and the WVS Bulletins, which have been digitised, are such incredibly rich resources with so much to unpack and explore, and all available for free via the RVS website.

Further reading

Charlotte Tomlinson, ‘Dealing With Distress: The Women’s Voluntary Services and the Hull Blitz’, RVS Heritage Bulletin Blog, May 2019.

Charlotte Tomlinson, ‘Who Volunteers? Recruiting for the WVS in Wartime’, RVS Heritage Bulletin Blog, March 2019.

Charlotte Tomlinson, ‘Mend and Make Do to Save Buying New’: What can we learn from WVS work with wartime clothing?’, RVS Heritage Bulletin Blog, September 2019.

Henry Irving, Rosemary Cresswell, Barry Doyle, Shane Ewen, Mark Roodhouse, Charlotte Tomlinson and Marc Wiggam, ‘The real lessons of the Blitz for Covid-19′. March 2020.

About Georgina Brewis

Professor of Social History at UCL
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