More than Tea and Sympathy

Louise Westwood celebrates sixty years of that very British institution, the WVS.

A public broadcast in 1938 discussed the threat of war and appealed for volunteers for Air Raid Precautions (ARP) training. There was a huge response from women which was something of a surprise to the Home Secretary, Sir Samuel Hoare. He would no doubt be even more surprised that his brainchild, the Women’s Voluntary Service (WVS), which was born from his response, is still going strong in 1998.

In June 1938, a letter was sent to all local authorities stating that the WVS, under the leadership of Lady Stella Reading, would co-operate closely with them for ARP training. Reimbursement of reasonable expenditure was offered and a grant could be claimed. There was considerable resistance at a local level to ‘another women’s organisation’. The County Council Association complained that their members were concerned because of ‘…the previous tendency of women’s organisations to act upon their own initiative…’.

In subsequent years it was precisely this initiative which enabled the WVS to solve obscure, difficult and sensitive problems in emergency situations. This became their hallmark and they acquired a reputation for never saying ‘No’. The organisation was not constrained by bureaucracy and drew on a network of members to help maintain the war effort. Much of the work was social welfare but they also recruited workers for the Civil Nursing Reserve, the Local Defence force and the Women’s Land Army and were involved in a much broader range of work than was originally envisaged. By December 1938 the organisation was known as the WVS for Civil Defence.

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