Life on the Home Front with the women of Berkshire and Buckinghamshire

PUBLISHED: 14:51 03 July 2013 | UPDATED: 14:51 03 July 2013

WVS in war time

WVS in war time


The dedicated service of our counties’ women became synonymous with life on the Home Front and the spirit that helped to win the Second World War, says John Leete

When it became apparent to the enlightened few in Government that war was unavoidable, the then Home Secretary, Sir Samuel Hoare, realised that a huge number of women volunteers would be needed.

With the British psyche reluctant to even consider such unpleasant situations as war and even the possibility of air attacks on the country not making enough people sit up and take notice, Hoare had a task on his hands. He wanted to recruit a force of women to help achieve 1 million volunteers who would be put ‘on standby’.

So in 1938 he approached The Dowager Marchioness of Reading, who was well known for her considerable charity work. Hoare had discovered that existing organisations for women were not suitable recruitment agents for a new force of women volunteers to assist the ARP, because of political or practical reasons.

His question was: “Do you think you could start something special?” Lady Reading questioned whether she was the right person for the job, but was assured by the Home Secretary that, at the very least, he wanted her advice. She produced a memorandum which set out the suggested terms and guidelines for a new service to meet the challenges thrust upon it by a war. In the document was a recommendation that the Home Office should provide office space, some financial assistance for clerical work and training fairly soon after enrolment.

She believed that getting the organisation set up in a manner that allowed women volunteers to feel it ‘belonged to them’ was paramount. Lady Reading was only too well aware that the established practice of some organisations was to utilise snobbery and patronage to secure the desired results, and she could not envisage this being of any benefit to the new service.

Just name it, we’ll help

Collecting metal household items – to be converted for the armaments factories – was just one of the roles women took on.

The Housewives Service was enrolling members in large numbers in our towns. They helped with salvage drives, rendering first aid where necessary and running errands of mercy. Inevitably, duties included making a ‘nice cup of tea’. Within a year of the declaration of war, the WVS had established itself as the organisation to which every service man and woman could turn to for help.

The incredibly long list of jobs undertaken by the WVS in Berks and Bucks included changing library books for hospital patients, helping with national savings campaigns including Warships Week and Salute the Soldier, making children’s toys from recovered wood, finding furnished rooms, organising salvage drives, helping children’s homes, making blackout blinds and acting as a Registry for queries on housing, tax and many other issues. They also located and prepared and cleaned homes for evacuees and others in need, organised basic furniture items end even placed flowers in vases as a welcome gesture.

They also set up what was to become known as the Pie Scheme, a catering service which delivered pies to service personnel stationed in remote outposts such as the pill-boxes along the Kennet and Avon Canal.

Appearing by magic…

The WVS mobile canteen pictured above left is handing out tea and buns to a rescue party after a raid in Reading.

Christine Lock, originally from the Cold Ash area of Berkshire, says: “My granddad George was with the ARP in Birmingham and often during his shifts he would be on the go non-stop, especially after a raid. He said that from quite early on in the war, as if by magic, the WVS would appear from nowhere and set up a canteen and an information post for those who had been bombed out or were coming to look for loved ones. He said more than once it was a strong cup of tea and a smile from the ladies of the WVS that lifted his sprits and gave him the energy to carry on.”

Smiles and kind words

Over the page you’ll see a mobile laundry being set up, and soon the cheery WVS women would be ready to get to work.

Robert Read, a Buckinghamshire man, noted in his diary: “I was involved in one of the big building contracts and was sent down to Portsmouth in readiness for the Normandy Campaign. These girls used to come out in allthe elements, through rain, mud and very cold weather to serve us with food and drink. Whatever the day chucked at them, they always managed a smile and a few kind words.”

Throughout the dark, traumatic and eventful days of the Second World War and the post war repatriation of POWS and the homecoming of the nation’s service men and women, in the streets, lanes, towns and villages of Berkshire and Buckinghamshire, the volunteers of the Women’s Voluntary Service could be found involved in every aspect of daily life, helping everyone without exception, whatever their needs.

In the rebuilding of Britain and in the resettlement of its population, they went about their business without fuss or favour and displayed extraordinary courage, selflessness and determination for the good of all those they served.


Setting to work

The new service was to be called the Women’s Voluntary Service (for ARP) and the name was launched on June 18 1938. Although they were allowed to enlist as ARP Wardens, it was felt that women did not have the physical endurance necessary to sustain the required level of operation during heavy raid conditions! The role of women in the ARP was restricted to emphasising the need for basic ARP skills and personal training of women in the home. They were also recruited as ambulance drivers and assistants and many joined the newly formed Transport Department as convoy drivers, becoming a familiar sight in their green uniforms.

The Minister of Health had already requested from the WVS details of how many escorts would be needed to evacuate cities like London. When the agreed 24 hours notice was given for evacuation, 12 telegrams were sent from HQ to Regional Administrators. They alerted County and Borough organisers who made contact with Centre, District and Village Representatives in every county, including Berkshire and Buckinghamshire. By using this simple yet effective system, 120,000 women were alerted across the UK. Of these, 17,000 acted as escorts on the first evacuation, with over 1,500 from our two counties.

Later the WVS was to avail their services to the men and women of the Armed Services through the NAAFI style facility which used both static and mobile canteens to provide hot and cold food as well as chocolate, razors, cosmetics for members of the ATS, WAAFs and Wrens and the biggest single item of all, cigarettes. An average of over five million cigarettes was to be distributed every month via WVS canteens and hostels with local units dispensing 137,000 per month. The WVS within its widening remit would soon provide help, guidance and assistance to everyone who needed it.


An evacuee remembers…

Those bombed out during the war relied on the WVS for help. Emma Peters, now living near Princes Risborough in Bucks, recalls: “I was told by my mum that the WVS helped to clothe us when we were bombed out and they organised new accommodation and contacted family members, who later took us to safety in the country. I also apparently had a couple of small toys given by the WVS, and my brother was given a cricket bat.

“Mum had to organise the change of address for ration books and ID cards and notify various people about our move, and the WVS helped with that too. I am sure if it hadn’t been for them, our family and many other bombed out families would have had real problems.”

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