31,401 pages of diaries by members of the Women’s Voluntary Service (WVS) are available to view for the first time. 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They were inscribed on the UNESCO UK Memory of the World register in 2010 as one of the most important historical documents in the UK, but have only just been digitised after RVS raised £28,000 for the project from over 700 members of the public via the website Kickstarter.
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. The jobs these women did were rarely glamorous, but success of the WVS was in using the skills women already had, the skills of wives and mothers; knitting, sewing, cooking, and of course compassion and diplomacy. Where new skills were needed, such as driving in the blackout, extinguishing incendiary bombs or making jumpers from dog’s hair, training was given and many stepped up to the task.
Every account is written in a different style by a different woman. Some are long, others short but all give a fascinating window on a world which is soon to be out of living memory.