29 October 2018
80 years young this year, the Royal Voluntary Service is certainly something to celebrate. Helen Tovey chatted to the man in charge of the RVS archives, Archivist Matthew McMurray, to find out about the largest volunteer organisation in British history! Check out these stunning pictures, and find details of their brand new exhibition, opening on Wed 31st Oct
Back in 1938 when the Royal Voluntary Service was founded few could have imagined the longevity of this organisation nor the selfless dedication of its members. It was originally called the ‘Women’s Voluntary Services for Air Raid Precautions’, set up at a time when the threat of war was looming ever-closer.
Such were the aircraft developments through the 1920s and 30s that everyone knew that any future war would strike at the heart of British communities - with bombing raids hitting homes across the land. As the conflict on the Home Front became a reality, volunteer aid became vital to the war effort. During WW2 a million people signed up to give their time in the Women’s Voluntary Services (WVS) - helping with the evacuation of children, rehoming people bombed out of their homes, working in hospitals - and, of course, making the essential British brew to keep people going.
Over the last eight decades an estimated two to three million people have volunteered their time, giving a total of 14 million years of voluntary service, in a staggering feat that makes the Royal Voluntary Service the largest volunteering organisation in British history. This is certainly an 80th birthday worth celebrating.
‘When you get to 80 years you want to tell people about it,’ enthuses the Royal Voluntary Service Archivist, Matthew McMurray. ‘The volunteers of the RVS are always there in the background, giving people the gift of their time to help another person.’ And, as Matthew explained, this help was particularly vital - because not only were the early years of the service at a time of global conflict, it was also the time before the welfare state.
‘Typical of the RVS approach of spotting a problem - and then coming up with a solution to it,’ said Matthew, ‘was the opening of the first Darby & Joan club in 1943 by the RVS, providing care for senior citizens in need. And just after the war the RVS opened the first old people’s home.’
The hands-on experience that RVS volunteers gained in seeing and solving social issues meant that when the Government was turning its attention to ideas of creating a welfare state post-war it turned to the RVS for inspiration and advice.
Clearly the RVS has had a long and busy history. We asked Matthew about the RVS archives that he looks after that record these momentous decades.
‘With 2 million documents, 30,000 photos and thousands of items of unifroma nd ephemera, the RVS archives are the sixth largest charity archives in the country,’ said Matthew. ‘This means, for example that if you piled all the archive boxes on top of each other, they would reach almost as high as The Shard!’
We also asked, how possible it is to research a former RVS volunteer: ‘As it’s a group effort, with 2,000 centres nationally, helping local communities, the reports rarely mention people’s names, particularly in the early decades of the organisation,’ explained Matthew. ‘However, there are resources you can study. There are 86,000 pages of wartime reports available for free to look at via the RVS catalogue.’ So valuable are the RVS archives that they are inscribed on the UNESCO UK Memory of the World Register. ‘And between 2013 and 2016 we also ran a £70,000 project to record the oral histories of volunteers, and you can listen to these via our catalogue too,’ continued Matthew.
If you have an RVS family member and would like to find out what they’ve got up to, it’s also worth searching the local newspapers, and - if possible - make that time to record their memories. You may be astonished at the awesome things they’ve done while quietly working away for the RVS. Did you know, for instance, that it was RVS volunteers who wrote the name on every single ration book at the start of the Second World War, and then delivered them by hand?
Let’s put our hands together now for the RVS volunteers today still seeing problems - and then solving them. Can’t do better than that.
'The gift of time: a remarkable story of voluntary service in Britain'
Visit the Royal Voluntary Service's new photography exhibition, celebrating its 80th anniversary. The photographs have been taken by celebrity photographer Nicky Johnston and the shots champion the vital role that RVS volunteers play in Britain today, from assisting the NHS to helping older people live healthier and happy lives.
Place: Gallery, Oxo Tower Wharf, South Bank, London SE1 9PH
Dates: Wednesday 31st October to Monday 5th November (11am to 6pm Wed, Friday, Saturday, Sunday; 2pm-5pm Thursday; and 11am-1pm Monday)
Admission: Free of charge, no booking