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15 October 2014
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Recollections of the W.V.S. 1939-1942

by landgal

Contributed by 
People in story: 
Joy Hird
Location of story: 
Horley, Surrey
Background to story: 
Civilian Force
Article ID: 
Contributed on: 
10 July 2005


I think it must have been in August, or maybe much earlier when Lady Reading decided to set up the Women’s Voluntary Services?? W.V.S. and began recruiting centre organisers — women of ‘standing’ with organisational ability. Our mother, Gertrude Hird, had already organised a branch of the Townswomen’s Guild and the Queen’s Nurses in Horley, the town a mile from our home.
In August, the Dorking and Horley District Council requisitioned ‘Thornbury’ — a large house in Massey Rd, to be the W.V.S headquarters. I was 16 years old and my sister; Meg was seventeen and a half. Elsie Crimps, Betty Rolt, Patricia Routledge, Paddy Buxton and Pricilla Lane are the names o the young helpers. Beryl Morgan, a retired headmistress and Mrs Montague and Mrs. Dennis were the adult helpers.
The W.V.S. uniform had been designed by Norman Hartnell, the Queen’s couturier; it was a bottle green Harris tweed suit, a maroon blouse or jersey and a ‘porkpie’ hat. For summer, canteen or office work, there was a green overall with a breast pocket monogram. For nursing duty in the sick bay we wore white overalls.
The London schools were to b evacuated and we were to find homes for dozens of children. In our uniforms we went all over the district making lists of those houses that would have boys or girls or families. The government was to pay a weekly allowance to the householder.
Soon after we had billeted these children, we had indignant householders on the doorstep of Thornbury, complaining of bedwetting, impetigo, scabies etc; we then turned 2 or 3 bedrooms into a sick bay. Fortunately a small school called Wavertree had evacuated to Devon and had offered Mother iron bedsteads and mattresses etc. Mrs Montague became the resident matron and we girls would go on duty at 8am each day and would have to change wet sheets and wash them, after bathing the children and giving them breakfast and taking the little ones to school. Presumably the ones with head lice, impetigo and scabies were barred from school and we must have had to keep them occupied.
I do remember the day we found a dead cat in the garden and we had a burial ceremony with the help of the Jackson boys from next door. A yellow nightdress was the shroud.
When the army arrived in the district, Mother set up a canteen in the school hall every evening from 5-10pm. This entailed catering for? 20-60 men each night. One egg and chips was 4d. 2 eggs and chips were 6d. 2 slices of bread and margarine were 1d. There were buns and doughnuts and allowances of chocolate and sweets all on ration to us civilians and I cannot remember if the men were restricted to one each. Mother kept a strict control of it all and we never had any of the men’s food.
Edie West and Mrs Dennis were the cooks on our shift and we girls were the waitresses and Mrs Dennis, who smoked like a chimney, used to let her ash drop into the fried eggs. Edie was our cook from home and she would cycle, with Meg and me, the mile to the canteen for our shift. On winter nights it was quite eerie because our home was on a river and the mist made us feel we were surrounded by King Harold’s army, who had camped at Thunderfield Castle nearby.
In 1940 Lady Reading recruited ‘The Queen’s Messengers’ Food Flying Squad. 30cwt vans were fitted out as mobile canteens to feed the firemen, police, heavy rescue squad’s personnel who were called to the scenes of shelling or bombing. The Dorking and Horley District had 3 or 4 vans plus 2 water carriers. These were ‘manned’ by W.V.S. members. At the age of 17 years old I was taught to manoeuvre one backwards into a stable-like space in a large barn just outside Reigate town centre. Lord Woolton’s daughter was 19 years old, the other drivers were in their sixties. Lady Lambert and the Hon. Mrs Seymour are two names I remember. We were taught by the police instructors and had to double-d clutch each time we changed gear.
Our first outing was to Folkestone after it was shelled. Then Dover after it was shelled, but being at the aftermath of Canterbury was a scene of burning devastation I will never forget. We parked under the city wall, opposite Lady Wootten Green (as it is now). Sometimes we had to set out very early in the morning and sometimes we were working so late that we had to stay the night in a large house on the outskirts of the town.

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