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15 October 2014
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The Women's Voluntary Service(WVS) in WWIIicon for Recommended story

by hinchliff

Contributed by 
People in story: 
Mrs Florence Shaw M.B.E.
Location of story: 
Coleraine, Co.Antrim, Northern Ireland
Background to story: 
Article ID: 
Contributed on: 
08 December 2004

The Women’s Voluntary Service (WVS) in Coleraine in WWII

Organiser - Mrs. Florence Shaw M.B.E.

My mother had always been involved in voluntary work in the years prior to the outbreak of WWII in September 1939. There was widespread unemployment and poverty — very real poverty in the thirties, and mother helped to run ‘Mother and Baby Clubs’ in a local hall where mothers could bring their babies to be weighed and examined by District Nurses who would also give advice on how to care for the babies. Meanwhile the mothers were given ‘tea and buns’. This was before there was a National Health Service and free medical care. There was also a ‘Benevolent Society’ which would give out vouchers for much needed food and clothing — a great help to the very poor young mothers.

Mother had many other women helping her so when war came along and she was asked to start many new ‘ventures’ to help the several thousand Servicemen coming into the area, she and her many helpers set to with a will and much enthusiasm and so the WVS in Coleraine came into being. Many warehouses, empty factories and halls were requisitioned as living accommodation for the Servicemen (and women), but they had virtually nowhere to go when they were off duty. The WVS opened several canteens in the town which were eventually opened 10am. — 10pm. seven days a week. Here in warm buildings men could enjoy tea and food at reasonable cost. Sandwiches, cakes, biscuits and eventually simple meals like beans on toast or ‘a fry’ — fried eggs on toast ‘sunny side’ up were in great demand as most of the men preferred the eggs not to be turned over! The canteens were warm cheerful places where men could relax, play cards or darts and there was usually a piano and always someone who could play and there would be a sing-song. These were run by groups of voluntary women doing 2 or 3 hour shifts with now and again a soldier detailed to help to fill heavy boilers etc., but 90% of the work was done by WVS volunteers.

There were also mobile canteens to service the small isolated groups of men on ‘Look-out Posts’ or ‘Radar Posts’ on the North and East Antrim coasts, within about 20 or 30 miles from Coleraine. These were very monotonous and lonely postings with only 6 or 8 men in a small hut where they lived and worked miles from the nearest town and with no transport at all. These mobile canteens were owned by the Church Army but run by the WVS who also drove the vans. The vans visited these lonely spots 2 or 3 times per week with tea and sandwiches and were given a great welcome. Chocolate and cigarettes were on sale and also things like soap, notepaper, laces and even pins and needles, combs and simple toiletries. They also brought newspapers and collected and posted letters and delivered mail. On many occasions when a ‘helper’ was needed on the van my sister or I were able to go to these lonely places like Fair Head or Murlough Bay and give a hand serving teas.

With so many servicemen who wished to bring their wives to stay in the area there was soon a need for living accommodation so eventually hundreds of local families took in servicemen’s wives and children to share their homes by renting 2 rooms, as indeed we did in out home.

So many things were happening and so much needed to be done that the WVS took over a large empty shop in Queen Street as a shop and office. It was open all day, six days each week and most of the work was eventually done there and not from own home. The WVS was now involved with the Soldiers, Sailors and Airman’s Help Society and work poured in as members of the Forces needed help, much of it temporary financial help. Men who had then wives living with them in Coleraine could be suddenly be transferred back to England, Scotland or Wales and young wives, often with a young baby, found themselves alone in rented rooms short of cash. Some young wives would maybe get into debt through sickness or the birth of a baby and they would turn to the SSAHS for help.

Occasionally a soldier or airman would be killed, maybe an accident or on manoeuvres and a very young widow and child would need help to pack up and go home to her parents.

I remember one very young woman, just 18 and newly married, spending a few days in our home to be with her husband. Sadly he was killed in an accident and she had to return to her family in England — alone.

Some regiments/battalions remained in Coleraine for months at a time (I think the 9th Warwicks were there 16 or 18 months ) and we had a Major Kenneth Evans and his wife Jane living with us. Their daughter Sara Jane was born in the ‘Mary Ranken’ home in Coleraine (now, sadly, closed) and we were very sad to see them go eventually.

Not everyone stayed so long but many girls/women just came to join their husbands for a weekend when they themselves had leave from the Services or other war work. These were very popular visits nicknamed ‘honey weekends' by the men — not long enough to call a honeymoon! The WVS shop in Queen Street was very busy. Used clothing was sent over from USA and Canada — very useful when clothing coupons were scarce and new clothing unavailable.

USA also sent wonderful ‘baby bundles’ in which everything was new and needed no coupons. These were for ‘expectant mothers’ and contained baby clothing, nappies, safety pins, baby soap, cream and powder — these last four items almost disappeared in wartime and were really welcome.

The large port of Londonderry (and the Foyle) was a hugely important part of the Atlantic convoys which sailed from Glasgow/Liverpool to USA and Canada. They made their final call at Derry to await orders to sail. The ships were very anxious to get fresh vegetables so, with a donkey and cart, a consignment of fresh vegetables was collected from people’s gardens each week in the area and sent by train to Derry for the sailors of the Atlantic convoys.

Sometimes the WVS would be advised of packed troop trains passing through our local station (with long delays for various ‘military’ reasons) and tea with sandwiches and buns would be taken down and given to the men.

My final memory of things done by the WVS was after the two big Air Raids in Belfast. Many lorry loads of hungry, dirty, injured and frightened men, women and children arrived to be cared for and fed. The Irish Society Schools were temporarily ‘taken over’ and the WVS moved in to prepare camp beds and meals for the ‘refugees’ from the City of Belfast until they could safely return to their homes or go to relatives or be billeted locally. It was a big job and the local Girl Guides were brought in to help make beds, peel vegetables or do other jobs. My sister and I were set to wash dozens of babies' bottles — the first time I had ever seen green/brown Guinness/beer bottles used for this purpose with a teat on the end!

There were so many jobs to do to help the Servicemen stationed in the Coleraine area; young people called up to serve their country and train for the eventual invasion of Europe on D. Day; young men and women far from home, often for the first time and lonely for families, wives and sweethearts.

The women of the WVS took on this task in large numbers — it was all voluntary, hard work, often seven days a week, where necessary. Many of the women had seen their own men folk go to serve and live in other areas and they were glad to do their bit to help locally. Sadly, after 60 years, I can only remember a very few names of those who worked so willingly with my mother (as the local organiser *) but there were maybe one hundred and I mustn’t name just one or two!

The WVS continues to work today in various parts of Great Britain turning out to help wherever there is a tragedy or accident maybe — working voluntarily to help just as others did in so many areas during the Second World War.

- END -

* Mother received the MBE for her voluntary work for the WVS but it couldn’t have happened without the wonderful group of people who worked with her all those years ago.

Mary Hinchliff (nee Shaw)

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