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15 October 2014
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Timeline - 1939-1945

Fact File : Women's Volunteer Groups

May 1938 - present

In 1938, with the outbreak of World War Two looking more and more likely, the Home Secretary Sir Samuel Hoare decided to establish a women's voluntary organisation to assist in the event of possible future air attacks. On 16 May, the Women's Voluntary Service for Air Raid Precautions (WVS) was founded. Hoare asked the energetic and determined Lady Reading, who had been a nurse during World War One, to run the WVS.

When war broke out in September 1939, the WVS already had 165,000 members. Their work quickly diversified into helping in all areas of the Home Front, and their name was soon changed to the WVS for Civil Defence. One of their earliest tasks was to assist with the evacuation of one and a half million mothers and children from large cities to the country. The WVS also provided food and clothing for thousands of refugees from occupied Europe.

When German air raids on British towns and cities began, the WVS was heavily involved in providing support for those whose homes had been bombed. They organised rest centres, prepared food and ensured there were washing facilities and new clothes for bomb victims. Later in the war, they staffed Incident Inquiry Points to give information about the dead and injured to relatives and friends. They also supported the emergency services dealing with the effects of the bombing, running mobile canteens for firemen and rescue workers.

WVS members staffed hostels, clubs and communal feeding centres called 'British Restaurants' and undertook welfare work for troops. When American troops began to arrive in Britain in 1942, the WVS ran 200 'British Welcome Clubs' all over the country in attempt to bridge the divide between the troops and British civilians.

The WVS volunteers were often responsible for the running of salvage drives to generate raw materials for the war effort, including the collection of aluminium saucepans and kitchen utensils, and the removal of iron railings from public buildings. They also organised clothing exchanges where children's clothes could be swapped for larger sizes.

By the end of 1941, the WVS had enrolled its millionth member. Many were older women, as younger women were called up into the services or to do essential war work. It offered them an opportunity to use abilities and energies which before the war would have been contained in the home.

Apart from a small administrative staff, WVS members were unpaid and had to buy their own uniform. This was designed by the London fashion designer Digby Morton, and consisted of green coats and dresses with burgundy cardigans, green and burgundy scarves, and felt hats.

At the end of the war, the Home Office announced that the WVS should continue for 'possibly two years'. In fact, the WVS continues to this day, providing support in emergencies and carrying out welfare services, particularly for elderly people. In 1966 the organisation was awarded royal status, becoming the Women's Royal Voluntary Service (WRVS).


Women could also volunteer to work for the Navy, Army and Air Force Institutes, known as the NAAFI. This had been founded in 1921 to sell goods to servicemen and their families, and to run recreational establishments for the armed forces. The NAAFI grew quickly during World War Two, at its largest running 10,000 outlets, including 900 mobile shops.

The fact files in this timeline were commissioned by the BBC in June 2003 and September 2005. Find out more about the authors who wrote them.

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