The WRVS (formerly the Women’s Royal Voluntary Service, known until 1966 as the Women's Voluntary Service) is a voluntary organisation concerned with helping people in need throughout England, Scotland and Wales.

It was initially founded as the WVS in 1938 by Stella Isaacs, Marchioness of Reading as a British women’s organisation to aid civilians.


On 16 May 1938, the British government set out the objectives of the Women's Voluntary Service for Civil Defence:

It was seen “as the enrolment of women for Air Raid Precaution Services of Local Authorities, to help to bring home to every household what air attack may mean, and to make known to every household [in the country] what it can do to protect itself and the community.”

In the words of the then Home Secretary, Sir Samuel Hoare, "as regards their civil defence functions, the Minister regards the Women's Voluntary Service as occupying... much the same relationship as that of the women's auxiliary services for the armed forces of the Crown."


The WVS was a voluntary organisation, so no one held a specific rank at a local level. If someone existed as a group leader for a certain task one week, she could simply be part of a team with another group leader the next week but for a different task. As a voluntary body, the WVS did not have a compulsory uniform. It did have a uniform – designed by Digby Morton – but it was not free. Many WVS members went about their work simply wearing a WVS badge on their lapels.

The work of the WVS covered a very broad spectrum. Lady Reading had a simple philosophy for the WVS – if the job needed doing, it was done. As an example, the WVS organised first aid courses in the cities that were thought to be likely targets for the Luftwaffe. However, while the WVS organised such course, they did not provide the training as this had to be done by qualified staff.

World War II

The WVS played a key part in evacuation. The WVS had been asked to pinpoint areas of safety and billeting for evacuated children. Moving children out of the cities proved reasonably easy. Getting them to a known area of safety proved a lot more difficult as trains did not always arrive at an expected destination or would turn up at a reception point unexpectedly. The WVS is credited with helping to move 1.5 million people (primarily children) out of cities in the early days of September 1939.

The WVS also played a major role in the collection of clothing required for the needy. In October 1939, Lady Reading broadcast to the United States about the need for clothing in the UK. The broadcast led to large quantities of clothing (known as "Bundles for Britain") being sent over to Great Britain by the American Red Cross. These were distributed from WVS Emergency Clothing Stores.

When troops returned to ports after the evacuation at Dunkirk, members of the WVS were there to greet them and hand out food, drink and warm clothing. The WVS base at the rail station in Headcorn, Kent was an especially busy place for feeding returning soldiers before they dispersed - a spit was installed so that meat could be roasted there and then. The WVS also played a vital part during the Blitz of London and other cities.

The Blitz

By the time of the Blitz, women in the WVS were adept at providing food and drink around the clock. While ARP wardens and firemen fought the fires, women in the WVS set up mobile canteens to keep them refreshed, thus placing themselves in serious physical danger with collapsing buildings a constant threat. When the raids ended, the WVS also played a part in looking after those who were injured and had lost their homes. Records indicate that the WVS dealt with and helped over 10,000 people every night of the Blitz.

As the Blitz lasted for 57 nights, the WVS helped in total a vast number of people who went to their rest centres. Some people stayed just for a night - many stayed for much longer and stretched the resources of the WVS to the limit. In Barnes, one WVS member fed 1,200 bomb victims in just one day, cooking in her own kitchen.

It would be difficult to overstate the importance of the work done by the WVS during the Blitz ... [t] he rest centres provided a roof, food and, importantly, sanitation. But working so near to the centre of the bombing inevitably led to casualties. 241 members of the WVS were killed during the Blitz and many more were wounded. 25 WVS offices were destroyed.

Incident Inquiry Points

The WVS began running IIP's (Incident Inquiry Points), places where people came to find out about their loved ones who were in an area that had been bombed in order to free the ARP to work with the fire brigade. The WVS also helped with the Queen's Messenger Food Convoys which took food to areas in need after a bombing raid. The people who survived the bombing of Coventry received help from one of the convoys with 14,000 meals being served.

By 1941, 1 million women belonged to the WVS. Their work did not slacken after the end of the Luftwaffe's bombing raids. The Battle of the Atlantic and the devastating toll of merchant ships sunk by U-boats led to shortages in Great Britain. The WVS did all that it could to assist in the collection of required material for the war effort and also to educate people in not wasting what they had.

Each WVS centre had its own Salvage Officer and Food Leader. The Food Leader did whatever was required at a local level to assist the authorities in the complicated task of food rationing. Educational pamphlets were produced and lectures held. The WVS organised campaigns such as 'Salute the Soldier', 'Wings for Victory','Spitfire Funds' and 'Warship Weeks'.


In the build up to D-Day, the expertise the WVS had in catering was put to use again. The skills learned during the Blitz were again put to good use when the V1 and V2 rockets fell on London. Once again, the WVS played a key role in evacuation. With the success of D-Day, the WVS moved into Europe to support troops there. The first WVS abroad had landed in Italy with the success of the invasion there.

Foreign WVS units

Foreign WVS units were also established - the Indian WVS had 10,000 members. The Australian WVS worked in occupied Japan and their work included helping the people of Hiroshima.

After WWII

After WWII the WVS still operated because food rationing was still in place. Such was the work that it did, that the new Labour government funded the WVS from central government funds.

Present day WRVS

In 1956, Queen Elizabeth II agreed to become patron of WVS and in 1966, she awarded WVS the honour of adding 'Royal' to its title.

The organisation evolved to helping isolated and lonely people, particularly the elderly. They are particularly well known as providers of the Meals on Wheels service which delivers hot meals to the housebound. Their mission is ‘To help people to maintain independence and dignity in their homes and communities, particularly in later life.’

The services they now provide are practical services delivered with warmth and care to thousands of older and housebound people every day such as Meals on Wheels, Good Neighbours and community transport.

They also run hospital shops and cafes where any profits are returned to the hospital to improve services for patients, staff and visitors.

WRVS emergency teams provide back-up to the professional services and members of the public in times for major incidents such as the Lockerbie disaster, Hillsborough disaster, Buncefield fuel depot blast and flooding crises in July 2007 by running rest centres and providing emergency feeding to members of the public, fire crews and police.

In 2004, the organisation's name was changed from the Women’s Royal Voluntary Service to simply WRVS in an attempt to modernise the image and partly in recognition of the fact that 11% of its 60,000 volunteers were men.

Today the charity is receiving less and less funding from the government or local authorities and has to rely on donations from individuals and companies to ensure that they can continue to deliver these vital services. They accept donations on their website www.wrvs.org.uk.

ources and notes

Book: Green Sleeves: The Story of WVS/WRVS by Katharine Bentley Beauman (Published by Seeley Service & Co, London, 1977) (extensively plagiarised in this article).
* [http://www.wrvs.org.uk/ Official website]
* [http://cms.historylearningsite.co.uk/womens_voluntary_service.htm WVS history]

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