Women at the Ready: Carol Harris reviews a history of the Women's Voluntary Service

Patricia and Robert Malcolmson's book gives readers a glimpse into the life and work of Royal Voluntary Service members during the Second World War

Women at the Ready
Women at the Ready

Women's Voluntary Service, known today as the Royal Voluntary Service, celebrated its 75th birthday last year – an achievement due in part to success in its early years during the Second World War.

It was best known for managing the evacuation of children from danger areas, but also ran mobile canteens during air raids; led wartime knitting circles and recycling campaigns; set up classes teaching everything from first aid to ballroom dancing; and organised rest centres for people made homeless. It soon had more than a million volunteer members, identified by their green uniforms.

In Women at the Ready, Patricia and Robert Malcolmson focus on the WVS, founded by Lady Stella Reading, on the home front through these early years, relying on the statistics and detailed reports from each of the local groups that were central to the WVS's success.

The book draws on first-hand accounts in the WVS archives and elsewhere. Important themes in its development sit alongside a chronological approach: chapter headings include "Evacuees 1939-40" and "Casualties – Anticipated and Actual 1941-3". Members' thoughts on the organisation are highlighted in "Minds and Emotions 1939-44".

The first-hand accounts show members' pride in appearing to carry on as normal. Among them was Mrs Waite, a WVS member who told others frightened by air raids: "Don't worry – we'll all be terrified together."

The book pays little attention to the central organisation of the WVS. But the appendices mention the political considerations that ensured its survival – notably the government's interest in an efficient service to be called on in emergencies, and Reading's belief that a society was enriched by volunteers.

Women at the Ready is published in paperback by Abacus, RRP £9.99

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