Britain's hidden heroines

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WVS Services Welfare Canteen – Chester House, LondonImage source, Ministry of Information, Crown
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The Women’s Voluntary Service, which became the Royal Voluntary Service in 2013, was formed in 1938 as the nation prepared for war. It brought together more than a million women volunteers. They became known as the "women in green" and worked to support the home front. By 1940, many local WVS centres had started opening canteens for military service personnel and later that year they helped troops returning from Dunkirk. This triggered a nationwide programme from which the WVS Services Welfare was born.
WVS Trailer – Red Cross GiftsImage source, Royal Voluntary Service
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This trailer outside the WVS central clothing store in Eaton Square, London, is loaded with clothing from the American Red Cross (ARC) for distribution in Britain. In June 1941 alone the WVS received 12,167 cases of clothing from the ARC with a value of more than £1m.
Image source, Ministry of Information, Crown
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WVS members helped local councils to collect salvage material for aircraft production as early as March 1940, months before Lord Beaverbrook’s call to the women of Britain to recover aluminium in July that year. By 1944 almost 50,000 WVS members were working in salvage.
Image source, Royal Voluntary Service
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Given the sensitive nature of some of the work WVS was involved in, motorcycle messengers were employed to carry important messages between WVS headquarters, government departments and other WVS centres. Meg Moorat, nicknamed Miss Mercury, was one of those messengers and is seen here in 1941.
Image source, Ministry of Information, Crown
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As well as paper and bones, which were used in the production of munitions, the WVS collected kitchen waste to be used as pig swill. Keeping the country fed during World War Two was just as important as keeping it armed.
Image source, Ministry of Information, Crown
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Rubber was essential for aircraft tyres, fire hoses and even Wellington boots for evacuated children. After the Japanese occupation of Java in 1942, rubber became an even scarcer commodity and dedicated WVS members even scavenged old tyres out of local ponds and streams.
Image source, Central Office of Information, Crown
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Named after the happily married elderly couple in a 1735 poem by Henry Woodfall, Darby & Joan clubs were the WVS’s answer to combating the loneliness they had uncovered among isolated elderly people during the war. The first Darby & Joan club was opened in 1943 in Camberwell.
Image source, Ministry of Food, Crown
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The 1953 East Coast floods devastated coastal communities. In England, 307 people were killed in the counties of Lincolnshire, Norfolk, Suffolk and Essex, 19 died in Scotland and around 32,000 people were evacuated. Sea defences around the country had to be rebuilt and the WVS were on hand as always to provide food and care to workers in remote areas.
Image source, Ministry of Agriculture Fisheries and Food, Crown
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The Lewisham train crash of 1957 killed 90 people and injured more than 170. Reviving their emergency feeding skills honed during the war, 50,000 WVS members made up the welfare section of the Civil Defence corps to provide help in disasters from 1949 to 1968.
Image source, Ministry of Agriculture Fisheries and Food, Crown
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The main role of the Civil Defence corps was to provide food and information to fleeing refugees in the event of a nuclear war with the Soviet Union. However, they regularly practised their skills at huge exercises and in real disasters, such as the Lewisham train crash.
Image source, Nicky Johnston / RVS
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The RVS continues to provide help where needed and photographer Nicky Johnston was tasked with photographing the work being done today. “I didn’t realise, and I don’t think most people do, what the Royal Voluntary Service does," he said. "Then you find out they do tai chi classes, and hundreds of different things. I work in a different world; I’m usually shooting celebrities; it’s a totally different ball game for me."
Image source, Nicky Johnston / RVS
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The Gift of Time exhibition can be seen at the Oxo Gallery in London from 31 October to 4 November.

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