Caring for the vulnerable in times of both war and peace

The 'Food Flying Squad' in Lincolnshire serving refreshments to men repairing the seawall after the east coast floods.
The 'Food Flying Squad' in Lincolnshire serving refreshments to men repairing the seawall after the east coast floods.

TWO years’ time will see the 75th anniversary of the founding of the WRVS – an organisation which has come a long way since its wartime birth, writes Mark Entwistle.

Originally founded in 1938 as the Women’s Voluntary Services for Air Raid Precautions, the organisation was set up to help recruit women into the ARP movement, assisting civilians during and after air raids by providing emergency rest centres, feeding, first aid and, perhaps most famously, assisting with the evacuation and billeting of children.

L-r, and Dot Murdie (volunteer at the WRVS shop in the BGH) and Elaine Thornton-Nicol (Local Service Manager). WRVS celebrate their 73rd birthday. Elaine and Dot model the old and new uniforms in the photo.

L-r, and Dot Murdie (volunteer at the WRVS shop in the BGH) and Elaine Thornton-Nicol (Local Service Manager). WRVS celebrate their 73rd birthday. Elaine and Dot model the old and new uniforms in the photo.

By 1943 the organisation had more than a million volunteers and was involved in almost every aspect of wartime life, from the collection of salvage to the knitting of socks and gloves for merchant seamen.

After the war, the WRVS transformed itself into a leading organisation in the field of social care, pioneering the practices that formed the cornerstone of modern social services.

Since then, its services have evolved and the WRVS is now a major service provider, giving practical help, particularly for older people, to enable choice, independence and dignity so people can enjoy an improved quality of life – all with the help of about 45,000 volunteers across the UK.

But the dark days of the Second World War have not been forgotten, when the “ladies in green”, as the female volunteers were known, carried out tasks for more than 170 government departments.

To mark the build-up to the 2013 celebrations, this week saw one volunteer at Borders General Hospital attired in the WRVS uniform worn in the 1970s.

Elaine Thornton-Nicol, WRVS local service manager for hospitals in the Borders, donned the outfit for the occasion. It belonged to Kathleen Savage and was donated to WRVS by her daughter, Ann Strang of St Boswells.

Mrs Thornton-Nicol said: “The uniform would be a little too much to work in every day, but I love the hat.”

The WRVS has many services in this region helping to support lonely or isolated older people. Mrs Thornton-Nicol and her team operate the hospital services not just at the BGH, but also at Hawick Community Hospital, Hay Lodge Hospital in Peebles and Kelso Hospital.

Between them they serve and help more than 30,000 people a month through the shops, tea bars, trolley services and welcome service.

Margaret Urquhart, WRVS local service manager for community services in the Borders, and her team organise community transport schemes and shopping services. The newest venture is the opening of social centres for over-55s who are isolated and would benefit from social interaction and stimulation. Innerleithen, West Linton, Jedburgh and Kelso are already open, with Peebles, Morebattle and Yetholm coming on stream soon.

Along with all these services, WRVS resilience and recovery teams work alongside Scottish Borders Council and the emergency services during times of crisis to provide support and help to all those affected.

“The uniforms may have changed, but WRVS continues to go from strength to strength in its work to help make Britain a great place to grow old in,” said Mrs Thornton-Nicol.

However, she added that new volunteers are always welcome. “People’s circumstances can change so quickly these days. Someone may have been volunteering for donkey’s years and then all of a sudden can no longer do that for various reasons.

“So we are always on the lookout for new volunteers. We never have enough. But I can honestly say I have never worked with a better bunch of people – they’re fantastic.”