Exhibition tells fascinating story of more than 80 years of Royal Voluntary Service in Glasgow

Jennifer Hunt, Archivist, Royal Voluntary Service Heritage Collection with a 1940s WVS hat (Photo: Martin Shields)
Jennifer Hunt, Archivist, Royal Voluntary Service Heritage Collection with a 1940s WVS hat (Photo: Martin Shields)

From collecting salvage and distributing ration books during the Second World War to supporting the emergency services at the Lockerbie disaster and running lunch and social clubs, the volunteers of Royal Voluntary Service have, for over 80 years, always been there to offer comfort and compassion in crisis.

Now, the fascinating story of the volunteers of Royal Voluntary Service in Glasgow is being told at a new exhibit in the community exhibition space at Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum.

Running until January 31, 2020, Compassion in Crisis chronicles eight decades of Royal Voluntary Service in the city, from its very beginnings, when the women of Glasgow Women’s Voluntary Services (WVS) supported the Home Front to help win the war, to the vital role its volunteers play today.

Through a collection of documents, photographs, objects and film from Royal Voluntary Service’s Heritage Collection [and the modern day], Compassion in Crisis recounts how the organisation was founded to help civilians in the event of Air Raids, but ended up doing so much more.

WVS was set up in 1938, after the Home Secretary at the time asked, Stella, Lady Reading to form a nationwide organisation to assist local authorities recruit women into the Air Raid Precautions movement and assist civilians during and after air raids.

However, realising its vast potential and capabilities, the WVS’s role was soon expanded to include just about anything.

Together with Ruth Balfour, chairman of WVS in Scotland, Lady Reading set about mobilising the women of Scotland to provide for the defence of the civilian population. During the war over four and half thousand women in Glasgow got involved in hard, practical voluntary work across the city. One photograph from the summer of 1940 shows the women of the WVS at Glasgow Queens Street Station in their posts as station guides. Station guides had been established in all Glasgow train stations to provide servicemen with information on train times, the location of personnel and how to get to their postings.

The work of WVS didn’t stop when the war ended. After 1945, the WVS, or WRVS as it later became known, continued to provide essential assistance and compassion at major incidents. This includes the tragedy at Lockerbie and on display is a letter of thanks from the Chairman of the Board of Pan Am for the volunteer’s provision of food and comfort at the scene.

Today, known as Royal Voluntary Service both male and female volunteers help thousands of people each month in hospitals and in communities across Glasgow. Recognising their work, volunteers from Gartnavel General Hospital, West Glasgow Ambulatory Care Hospital and the Bellrock Close Café in Cranhill, star in the exhibit. Also on display is a specially commissioned art piece – Thinking oot tha box – created by members of one of the organisation’s volunteer-led social groups, Art Club One, which runs out of Project Ability, a community arts venue in Glasgow.

Jennifer Hunt, Archivist, Royal Voluntary Service Heritage Collection said: “Royal Voluntary Service’s volunteers have played a vital role in communities in Glasgow since 1938. It has been a joy to curate this exhibition as it has given us the opportunity to further explore the contents of our Heritage Collection and to bring to light the inspiring stories of Glaswegian compassion in times of crisis. The hard work and dedication of volunteers is exceptional, as experts in mass clothing drives in 1959, world refugee year, WVS was tasked with collecting clothing to send to the Middle East to displaced Palestinians. In one year, WVS Scotland collected 2,693 bales of garments weighing 105 tons. We are delighted to share this and other stories of true voluntary service in this exhibition; raising awareness and giving recognition to thousands of volunteers who have gifted their skills and energy to helping others for over 80 years.”

Chair of Glasgow Life, Councillor David McDonald, said: ‘Every day I see the difference volunteers make across Glasgow, volunteering really does have the power to change lives. As this wonderful exhibition shows, Royal Voluntary Service provides many rewarding opportunities for volunteers across the city and beyond. I’m always impressed by the generosity of volunteers who donate countless hours of their own time to provide practical and emotional support to the people of Glasgow and I’d like to add my thanks to each and every one of them. As many of the people represented in this exhibition are quick to confirm volunteering also gives so much back and is a great way to meet people, support the city and learn valuable skills.’

Wilma McDonald from Bearsden volunteers in Royal Voluntary Service’s café at West Glasgow Ambulatory Care Hospital and features in the exhibition, photographed with the medal she was awarded for 30 years’ service last year. Wilma says: “I’m thrilled a part of the exhibition. Volunteering at the hospital gives me so much so much pleasure and satisfaction. I can’t believe I have been here for 30 years. The time goes so quickly, it is always busy. I’ve been very lucky to make so many friends and meet so many interesting people over the last three decades. It is great to see all the volunteers recognised in the exhibition.”

Andrew Roberts, Head of Retail Operations (North), Royal Voluntary Service said: “The need for volunteers in Glasgow, and indeed across Great Britain as a whole, is as great today as it was when we were first formed. From providing companionship to people in their homes and visiting people on hospital wards to running lunch and social clubs and providing tea and compassion in one of our many hospital shops and cafes, our volunteers do amazing things that make a huge difference to people’s lives. This exhibition is a way to celebrate their efforts and thank them for all they do.”

Compassion is Crisis is in the community exhibition space in the Expressions gallery on the ground floor of Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum until January 31, 2020.

Visit Glasgow Museums, email:heritage@royalvoluntaryservice.rog.uk or call 0141 276 9599 for more details