John Pallister looks at the Skipton members of the Women’s Voluntary Service who heroically answered the call to support the WWII effort.

IT was in 1938 with World War 2 looming oppressively, that the dynamic wife of an ex Viceroy of India, Stella, Marchioness of Reading, began to found an organisation in preparation for civil defence support. A year later at the outbreak of hostilities, her organisation had 330,000 female members, which would swell to more than a million by 1943. Their tasks were to cover a wide range of civil defence and support works. Perhaps most famously, 120,000 members helped to evacuate 1.5 million people in a three day marathon as the war began. Rather more mundane work was to supply sustenance to the armed forces as they travelled either towards duties or homeward on leave.

Skipton women folk were part of this heroic organisation, and the Skipton branch soon had a good compliment of Craven housewives and working volunteers, all wearing the uniform smock and beret. Of course the blitz suffered by London and major UK cities was not replicated in Skipton, but there was already much work to be done. Few of the Volunteers would have guessed that their organisation would be required for the next six years.

‘The Women’s Voluntary Service’, as it quickly became, as well as helping evacuees and transiting servicemen took on a myriad of other duties. These included the collection of salvaged materials, organising emergency rest shelters, assisting the ARP (air raid patrols), knitting for the needy and providing nursery care for other women who were called into the war factories.

The Skipton contingent began operating in May 1940 lead by Mrs CE Gray, who it was later remembered imposed a necessary degree of order and discipline to the branch. The initial task was feeding the men of a battalion of The Duke of Wellington Regiment then station in Skipton. This work centred upon the Co-operative Hall, and was to last for six months. Later work would involve a transfer of efforts to the Temperance Hall. By May 1941 a canteen was started and the ladies found that their equipment was simply not up to the job. The challenge of providing 250 poached eggs on an old gas cooker pointed the way forward. Ever resourceful, a ‘bring and buy’ sale along with a ‘white elephant stall’ was hastily organised and the princely sum of £75 was raised, and quickly spent on a good cooker and utensils. Younger readers may wonder about ‘white elephants’, and simply put, that meant an item with no obvious use or something that was no longer useful to its owner.

Although based at the Temperance Hall, success and need conjoined to produce a mobile ‘tea car’ between 1941 and 1945, whilst increased demand between 1942 and 1945 required a second vehicle to be manned. It took 18 staff to man these mobile units, and it is recorded that at busy times the units were travelling 300 miles a week. Their duties were to visit and support mainly military customers, visiting obscure observer positions and isolated search light units. It is believed that these mobile units alone served no less than 384,000 cups of tea, along with 355,000 meals during the war.

Serving troop trains routed through Skipton was another important ‘outside mission’, and when trains stopped at Skipton, the contingent were allowed 14 minutes to serve meals to the travelling servicemen. In order to achieve this, six teams each with four volunteers were set up. Their efficiency culminating in serving meals to 750 men in 7.5 minutes, must have been more than a match for the fabled efficiency of our German enemy. It wasn’t just the railway traffic that was supported, as road convoys were regularly routed through the town. To meet this demand a breakfast service was instigated from 7am onwards, all of which resulted in some personnel putting in between 50 and 70 hours service in busy weeks. In spite of the strains of this War service, 33 Skipton volunteers managed to complete ‘unbroken’ service, from the start to the finish of the war.

The Land Army, another women’s Service, had an organisation in Skipton and young women billeted in hostel accommodation got their packed lunches delivered by the WVS. All in all, our Skipton unit served up some 800,000 cups of tea and 750,000 meals before Victory and eventual disbandment in February 1946. That their work was well and truly completed was acknowledged by the Government, on behalf of the people, making ‘WVS service, a qualification for the newly instituted Defence Medal. After the disbandment at Skipton, the WVS movement was eventually to be granted Royal patronage, to become The Womens Royal Voluntary service and a leading peacetime service organisation.

The photograph is believed to show some of the Skipton contingent in May 1946, at about the time of disbandment. It is presumed that the lady in the dark coat and formal hat, kneeling in the front left is Mrs Gray, whilst on the extreme right at the back are Esther Mason and her sister in law Mary Mason. Beryl Caird (later Walker) is standing in the centre, and on her right may be Jean Sladen (later Ewebank) and her sister. Perhaps readers can see their mothers (or more likely Grandmothers) and know some of the other ladies in the photograph, or possibly have experiences of those difficult, albeit memorable days.