My letter to the WW1 soldier behind NCVO

Today, one hundred years after the start of the First World War, I have chosen to commemorate the life of Edward Birchall as part of the WW1 Centenary Art Commissions.

Edward Vivian Birchall

Birchall was born 10 August 1884 in Gloucester, and died at the Somme on the day of his 32nd birthday, 10 August 1916. A philanthropist and co-founder of the National Association of Guilds of Help, Birchall left a legacy of £1000 to his friend P. Grundy to set up an organisation for the promotion of voluntary services. The National Council of Social Services was founded in 1919 and played a key role in legitimising and strengthening voluntary organisations and charities after the War. It became the National Council for Voluntary Organisations in 1980.

Birchall represents the millions of soldiers who volunteered, some in their communities at home, others who went freely to the front. This letter is addressed to one man, but through this project we commemorate the contribution of all.

To Edward Vivian Birchall, 1884-1916,

The letter you wrote to your friend P. Grundy before you left for the War was brief: ‘If I am scuppered I’m leaving you £1000 to do some of the things we talked about.’ The impact of that generosity has been felt for almost a hundred years.

Nearly a century on from the creation of the National Council for Social Services in 1919, founded with your legacy to preserve voluntary services in England, it is impossible to imagine life without the charities and volunteers that enrich our society. It is bittersweet that the war which took so much also spurred people on to give so much: while soldiers fought in the trenches, people at home poured their energies into voluntary action. Nearly 18,000 charities were founded in the years 1914-18, providing home comforts to soldiers, aid for disabled servicemen, and support for refugees and prisoners of war.

I hope it would cause you pride to know that not only did you give your life to protect future generations whom you would never meet, you also helped to establish the voluntary sector in this country, allowing those generations the opportunity to give something for people they may never have met.

Today, on the anniversary of the Great War, it is fitting to renew our commitment to the principles you held so dear, and to thank you – one hundred times over – for the sacrifice you made.

Sir Stuart Etherington, Chief Executive.

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Sir Stuart Etherington was chief executive of NCVO from 1994 to 2019.

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