Volunteering and the first world war

Anna-JarvisAnna Jarvis is first world war centenary and anniversaries advisor at the Heritage Lottery Fund. In Volunteers’ Week, Anna reflects on how the centenary is shedding new light on the history of voluntary action and looks at funding available to organisations with a first world war connection.

History of volunteering

In my role at the Heritage Lottery Fund (HLF) I have seen how the first world war centenary is providing an opportunity for long-standing voluntary organisations to look at how their histories relate to the war. For those organisations more recently established, it provides a chance to explore what the centenary means to the people they work with. There are enormous benefits in both.

Wartime archives

Many of the voluntary organisations we know today played a vital role in the first world war. These include the YMCA, Red Cross, St John Ambulance and the Workers’ Educational Association.

With HLF funding, YMCAs across the UK are exploring the charity’s involvement in the war. In Bradford, young people developed their skills and confidence as part of their Tea and Remembrance project. They visited the YMCA archive in Birmingham and built a replica tea hut. The YMCA Birkenhead is providing volunteering opportunities to the homeless men and women they work with to explore the charity’s wartime archives. By engaging local people with the YMCA’s history, the charity hopes to change perceptions of its work and its clients.

Young people taking part in YMCA Bradford’s Tea and Remembrance project.
Young people taking part in YMCA Bradford’s Tea and Remembrance project.

Discovering the past

The British Red Cross is working with volunteers to make its 244,000 Voluntary Aid Detachment (VAD) index cards available online. Volunteers performed general nursing duties and administered first aid. Rather excitingly, my colleague Alice found her great grandmother, Eunice Barlow’s index card while visiting the project. Alice knew Eunice had been a VAD because she had kept a notebook of images and poems drawn and written by soldiers she was treating. At the Museum of the Order of St John, another VAD’s wartime scrapbook has formed the basis of a project exploring voluntary care in war.

'What should we do without a navy'.
‘What should we do without a navy’.

In the north-east, volunteers are using wartime correspondence to research the role of the Workers’ Educational Association in the war. As part of this project, adults with learning disabilities are reinterpreting a play about the Association’s regional secretary who was put in prison for refusing to fight.

Legacies of war

A number of voluntary organisations can trace roots back to the first world war. Some of the most hidden aspects of the war’s legacy are tucked away in the archives of organisations set up to care for and house veterans.

Peace Hospice Care in Watford, for example, was built in 1925 as a memorial to those who died in the first world war. The Queen Alexandra Hospital Home in Worthing was established in 1919 to care for ex-servicemen. Sight Support Derby was established in 1914 to provide support for returning soldiers with sight problems. Today, all three organisations are working with volunteers to understand and celebrate their histories.

An inclusive centenary

Community and voluntary organisations across the UK are creating opportunities for a wide range of people to take ownership of the centenary.

Inspired by the story of a missing Ghurkha knife, Pakistani women in Rochdale explored the contribution of Ghurkha soldiers to the first world war. Further north in Angus, Scotland, young men at Tayside Council on Alcohol are researching the lives of men recruited into the army from their community.

Residents on the Langley Estate in Manchester used stories and photographs of their ancestors to create a community poem and film. Jacqui Carroll, creative director of the arts organisation REELmcr, was born and raised in the area and says:

“Our premiere completely humbled me and will never leave me. We had grown men weeping and standing as they cheered for the poem. That men in Middleton came out to listen to a poem was a massive achievement.”

At HLF we hope to fund many more projects like these over the coming years.

What to do next and how to get funding

If your organisation’s history relates to the first world war, I encourage you to explore this history further. Funding is available to help you do this. As Georgina Brewis set out in her blog last year, it is worth being interested in your archives.

And if you work with people who might benefit from being involved in a first world war project, think of a project idea and apply for funding. Not for profit organisations can apply to HLF. Visit our first world war web pages  to find out more.

The grants programme with the most straight forward application form and highest success rate is the First World War: then and now programme which offers grants of between £3,000 and £10,000.

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