It was seen “as the enrolment of women for Air Raid Precaution Services of Local Authorities, to help to bring home to every household what air attack may mean, and to make known to every household [in the country] what it can do to protect itself and the community.”
In the words of the then Home Secretary, Sir Samuel Hoare, "as regards their civil defence functions, the Minister regards the Women's Voluntary Service as occupying... much the same relationship as that of the women's auxiliary services for the armed forces of the Crown."
The work of the WVS covered a very broad spectrum. Lady Reading had a simple philosophy for the WVS – if the job needed doing, it was done. As an example, the WVS organised first aid courses in the cities that were thought to be likely targets for the Luftwaffe. However, while the WVS organised such course, they did not provide the training as this had to be done by qualified staff.
The WVS also played a major role in the collection of clothing required for the needy. In October 1939, Lady Reading broadcast to the United States about the need for clothing in the UK. The broadcast led to large quantities of clothing (known as "Bundles for Britain") being sent over to Great Britain by the American Red Cross. These were distributed from WVS Emergency Clothing Stores.
When troops returned to ports after the evacuation at Dunkirk, members of the WVS were there to greet them and hand out food, drink and warm clothing. The WVS base at the rail station in Headcorn, Kent was an especially busy place for feeding returning soldiers before they dispersed - a spit was installed so that meat could be roasted there and then. The WVS also played a vital part during the Blitz of London and other cities.
As the Blitz lasted for 57 nights, the WVS helped in total a vast number of people who went to their rest centres. Some people stayed just for a night - many stayed for much longer and stretched the resources of the WVS to the limit. In Barnes, one WVS member fed 1,200 bomb victims in just one day, cooking in her own kitchen.
It would be difficult to overstate the importance of the work done by the WVS during the Blitz ... [t]he rest centres provided a roof, food and, importantly, sanitation. But working so near to the centre of the bombing inevitably led to casualties. 241 members of the WVS were killed during the Blitz and many more were wounded. 25 WVS offices were destroyed.
By 1941, 1 million women belonged to the WVS. Their work did not slacken after the end of the Luftwaffe's bombing raids. The Battle of the Atlantic and the devastating toll of merchant ships sunk by U-boats led to shortages in Great Britain. The WVS did all that it could to assist in the collection of required material for the war effort and also to educate people in not wasting what they had.
Each WVS centre had its own Salvage Officer and Food Leader. The Food Leader did whatever was required at a local level to assist the authorities in the complicated task of food rationing. Educational pamphlets were produced and lectures held. The WVS organised campaigns such as 'Salute the Soldier', 'Wings for Victory', 'Spitfire Funds' and 'Warship Weeks'.
The organisation evolved to helping isolated and lonely people, particularly the elderly. They are particularly well known as providers of the Meals on Wheels service which delivers hot meals to the housebound. Their mission is ‘To help people to maintain independence and dignity in their homes and communities, particularly in later life.’
The services they now provide are practical services delivered with warmth and care to thousands of older and housebound people every day such as Meals on Wheels, Good Neighbours and community transport.
They also run hospital shops and cafes where any profits are returned to the hospital to improve services for patients, staff and visitors.
WRVS emergency teams provide back-up to the professional services and members of the public in times for major incidents such as the Lockerbie disaster, Hillsborough disaster, Buncefield fuel depot blast and flooding crises in July 2007 by running rest centres and providing emergency feeding to members of the public, fire crews and police.
In 2004, the organisation's name was changed from the Women’s Royal Voluntary Service to simply WRVS in an attempt to modernise the image and partly in recognition of the fact that 11% of its 60,000 volunteers were men.
Today the charity is receiving less and less funding from the government or local authorities and has to rely on donations from individuals and companies to ensure that they can continue to deliver these vital services. They accept donations on their website www.wrvs.org.uk.