VAD research tips
Several people have contacted me to ask questions about how to find information on local VAD work or the involvement of a relative in the work. I very much enjoy hearing from people so, please do get in touch if you need some help.
However, it seems that some general tips might be helpful in showing where to start with this type of research.
For research on a family member I would always recommend seeking out the eldest surviving family members and asking them what they know. Sometimes a jog to the memory can yield long forgotten photographs or other material.
To become a member of a VAD a woman had to have certificates in first aid and home nursing; men (and there were quite a lot of them, but they are often forgotten) had to have just the first aid certificate. Some detachments managed to persuade hospitals to give them practical experience before the War but the professional nurses did not always look upon them kindly! Initially the nursing VADs were expected to be little more than ward maids, the hands-on nursing was to be done by a quota of professional nurses. In the end some VADs became quite highly skilled military nurses, just the sheer numbers of patients meant they had to do more than was initially expected of them. All detachments had to have some members who were qualified as cooks. Later in the War an additional group of VADs were classified as 'General Service' members. They worked as clerks, laboratory assistants, x-ray operatives etc.
Detachments could be formed be either the British Red Cross Society, the Order of St John or by the County Territorial Force Association. During the War organisation of VAD work at the national level was administered by The Joint War Committee of the British Red Cross Society and the Order of St John and they published a report of their work in 1921. An appendix lists all the auxiliary home hospitals by County. I have found copies of this report at the Imperial War Museum, the British Red Cross Society, the Order of St John and the Wellcome Library.
The Public Record Office holds nothing of particular, specific reference to the work of the voluntary aid detachments. Unfortunately the records of War Office Committees, such as the Advisory Committee on Voluntary Aid, have not been preserved. Hospital records such as Admission & Discharge Registers, which were handed to government departments after the war have also disappeared. Files would have been kept, possibly on individual hospitals, by officers of the various Army Commands, local military hospitals etc, but none seem to have survived.
The hospitals themselves would have produced a lot of paperwork and much of it was probably retained locally after the war - and subsequently destroyed! Accounts, correspondence, attendance records . treasure if it can be found! One such collection was discovered several years ago in a tin box in the local Red Cross Centre at Wokingham in Berkshire. It is now in the British Red Cross Society archive. Another similar box was apparently thrown out from the attic of the local doctor at Ash in Kent in 1939 when WW2 precautions required the clearing of attics and lofts of material that presented a fire hazard!
The Imperial War Museum has much useful material in the Department of Documents, the Department of Printed Material and the Sound Archive. This includes personal diaries, letters and other memorabilia that has been donated over many years. However the bulk of the personal material seems to have come from VADs who served overseas and includes few references to the work in the auxiliary hospitals in this country. They have two other collections worth checking however. Firstly, the 'Women's Work Inventory' which originated from enquiries made by the Museum throughout the country at the end of the War to ascertain the work which had been done by women; secondly the 'BRCS Inventory' which has a lot of local references and Home Front material. The website listing information about their collections is at http://www.iwmcollections.org.uk/
The Liddle Collection at the University of Leeds is the result of the work of Peter Liddle who collected memorabilia and interviewed many people in order to preserve first-hand individual experiences of the War. The catalogue is available on the Internet at www.leeds.ac.uk/library/spcoll/liddle/
The Library of Wellcome Institute for the History of Medicine, Euston Road, London has many publications relevant to WW1 medicine on its open shelves and holds a RAMC archive which has a few references to home hospitals. Their general catalogue (not including the RAMC material) is also on the Internet, at http://library.wellcome.ac.uk/
The British Red Cross Society do have an archive but in the past their policy has been to discard historical material so their collection is frustratingly limited. However, they do have record cards for thousands of VADs detailing where and when they served. They hold material relating to some county branches and they have several albums of WW1 press cuttings which refer to local work. The Red Cross naturally focus on their present day humanitarian work and they very much appreciate a donation when asked to search their archive, or if you visit them. They can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org or at 44 Moorfields, London EC2y 9AL. Tel: 020 7877 5078. Their website is http://www.redcross.org.uk/museumandarchives.
The Order of St John have an archive at their Museum and Library in London. Details can be found at their website http://www.sja.org.uk/ Personally I found more relevant material there than at the British Red Cross Society, but that may be because Kent had a strong St John tradition.
Otherwise it is really down to local 'sleuthing'!! Ask your County Record Office and any local studies archive if they have any information. I have found local booklets and reports, although they are scarce. Also try contacting local branches of the British Red Cross Society - at local centre level and for the County. Sometimes they do have material, although, as I mentioned before, the Red Cross have thrown out an awful lot. Bear in mind that in some places detachments were affiliated to the St John Ambulance Association. If that is so in the place you are interested in, then it is worth contacting that organisation.
Local newspapers of the day carried reports of hospital work. Trawling through all editions can be very tiring, although one gem can make it all worthwhile. You can try to focus on particular dates, for instance the opening of a hospital (if you are not sure of this try October - December 1914), Christmas, the closing date - or any other events you may learn about that could have been reported. It was common for local newspapers to print lists of 'Thanks' from the commandant of a hospital for gifts of food and comforts. The British Library newspaper library at Colindale in North London has most of the papers, if you cannot find them locally. You need a reader's card to go there but it is not a problem getting one if you cannot find what you want elsewhere. Their website is http://www.bl.uk/collections/newspapers.html
Parish magazines sometimes carried reports of hospital work and appeals for help and donations. If they have survived, they could be found in a local or county record office, or even still in the Church.
If the hospital building still exists it is worth enquiring there if they know anything about the hospital work. After the War the Army Council sent out thousands of certificates recording the nation's grateful thanks for the work done in these buildings. Many, of course, have been lost, but some survive. In Kent, I know of one displayed in the committee room of a parish hall. Sometimes more permanent commemorative plaques were put up inside or on the outside of buildings.
I found a few records of the Kent Territorial Force Association at the County Record Office. They were all minutes of committee meetings, rather dry stuff but they were of use to me! If you are interested in VAD work on a county basis it would be worth looking for TFA material, since they were the organisations charged with the overall responsibility for VAD work, although in many cases they delegated this responsibility to the British Red Cross Society.
Disclaimer: This is not meant to be the definitive VAD research method! However, these are the sources I have found useful for my work on Kent VAD. I think it is highly likely that for other parts of the country other sources may be more important than some of mine. But that is for you to find out!