STELLA, LADY READING (1894-1971)
Plaque erected in 2017 by English Heritage at 41 Tothill Street, London SW1H 9LQ, City of Westminster
Founder of the Women's Voluntary Services
Philanthropy and Reform
STELLA, LADY READING 1894-1971 Founder of the Women's Voluntary Services worked at its headquarters here 1938-1966
Stella, Lady Reading founded the Women’s Voluntary Services (WVS) to assist with civil defence tasks ahead of the Second World War. Lady Reading is commemorated with a blue plaque at 41 Tothill Street, which served as the headquarters for the WVS from 1938 until 1966.
Stella Charnaud was born in Constantinople but returned to England with her family just before the First World War. Stella volunteered for the Red Cross during the war years and in 1925 travelled out to India for a year to join the staff of Rufus Isaacs (1860–1935) and his wife, Alice. Isaacs had been Viceroy of India since 1921 and in 1926 was created first Marquess of Reading. Alice, the first Lady Reading, died in 1930 and Stella married Lord Reading the following year.
As Lady Reading, Stella began to take on high profile social responsibilities, becoming the Chairman of the Personal Service League (1932–8), a women’s voluntary organisation that collected second-hand clothes for the unemployed.
In the late 1930s, with war seeming more likely, Stella founded the Women’s Voluntary Services – a charitable organisation designed to assist local authorities with civil defence tasks, such as responding to air attacks. Initially working from just one room at 41 Tothill Street in Westminster, Stella began to build the WVS into a country-wide integrated structure.
LADIES IN GREEN
Women volunteers from all social strata were asked to pledge themselves ‘not to fight … but to relieve suffering and to safeguard … to build up, to repair and conserve’. Stella Reading designed the service uniforms of moss green and clover, earning the volunteers the name ‘the ladies in green’. They were often identified simply by badges or armbands. No one wore a rank badge, not even Stella, whose official title was ‘chairman’.
Stella handled all the requests from various government and local authority departments, directing and encouraging her members to respond to the ever increasing list of tasks. These included looking after child evacuees and refugees, surveying billets for them, sewing and knitting clothes, making camouflage nets, giving instructions on how to build an emergency field cooker, and devising and disseminating new recipes to make war rations more palatable.
Items collected by the WVS for salvage included aluminium for aircraft manufacture, books for servicemen, and clothes and furniture for bombed-out families, which were distributed from depots nationwide. Thousands of cups of tea were made at static and mobile canteens set up to bring comfort and support to emergency workers, civilians and servicemen.
By the end of the war the WVS had a million members and the organisation was hailed as the ‘Greatest Women’s Army in the World’.
After 1945 the future of the WVS was uncertain. Stella saw it as a vital contributor to post-war reconstruction – ‘the hyphen between officialdom and ordinary human beings’, as she put it. The Attlee government agreed – the original ambitions of the Welfare State could not have been achieved without the work of WVS members.
Today the WVS is well known for its Meals on Wheels service. This started during the war in Welwyn Garden City and by 1962 four million meals were being delivered nationwide. In similar fashion, an initiative by a WVS member in Oxford resulted in the first Home Help visit on 30 January 1945, forming another service that is still running today. In 1960, a World Refugee Year, the WVS sent a thousand tons of second-hand clothing for refugees in the Middle East. Now known as the Royal Voluntary Service, the organisation focuses on providing practical and emotional support to older people.
Lady Reading worked up to 18 hours a day from Tothill Street, writing and dictating a stream of instructions. Tall and deep voiced, she had a commanding presence and a public speaking manner that was inspiring as well as practical. One piece of sage advice she offered was:
Always have food for bombed out people that is easy to eat. The first thing people lose is their spectacles, and the second their teeth.
In recognition of her work, Stella Reading was awarded the GBE in 1944. She also received a National Achievement Award from Eleanor Roosevelt in 1948 and was created a Life Peer in 1958, becoming the first woman to take a seat in the House of Lords in her own right. Her coat of arms incorporated a WVS figure and the motto ‘Not why we can’t but how we can’.