From the office: Red Cross volunteers of WW1

By Editor, 16 June 2016 - 10:22am

The recently completed British Red Cross database will enable thousands of people to find volunteers in their family that will tell a different WW1 story

Sarah Williams is editor at Who Do You Think You Are? MagazineThursday 16 June 2016
Sarah Williams, Editor
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WW1 VAD card

The VAD card of Mrs Kettlewell who was a member of the Trinity Wesleyan Knitting Party

The centenary of the First World War has resulted in an impressive drive to digitise archives from around the country that will enable more and more people to research the role their ancestors played in this appalling global conflict.

The big news today is the launch of the Royal Navy First World War Lives at Sea website, but my seafaring ancestors were in the merchant navy so it has little personal relevance to me. I am, however, fascinated by the British Red Cross digitisation project that features in our July issue.

A generous grant from the Heritage Lottery Fund and the hard work of over 1,000 volunteers has resulted in a database (www.redcross.org.uk/ww1) that gives free, searchable access to the records of over 90,000 people who worked as Voluntary Aid Detachments (VADs) during the war.

These volunteers helped to keep hospitals and ambulances running efficiently, both at home and on the front line and they tell a different story to that told by military service records.

VADs were mostly women (usually middle-class) although there were men who could not fight for various reasons who volunteered, usually as drivers. So, if you are lucky, these records can offer an insight into the wartime experience of women in your family.

There are plenty of middle-class women in my family so I have enjoyed scouring the site for my family surnames. It’s going to be a slow process as many women (who filled in their own cards) just recorded their surname with no first name or initial. I can imagine these self-effacing women seeing the request for 'Christian names' and deciding that 'Mrs' will do. However, trying to work out if one of the dozens of Mrs Smiths is your Mrs Smith is tricky, although most cards include an address.

In our July issue we look at the VAD index card for Vera Brittain who worked at the London General Hospital as well as Malta and France, but I’m more interested in Mrs Kettlewell of Rock Ferry, Cheshire who I believe is Edith, a rather distant leaf on my tree. And what were the particulars of Mrs Kettlewell’s duties? She was part of the Trinity Wesleyan Knitting Party. Well, they also serve who sit and knit.

You can read more about WW1 British Red Cross records and the important work of the VADs in the July issue of Who Do You Think You Are? Magazine on sale now

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