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Voluntarism and Charity

 Unattributed photograph in The Sphere, 1 January 1916

Volunteer Staff of the Soldiers’ Free Buffet at Charing Cross, WW1

The patriotic fervour that swept the country in August 1914 was manifested not only in the rush of men to enlist at recruiting offices, but by a desire among civilians, specifically women, to “do their bit”.  It was customary for middle- and upper-class ladies to take an interest in charity and philanthropy, and the onset of the First World War saw this activity increase rapidly.

Both The Tatler and The Bystander

immediately launched their own appeals in the first few weeks of the war: The Tatler Games Bureau collected board games to amuse convalescent soldiers; The Bystander asked its readers to donate toys for Belgian refugee children.

Barely a week went by without The Tatler telling its well-heeled readership about the latest charity matinee or bazaar. Advertisements implored readers to give to the Blue Cross Fund (to help war horses), the Indian Muslim Soldiers’ Widows and Orphans fund or any other of the countless charities that sprang up during the war. Social events, whether it was a concert or a tennis tournament, had the primary aim of raising money for war charities.

Portraits of well-known society figures appeared frequently in the ILN magazines, describing them as a “busy war workers”, which might mean anything voluntary, from staffing one of the Soldiers’ and Sailors’ Free Buffets at train stations to packing parcels of “comforts” for the front. At the frequent flag days, there were plenty of volunteers from high society, as well as from the world of the stage.

Actors and actresses were among the most high profile of volunteers during the war. They not only appeared in fund-raising shows but also at events such as that held at Selfridge’s in January 1915 in aid of Belgian refugees with famous stars selling chocolates to the public.

Wartime charity was not a phenomenon limited by class. All sections of society did their best to contribute in many ways – even children took part, perhaps collecting waste paper or dressing up in uniform to collect coins.  The most widespread activity – knitting socks and other “comforts” for the fighting men – became a nationwide craze.