Category: Volunteering

TEDxRC2: Help us multiply the power of humanity


TEDxRC² is a worldwide event on 27 November 2011 that aims to multiply the power of humanity and start a global conversation about tomorrow’s humanitarian challenges and opportunities.

The event brings together seven diverse and inspiring speakers from inside and outside the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement. These include author and relief worker Fiona Terry, editorial cartoonist Patrick Chappatte and Norwegian Foreign Minister Jonas Gahr Støre.

You can take part by watching the live webcast on Sunday 27 November, 15:00-17:00 GMT (below)

tedx on Broadcast Live Free

Remembrance: the lasting legacy of war

A little while after the Armistice, in July 1919, Peace Day celebrations took place.

© BRC/ Marjorie Howell

At 11am, 93 years ago today, an armistice was signed to end the First World War on the western front. It was, quite rightly, a day of rejoicing. Florence Baker, a member of the Red Cross’ voluntary aid detachment at Bethnal Green Military Hospital in London, described the Armistice Day celebrations in London in a letter to her mother:

“If everywhere is like London then all England must be mad. […] Never will I forget the sight – you are sure to see photographs in the paper. We were perched on top of a bus which was stuck along with many other[s] first between the Royal Exchange and Mansion House at exactly 11 o’clock. As each flag was unfurled everyone tried to outdo the next person in din – it was just lovely…”

The Red Cross’ work is far from over

While it is almost a century since the First World War began, its impact is still recognised – and remembered – today. Unfortunately, the armistice in 1918 did not put an end to the suffering. Many soldiers were left shell shocked, injured, or permanently disabled. Civilians were undernourished and many had lost family members. On top of this, a devastating epidemic of Spanish influenza broke out, killing over two million civilians and 30,000 troops between 1918 and 1919.

During the First World War the British Red Cross played a vital role. It provided 90,000 volunteers to help wounded and sick soldiers in the UK and abroad; established 1,786 auxiliary hospitals and staffed ambulances, hospital trains and motor launches to evacuate the wounded to hospitals; and despatched more than 47,000 food parcels a month to prisoners of war and wounded soldiers.

But, while the British Red Cross’ purpose was to aid the sick and wounded in time of war, there was no provision for peacetime work. So, in 1919, a Supplementary Charter extended its aims to include “the improvement of health, the prevention of disease, and the mitigation of suffering throughout the world”.

Nursing the country back to health

Red Cross nurses at a service of thanksgiving in February 1919.

© BRC/ Marjorie Howell

This was the beginning of the Red Cross’ involvement in peacetime activities. Among other things, these changes enabled Red Cross nurses to care for those affected by the Spanish influenza epidemic in post-war Britain.

In May 1919, the Surrey county director wrote the obituary for a volunteer named Miss Long, describing how she “nursed through the war at the Esher Red Cross Hospital, where she never missed a day, and was the most devoted worker; this is in addition to domestic work at her home. On demobilisation, she went to nurse village families during the influenza epidemic, contracted the disease, and died on Easter Day. It is on such foundations that the British Red Cross is built”.

Around 500 Red Cross volunteers lost their lives serving in the voluntary aid detachments during the war. Many more – like Miss Long – died of Spanish influenza after the war, having caught the disease from their patients. To this day, Red Cross volunteers continue to risk their lives to help others. Only two months ago, a Syrian Arab Red Crescent volunteer died from injuries sustained while evacuating an injured person to a hospital in Homs.

War is devastating and its impact can often be felt long after the laying down of weapons. In the case of the First World War, recovery took decades. We can however take comfort in knowing that, thanks to the Supplementary Charter of 1919, the British Red Cross will be there helping people in both wartime and peacetime.

Read more about the history of the organisation

Find out how you can become a Red Cross volunteer

The role of aristocratic volunteers during the First World War


One of the most interesting aspects of ITV’s Downton Abbey is the way class issues play out among the Grantham family and their servants, especially as wounded and recuperating soldiers have arrived in their home and begun mingling with the family members.

Our archivist Jenny Shaw explains more about the role the aristocracy played among British Red Cross volunteers during the war.

From our origins, the British Red Cross received a huge amount of support from the upper echelons of society. Members of the royal family had accepted positions on the governing council (roughly the equivalent of today’s board of trustees) and when county branches started to be set up from 1907 the wife of the local lord lieutenant usually served as the branch president.

Volunteers at Devonshire House


One of the main ways wealthy families supported the war effort was by volunteering their houses to be used by the rapidly expanding Red Cross. The Duke of Devonshire, for example, generously gave over the whole ground floor of Devonshire House in London to act as our headquarters during the war. Others, like the fictitious Grantham family in Downton Abbey, loaned us their stately homes to be used as convalescent centres for recuperating soldiers.

Women in particular got involved in volunteering with the Red Cross in ways that were considered suitable for ladies. Two of the Duke of Devonshire’s daughters – Lady Rachel Cavendish and Lady Dorothy Cavendish (who married prime minister Harold Macmillan) – worked at the county clearing house in Derbyshire, allocating wounded servicemen to the appropriate hospitals or nursing homes in the county. The duke’s daughter-in-law, Lady Edward Cavendish, volunteered over 1,000 hours making garments for the wounded.

From our records, it’s hard to tell about volunteers’ class (other than people with titles). Volunteers tended to be women who could afford to volunteer their time without pay, but the outbreak of the First World War saw thousands of new volunteers from all backgrounds assisting the Red Cross.

Read more about our history

Hospital food: even worse during the First World War


If you or a loved one has had the misfortune to eat hospital food recently, spare a thought for the wounded soldiers of the First World War who had to eat dishes like calf’s foot jelly and beef tea custard.

Red Cross volunteers prepare food during the First World WarWe’ve seen wounded soldiers being cared for in the luxurious surroundings of ITV’s Downton Abbey. During the war, Red Cross nurses looked after men in lots of different types of accommodation, including stately homes. But they certainly wouldn’t have eaten the same rich and delicious food that the homes’ titled owners did.

Food for wounded soldiers was chosen for its ease of digestion, not its taste. Our archives have a recipe book teaching volunteer cooks how to choose and prepare hundreds of dishes for the men. Men were put on different diets depending on their injuries (there’s actually a beef tea diet outlined in the book).

The book even includes a definition of salad.

You can see excerpts from the recipe book embedded below. Just in case calf’s foot jelly or beef tea custard tickles your tastebuds, I’ve written out those recipes under the document player. You may want to wash it down with a tall glass of albumen water (mix equal parts egg white with water).

And if you do make them, please don’t invite me over for dinner. I’m a vegetarian.

Beef tea (pg 65)

1 lb. beef to each one pint water.

Scrape the meat, removing fat, gristle and bone. Place in cold water as scraped, press with fork. Cover with paper, place in pan of water and bring water barely to the boiling point, so that meat is just coloured only. Strain, remove any fat with paper and serve. Season as required.

Double quantity of meat may be used.

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Beef tea custard (pg. 58)

Required: Two or three eggs to each pint beef tea. Sugar to taste.

Method: Strain the beef tea well before using or a heavy sediment falls to the bottom of the dish. Beat the eggs, add beef tea and beat again, well strain into buttered dish and bake 20 to 30 minutes. Custards must be baked very slowly. The pie-dish may be stood in a baking tin of water, which helps to set them firmly by preventing too quick a heat from reaching them.

Calf’s foot jelly (pages 70-71)

[To make] stock for jelly:
(1) Gelatine or isinglass, 1 oz. to one quart liquid. Soak the gelatine in 1/2 pint cold water six to seven hours, or in boiling water 20 to 30 minutes, if needed in haste.

(2) One calf’s foot, quartered, washed and blanched, to one quart liquid. Boil the calf’s foot gently for four or five hours in one quart water, skimming well. Strain into a basin, and when set wipe off any grease from the top with a cloth dipped in hot water.

To make one quart [calf’s foot jelly], using the calf’s foot stock. Strain in the juice of one lemon, add slices of thinly peeled rind, the shells and beaten whites of two eggs, sugar to taste, and whisk all thoroughly together until they come to the boil. Draw to the side of the fire and allow to stand for 15 to 20 minutes, when a crust will be seen to form, then strain and add a wine-glass of wine – sherry is generally preferred, but port wine or any white wine may be used.

See photos of our work in the First World War

Letters home from a First World War nurse


Downton Abbey fans will remember Lady Sybil in action as a Red Cross nurse helping wounded soldiers.

In our archives, we’ve found letters from one of our nurses who sheds more light on the difficulties of nursing, as well as some of the lighter moments.

According to our records, Miss Dorothy M Robinson, daughter of Major General Sir C W Robinson KCB (ex Rifle Brigade), was a nurse at Waverley Abbey Military Hospital in Farnham, Surrey.

Dorothy tells her mum about the trouble she has to go through to get a bath, the jokes wounded servicemen play on each other, and the nervous anticipation everyone feels when the Zeppelin warning bell goes off one night.

Here you can see some of Dorothy’s letters, or read the transcript below.


What did the Red Cross do in WWI?


If you’re one of the ten million people enjoying the new series of Downton Abbey, you’ll know that one of the characters, Lady Sybil, has joined the Red Cross.

This year’s series follows the Crawley family and their servants as they try to survive the First World War.

The British Red Cross was instrumental in helping soldiers survive the appalling conditions of the Great War. Our archivist, Jenny Shaw, explains how the Red Cross helped:

During the First World War the British Red Cross, operating as the Joint War Committee with the Order of St John, recruited and trained thousands of volunteers who served alongside professional staff mainly in the UK, but also overseas.

These volunteers provided vital services to the sick and wounded, helping  ease pressure on the medical and military services. There were four main services provided by the Red Cross during the war, paid for by extensive fundraising.

1. Transport for the wounded

We were the first organisation to supply motorised ambulances, instead of horse-drawn ambulances, to the battlefields with the first convoy arriving in France in September 1914.

As more men were called up to fight, women were trained to drive the ambulances as well. Trains and boats were also equipped to act as mobile hospitals.

2. Auxiliary hospitals and convalescent homes

Over 3,000 auxiliary hospitals and convalescent homes were organised, equipped and staffed by the Red Cross. In readiness for war, the Red Cross had already secured buildings, equipment and staff so many temporary hospitals were available as soon as wounded men began to arrive back in the UK from the battlefield.

Thousands of women volunteered to serve in their local hospital supported by medical professionals. Patients at these hospitals were generally less seriously wounded or those who needed to convalesce. Servicemen often preferred the auxiliary hospitals because discipline was not as strict as in military hospitals, they were less crowded and the surroundings were more homely.

3. Work parties

Work parties were set up across the country to help supply hospitals. Women often did knitting and sewing in their own homes to produce items such pyjamas, socks and dressing gowns for patients. Instructions and patterns were provided which helped to make the most of limited supplies.

4. Wounded and missing soldiers

Centres for recording the wounded and missing were set up in France with Red Cross searchers going to villages where fighting had taken place and to local hospitals. Information could then be passed to families nervously waiting for news of loved ones.

Hurray for International Youth Day


Weirdly, for an organisation that’s knocking on 141 years old, the British Red Cross seems to be getting younger. Which is fitting, in its own way, because tomorrow – 12 August – is International Youth Day.

You probably won’t know this, but half the volunteer base of the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC) worldwide is now made up of young people. That amounts to 6.5 million – yes, 6.5 million – young humanitarians in our global Movement.

And here in the UK, almost a fifth of Red Cross volunteers (6,000 of them) are under 26 years old. As a group, they make a huge contribution – and blow out of the water that hoary old cliché about charity work being the preserve of respectable, middle-aged ladies.

In the past year alone (which also, incidentally, marked the UN International Year of Youth), young volunteers helped with the Red Cross’ mammoth response to the heavy winter snows, featured in the Red Cross’ Humanitarian Citizen Awards, organised a national youth conference and launched a new leadership programme for young volunteers.

And last November, 13 ambitious young volunteers even staged a coup and stormed the senior management team meeting at Red Cross HQ, seizing the reins of power. (Don’t worry, though. The temporary coup d’etat was all part of Takeover Day, an annual event where young people across the country get a chance to try their hand at running things.)

Many young volunteers say they joined the Red Cross because it has such a humungous choice of services, particularly for young people. So whether your interest is first aid, fundraising, responding to emergencies or helping refugees, there will be something for you.

The ‘Big Society’ risks creating a smaller, less effective, voluntary sector


One year on, the government’s Big Society is still paddling along the rocky shores.  Despite well-meaning intentions the initiative is still failing to live up to expectations.

At the heart of the Big Society is the desire for greater active citizenship and a thriving voluntary and community sector through the opening up of public service delivery. No one can really object to this.  Indeed, as an organisation with over 30,000 volunteers in the UK and a deliverer of some public contracts, the British Red Cross sees everyday the dedication and difference volunteers make, as well as the benefits to their communities and wider society.

But in reality, many charities are struggling to survive; the cuts are hitting them hard; they are scaling back their valuable work in local communities and in some cases ceasing to exist, all at a time when demand for such services is increasing due to the downturn.  This is not surprising given the recent report that voluntary sector will lose more than £110 million in local authority funding this year alone. Is it any wonder that many believe that the Big Society is being used as a cover for cuts?  And more importantly, is it fair that the most vulnerable – the isolated elderly citizen or young carer – in society bare the brunt of these decisions?

Large charities, such as the Citizens Advice Bureau and Refugee Council, as well as smaller ones, are feeling the pinch.  The British Red Cross has also faced some challenges, particularly in our health and social care work, with commissioners asking us to deliver more for less or in some cases ceasing to provide funding for specific services.

In London our ‘home from hospital’ services have been cut by local authorities. In some case, this simple provision helping elderly people get settled in at home after a stay in hospital is now being provided by the private sector – but patients are having to pay for it. In other cases the service has been cut completely. For elderly people living alone, this service makes a huge difference to their wellbeing, allowing them to leave hospital in the first place and easing the transition home. Sadly it seems to be vulnerable people like this who are so far bearing the brunt.

Our work helping asylum seekers and vulnerable migrants, who are at high risk of exploitation, has also significantly increased due to other support charities having their funding cut or ended. Ironically, the evidence shows that it is preventative services – those that in the long-run save the state money – that are being disproportionately cut.

This is stifling the voluntary sector, one of the key levers to supporting some of the most disadvantaged in society and to building sustainable, responsive communities.

Let’s make no mistake: these decisions are having a detrimental impact on the community and voluntary sector and consequently the kind of Big Society to which the Prime Minister aspires.  We are in danger of having a smaller, less effective, voluntary sector.  We will lose forever the specialist and unique skills contained within voluntary organisations and their unique ability to engage with some of the hardest to reach.

There is an urgent need to address the impact spending cuts are having on the voluntary sector. In recognising the need to address the public finances, the voluntary sector accepts its responsibility and need to reform, belt tightening is to be expected and, as with our private sector cousins, we are no strangers to salary and recruitment freezes, spending reviews and other measures aimed at bringing down costs. But with many voluntary organisations reliant on government funding to deliver much needed public services, all the belt tightening in the world cannot make up for the profound loss of income the cuts represent. We will do our part, but for the sake of all those we help, the voluntary sector cannot become an easy target.

Government, local and central, has a role to play to ensure the voluntary sector is not disproportionately affected.  Cutting funding in the short-term can result in higher costs in the future and preventing such pain in the first place seems to be the most sensible thing to do.

In addition, there needs to be a drive to reduce the barriers to meaningful and regular volunteering, as well as a wider acknowledgement of the benefits gained.  It is concerning that the Third Sector Research Centre found that 31% of the population provides 87% of voluntary hours and charitable giving, most of which are likely to be middle-aged, well-educated and based in prosperous areas.

For the Big Society to succeed it should be judged on how well it engages and meets the needs of the most vulnerable in our communities. There is no shortage of commitment from the voluntary and community sector, but the more the voluntary sector is forced to cut, and the harder its job becomes, the louder the Big Society naysayers will become.

An edited version of this post was published in The Times on 3 August 2011

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