Quakers in the World

Quakers in the World

Friends War Victims Relief Committee (FWVRC)

1870 - 1946

The Friends War Victims Relief Committee (FWVRC) was an official arm of British Quakers, set up in times of war to relieve civilian distress in practical ways. It was first established in 1870, following the outbreak of the Franco-Prussian War and revived twice more (in Bulgaria in 1876 and in the Balkans in 1912) before being formally reconstituted at the outbreak of the First World War.  It was revived for a fifth and final time in 1940, before its name was changed to the Friends Relief Service in 1941.

In 1870, the FWVRC undertook relief work in towns and villages devastated by the Franco-Prussian War. This was the first time the Quaker star was used as the badge of the Quaker relief worker, and the policy of giving aid equally to both sides was formally adopted.

FWVRC commissioners worked through the local communities in Paris and the Loire Valley, and around Metz, providing emergency famine relief and helping to plough fields and sow seed in devastated agricultural areas.

The violent destruction of as many as seventy villages in Bulgaria in 1876 led to the second FWVRC. A small Quaker team working with locals of different faiths and different ethnic groups built as many as sixty wooden houses a week, ultimately rehousing 600 families.  Relief in Eastern Europe continued almost without a break for the next thirty years, but the next time the FWVRC was formally called upon was in 1912, when they worked in Constantinople (Istanbul) with refugees from the First and Second Balkan Wars.

The FWVRC was again revived at the outbreak of the First World War. Organised training began in 1914 under Roderick Clark. Ruth Fry, who had worked as Treasurer of Boer Home Industries, was appointed secretary.

From 1915 until after the armistice, the FWVRC worked in the Netherlands in camps set up for Belgian refugees and other civilians. In France, the FWVRC took charge of hospitals and convalescent homes and provided district nursing care as well.  Two hospitals were set up in Sermaize, in a district almost razed to the ground following the first German offensive. Pre-fabricated houses were again used, this time to replace homes that had been destroyed.  As in the Franco-Prussian War, the FWVRC helped to bring in harvests that would otherwise have been lost. In Chalons sur Marnes, Hilda Clark and Edith Pye set up an urgently needed maternity hospital in one wing of an old people’s home.

In 1917, with the entry of the United States into the War, the FWVRC were joined by members of the newly founded American Friends Service Committee. Together they took responsibility for the reconstruction of a 200 square mile area of Lorraine, near Verdun. In Serbia, they rebuilt two villages, an orphanage, a hospital and two dispensaries.  Margaret McFie, a Scottish doctor, built the first school for the blind in Yugoslavia, while another Scottish doctor, Katherine McPhail, opened a children’s hospital.  They also attempted to provide famine relief to war refugees in Russia, though there they were largely thwarted by the Revolution of 1917.

During the 1920s, the new Friends Service Council took over the responsibility for organising overseas relief work outside of wartime.

Following the outbreak of the Second World War, the FWVRC was revived for the fifth time, in late 1940. Its secretary was Roger Wilson and it had around 500 full and part-time members. In 1941, the name was changed to the Friends Relief Service (FRS) – a name that was felt to sound less pompous.

For the first four years, its work focused on domestic relief, working alongside members of the FAU’s domestic arm, and other voluntary bodies, in air-raid shelters and ‘rest centres’ set up for the victims of bombing. Between 1940 and 1946, they ran evacuation hostels for children and for the elderly – some of which continued as old people’s homes after the War.

In 1944, it became possible to expand relief work into mainland Europe.  FRS teams worked with displaced persons in Germany and elsewhere and were involved in the relief of the concentration camp at Bergen-Belsen.

The Friends Relief Service was finally wound up in 1946, and its work passed on to the permanent Friends Service Council.

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Further Reading and Credits

Image of the FWVRC badge reproduced by kind permission from the copyright holders The Library of the Religious Society of Friends, London