Relief organizations are our first line of humanitarian response to tragedy.
Pleas on behalf of the 9-11 Fund, the NY Police and Fire Fighters Fund and
the American Red Cross are with us daily. Such was also the situation in
America in the early 1940's. Even before Pearl Harbor, Americans were
regularly ask to donate money to relieve the suffering of victims of the
European War. After Dunkirk and the Blitzkreig began, Americans opened their
homes, hearts and wallets to the British. Children were evacuated from the
war zone to relatives in the US and Canada. Prominent citizens, who often had
relatives in the British aristocracy, sent money and supplies to their
friends overseas. As their need grew, charities on behalf of the British
people began popping up all over America. A short list includes the American
Committee for Air Raid Relief, American Ambulance in Great Britain, American
Hospital in Britain, British American Ambulance Corps, the British Hospital
Association, Bundles for Britain, St. Dunstan's Hospital for the War-Blinded,
as well as many Charities based in Britain.
By 1941, most of these organizations were administered by an umbrella
organization called the British War Relief Society (BWRS). Like the United
Service Organizations (USO), which served as an executive framework for its
six member organizations, the BWRS was primarily an administrative office, a
central receiving depot for money and supplies donated which were then
parceled out to its affiliate organizations in the US and in Britain. These
donations were raised in the name of the BWRS, rather than in the name of the
One notable exception is Bundles for Britain. Bundles was begun by Mrs. Wales
Latham, a young New York Society matron who began her charity work for
Britain by organizing her friends to knit garments for British sailors on the
frigid North Sea. Mrs. Winston Churchill had put out a call for Englishwomen
to knit these items, and Mrs. Latham decided to answer the call from across
the Atlantic. Her knitting circle was such a success, Mrs. Latham decided to
broaden her horizons.
That was December 1939. As it says in a Look magazine story from December
1940, "[Mrs. Latham] got a license from the State Department, wheedled an
empty store rent-free from a Park Avenue landlord, [and] persuaded Mrs.
Winston Churchill to become a sponsor." The genius of the operation was that
anyone with idle hands, spare time, or spare clothing could participate.
Bundles focused on producing and shipping needed supplies, rather than
collecting money. The storefront offices were workrooms where volunteers
could drop in to knit and sew garments to send to Britain. Cast-off clothing
was mended or made over. If the cast-offs were not wearable, they would be
cut up for woolen patchwork blankets, or baby sleeping bags, as were produced
by a sewing room in Middletown, N.Y. Monetary donations of all sizes came
pouring in: a sharecropper sent in nine pennies; $1.15 arrived, the profit
from two sisters' Kool Aid stand; a radio appeal by the likes of film stars
Charles Boyer and Ronald Coleman, netted $30,000 for medical supplies.
The American Theatre Wing, a group of actresses and other theatrical women,
banded together as they had in the First War and became The American Theatre
Wing of the British War Relief Society. They gave not only entertained at
benefits but operated their own sewing room to produce items for British war
refugees. It was quite common in the tabloids and magazines of this period to
see photographs of British actresses, such as Vivien Leigh, with their yarn,
knitting for Britain during down time on the set.
British actress Gertrude
Lawrence was a vice president of the American Theatre Wing of the British War
Relief Society. She included letters in the programs of her performances, at
first urging theatre-goers to buy the souvenir merchandise the BWRS made
available in the lobby. Later she switched to hawking souvenir programs,
presumably a better seller and easier to stock. Also by that time, the BWRS
items were available for sale to the public in fine department stores like
Bundles for Britain and the British War Relief Society and its affiliates
provide a wealth of items for the homefront collector. Probably most familiar
and least expensive are the pins. They display the lion and shield "British
War Relief Emblem" reputedly designed by Mrs. Wales Latham herself. They
usually feature the French motto "Dieu et mon Droit". Translated as "God and
my right", this motto appears on the British Royal crest and was once the
watchword of Richard the Lionheart. All pins are labelled on the back as
either "Official Bundles for Britain" or, more commonly, "Official BWRS and
BB". The larger brooch is usually thought of as a woman's piece and is
sometimes mis-identified as a BWRS membership pin. The small pin, sometimes
called the "men's lapel pin", comes in pinback and screwback varieties, has
less ribbon enamel work and is more common on the market today, likely
because it was less costly to purchase at the time. These pins sold for $2.50
and $1 respectively in 1941, and can be purchased in near mint condition
today for $10-$30.
Because the RAF were the great heroes of the day, Bundles and the BWRS
produced wing pins marked RAF on the front, with their Bundles or BWRS
affiliation on the back. These wings were usually vermeil (24k goldplate over
sterling) with enamel and are made by Monet or Accessocraft, two well-known
costume jewelry manufacturers. Depending on size and condition, these pins
usually cost between $10 and $25.
There are many other British/American support pins which can be found from
this period, if not marked for BWRS. For example, the British American
Ambulance Corps also produced several pins, including their own versions of
RAF wings, as well as cinderellas and matchbooks.
The other more common BWRS items on the market today are their cigarette
cases and compacts, made by the US company Henriette. Both cases are brass
with machine-turned interiors and white enamel outside with the British war
relief emblem on the cover.
Compacts and cases with an interior sticker
reading "Sole Authentic Case for the benefit of British War Relief Society
and Bundles for Britain" are more sought after and will command higher
prices, i.e. $75-$100 for a mint compact with sticker, protective felt bag
and original box as opposed to $25-$30 for the mint compact alone (including
But what of other collectibles? My fascination with the BWRS began when I
found just how ingeniously it was marketed. There were charity sporting
events. Memorabilia from these events can be had for as little as $2 for a
token from the BWRS golf tournament in June, 1941. More rare items include
newspaper clippings from tennis tournaments or matchbooks advertising a polo
tournament. The BWRS encouraged contract bridge tournaments in which players
pledged a penny a point to war relief. Decks of playing cards and bridge
tally pads with the British war relief emblem can sometimes be found on the
Matchbooks were an inexpensive and ubiquitous form of advertising in the
1930's and '40's. Each local branch of the BWRS, its affiliates and Bundles
for Britain produced its own matchbooks. Some have donation coupons printed
on the inside, urging: "Say, I'm glad I did, not I wish I had". These can be
found today as matchbook covers as well as complete, unstruck books. There
are also brass matchbox covers on the market. Usually selling between $5 and
$10, these covers are enameled on top and bottom with the BWRS name and logo
and read "There'll Always Be An England" on the spine.
British war relief is a delight for theatre program collectors. Gracie
Fields, the "Sweetheart of the British Empire", did fifty concerts for
British war relief in 1940-41 alone. Sometimes these programs can be found
autographed. Cary Grant donated his entire salaries for the films "Mr. Lucky"
and the "Philadelphia Story" to British war relief. Many Gertrude Lawrence
programs from the period include the fundraising letters from her, complete
with mechanically reproduced signature. British actor Maurice Evans recorded
the great "England" speeches from Shakespeare's "Richard II" and "Henry V"
and sold them in the lobby at his performances for $1 a piece. Few of these
recordings still exist, making them highly collectible.
There is a myriad of stamps, stickers,
dishes, books, magazine covers,
clothing, postcards, greeting cards and
patriotic envelopes which are British
war relief-related. This is the perfect
time to add some British war relief
collectibles your homefront collection.
The market is just beginning to explode.
I've seen prices on the more common
pins rise from $3 to $30 in just the last
year. And new, interesting items are
appearing from attics every day. Greek
and Russian War Relief items are also
popular, although their organizations
seem to have been less prolific than
A couple of historical notes: The American Theatre Wing of the British War
Relief Society was the first organization to send what we would now consider
a "USO Camp Show" to Great Britain. Kay Francis, Martha Raye, Mitzi Mayfair
and Carole Landis toured the foxholes of the European Theatre even before the
USO got there. Eventually, the American Theatre Wing joined the USO and
opened the famous Stage Door Canteen in New York. I have not been able to
establish if they severed ties with the BWRS at this time, although it is
possible they were heavily involved with both.
After VJ Day, the BWRS slowed its pace, eventually closing its doors. Bundles
for Britain, however, was incorporated into the Marshal Plan to rebuild
Europe and renamed the Committee for American Relief Everywhere (CARE). The
"care packages" that we now send to homesick college students had their start
with the industrious Mrs. Wales Latham.