Most of the young, single British women in Portugal left for home when WW2 was declared. However, many married women remained and they set up several organisations to work on the “war effort”. This was despite initial disapproval from some British and Commonwealth men, who established a Red Cross Committee without the participation of any woman. The Women's War Work Organisation was set up in September 1939 by Lady Selby, wife of the British Ambassador, and was subsequently renamed as the Women's Relief Work Organisation. It had no formal statutes and developed as needs arose. Any British woman could work for it or contribute financially. Among its first activities were the provision of first aid courses and truck-driving lessons for women.
In 1941, Lady Campbell, wife of the new ambassador, arrived in Lisbon. She established what came to be called the Lady Campbell's Fund for the Suffering Children of Europe. The Campbells left at the end of the war but she paid several return visits to Lisbon until her sudden death in 1949, during one of those visits. An obituary in the Anglo-Portuguese News talked of her great charisma, leadership skills, sense of humour, skills in the art of sewing and immense energy and dedication. The Fund worked with Polish child refugees in France and in 1946, sent a considerable amount of food to children in Poland.
At a general meeting of the Women's Relief Work Organisation in June 1941, it was reported that about 200 women were affiliated to the organisation. Since its founding, members had made 9,222 garments and 3,547 bandages, which had been sent to various institutions in the UK or been distributed in Portugal among refugees, shipwrecked sailors or individuals working to support prisoners of war. Its Refugee Clothing section, created in April 1941, had distributed 2,000 pieces of clothing offered by the British community within two months of its establishment. Among the beneficiaries were 110 refugee children who were being hosted at the holiday camp run by the newspaper, O Século, in S. Pedro do Estoril.
In addition to Lisbon, Women's Relief Work Organisation groups were formed in Sintra, Carcavelos, Estoril, Coimbra, Praia da Rocha, as well as in Madeira and Cape Verde. The Estoril group met daily, on weekdays, in the house of Marguerite Bucknall, mainly to knit warm clothing and make bandages for British soldiers. In July 1941, Denise Lester made available part of her school to establish a centre for British refugees to meet. It is recorded that, in the six months it was open, 5,085 cups of tea were served!
In July 1942 the organisation held a grand fair at the Hotel Aviz (illustrated), in Lisbon, where Calouste Gulbenkian had a suite. The hotel offered the refreshments and the event was attended by over 700 people, raising £450. Much of this was sent to the UK to fund mobile canteens run by the Women's Voluntary Service (now the Royal Voluntary Service), which was also working in Portugal.
In April 1943, the organisation was in charge of looking after 450 Allied prisoners, many of whom were wounded, who had been exchanged for the same number of Italian prisoners. The organisation was also responsible for the reception in Lisbon of 900 British civilians, who had been stuck in France. In 1944, many English children who had been sent to the US at the beginning of the war, arrived in Lisbon and were looked after by the organisation while they awaited transport to the UK. One of these was Shirley Williams, who became a British MP and government minister and was one of the so-called “Gang of Four” who left the Labour Party to found the Social Democratic Party.
By the end of the war, it was calculated that the British women had made and distributed 67,000 pieces of clothing. In 1945, following the German surrender, the organisation merged with the Women’s Voluntary Service.
Source: Ana Vicente: Segunda Guerra Mundial: mulheres inglesas residentes em Portugal. In Feminae Dicionário Contemporâneo, pages 852-854
SUBSCRIBE TO OUR NEWSLETTER