Our History

Founded in 1931, IVS has a rich history and are recognised
by the UN as the oldest International volunteering organisation in the UK.

Deeds not Words

Jean & Lucile Inebnit with Pierre Cérésole

The roots of IVS go back to just after the First World War when Service Civil International (SCI) was founded by an international group of Pacifists to further the aims of peace, justice and understanding in the world. Initiated by the Swiss Quaker Pierre Cérésole, the organisation’s purpose was to bring together volunteers from different countries, to provide a ‘voluntary service’ to local communities in need of support.

In 1920, Pierre Cérésole and Hubert Parris, a British Quaker, set up the first international voluntary project in Esnes, a French village that had suffered extensive war damage. Major volunteer projects continued throughout the 1920’s offering aid and support to communities in need.

The First British Project

IVS volunteers in Brynmawr

In the Welsh village of Brynmawr, the Religious Society of Friends (Quakers) had begun to develop a range of support projects for locals who had been affected by the decline of the Welsh coal mining industry.

Inspired by the work of the Service Civil on the continent, the group contacted Jean Inebnit, a Swiss quaker who had previously worked with Cérésole, and who was then working as a lecturer at the University of Leeds. In coordination, they set up the first international voluntary project in Britain in 1931. Brynmawr attracted 41 volunteers from abroad, and 74 from the UK. From this, emerged the development of the International Voluntary Service for Peace (the original name of IVS). Led by Jean Inebnit, IVSP was now the British Branch of Service Civil International.

On 2nd February 2011, the BBC broadcasted a special feature on the first International Voluntary Service workcamp in Brynmawr that you can watch in replay on their website.

Government Recognition

Paul Cadbury & John Harvey

In the Spring of 1939, IVSP was acknowledged by the House of Commons during a debate on an alternative form of national service for Conscientious Objectors. T. Edmund Harvey MP, the brother of IVS Chairman John Harvey, spoke of the wide range of valuable work carried out by the International Voluntary Service, such as reconstruction work after natural or economic disasters, which would not have otherwise been carried out.

Later that year, John Harvey and Paul Cadbury met with Sir Godfrey Ince, the Minister of Labour, on behalf of IVSP to discuss the possibilities of an ‘alternative service’ for Conscientious Objectors. Several days after the discussions, John Harvey received a letter inviting IVSP to supply men for a series of reforestation projects across the UK. This development saw IVSP receive funding from the British Government and unofficial status as ‘the alternate service’.

Great Britain during the War

IVS volunteers clear blitzed houses in Croydon

The voluntary work provided by IVS volunteers continued to grow throughout WW2, with specialist relief teams developed to tackle specific issues faced in wartime Britain.

During the Blitz, Volunteers gave support to struggling air-raid shelters and developed a range of health and social projects including an open Air Theatre to provide entertainment for evacuees. In Croydon, an area of London hit by violent bombings, volunteers worked to clear dangerous blitzed houses. Outside of London, in the summer of 1941, volunteers established a centre for War Refugees in Market Rasen, Lincolnshire.

The skills and experiences of IVS volunteers was recognised when the Council of British Societies for Relief Abroad awarded IVS funding to send volunteers to Europe.

European Deployment

An IVS team leaving for Italy during the war

Many British volunteers were eager to offer relief work on the continent, so, as soon as it was made possible, relief units were formed and sent to Egypt to wait until it was safe to deploy to mainland Europe. IVSP volunteers were issued with army fatigues, with each unit receiving surplus military vehicles. In total 10 relief units were deployed, with the first unit landing in Athens on Christmas Day 1944.

The relief units stayed on the continent for almost 2 years, with new volunteers routinely replenishing the ranks.

The Pioneers

IVS relief unit in the Middle East

Following on from the successes of IVS projects in Europe and the swelling number of volunteers, IVS teams began developing projects outside of Europe. The IVS Pioneers setup branches in India and across Africa.

By the 1960s, a long-term volunteering programme had been developed to assist developing countries by providing long-term skilled volunteers. Volunteers contributed to almost every aspect of development from education and health to planning and construction. Their role was to act as a catalyst for change and to contribute skills which were not available locally.

Lord Judd & the Social Programmes

IVS volunteers at Fulbourn Hospital

A young Frank Judd became IVS Secretary General in 1960.  Judd recognised the changing needs of local communities and began shifting IVS away from the traditional ‘pick & shovel’ projects in favour for a significant expansion of social projects. Judd stepped down as Secretary General in 1966 to take up his seat in the House of Commons as MP for Portsmouth South. By the time Judd left, IVS was running 166 voluntary projects in the UK every year.

Judd went on to work as Director of both Oxfam and VSO and later went on to join the house of Lords in 1991. Until his death in April 2021 Lord Judd remained a patron of IVS.

A recent interview of Lord Judd is accessible on YouTube.

IVS Overseas / Skillshare

Skillshare International

By 1971 IVS had opened a new office in Leeds to host a standalone team for the IVS Overseas programme, whilst the remaining IVS regional offices focused on developing projects in the UK.

In 1990 IVS and IVS Overseas became separate legal entities, with IVS Overseas rebranding as Skillshare International. Skillshare went on to become a founding member of the UK Governments ICS international volunteering programme. Sadly, in August 2016 Skillshare went into administration.

Northern Ireland

Peace wall in Belfast

In 1971, IVS’s Northern Irish office started a programme of cross-community holidays for children from Belfast and Derry. Over the next two years, over 800 children from both communities were sent abroad, with funding raised by public appeals. As the funding and the scale of the project increased IVS opened a permanent facility to focus on reconciliations projects.

The new facility and the children’s programme were coordinated by IVS field officer Sean Armstrong. On the 30th of June 1973, the day before a large group of children were set to depart for Europe a member of the Ulster Defence Association walked into the IVS office and shot Sean 3 times. Following Sean’s death, the holiday scheme was put on hold and IVS began to focus on developing local projects.

Sean’s mother, Dr Hylda Armstrong, was the International President of Inner Wheel, and through her connections with the Rotary Club, she knew that the Rotary Club of Belfast was thinking along similar lines to IVS, i.e. to set up a permanent centre for Peace and Reconciliation, rather than continue with a programme that they had been running of holidays for children and young people.  Hylda acted as the broker between the Rotary Club and IVS. Bringing together two such disparate organisations to set up Harmony Community Trust at Glebe House was a challenging piece of Community Relations work.  More about the story of Glebe House can be found on their website here.

IVS Today

IVS volunteers in Switzerland, 2016

For over 90 years, IVS has been offering volunteering projects for peace and are recognised by the UN as the UK’s oldest international volunteering organisation. Due to the restrictions of the Covid-19 pandemic IVS had to greatly reduce the number of projects it could be involved with.  However, during 2022 and 2023 IVS has been able to bring volunteers to short-term projects in the UK, as well as a number of long-term projects, and also to send several volunteers from the UK to overseas projects.  It is hoped that during 2024 there will be more short-term projects in the UK than in 2022 and 2023.  Several long-term projects will also continue as will a wide selection of overseas projects.

Before the pandemic IVS had supported 1000 projects in 80 countries, IVS has a large list of global partners that develop each project after a local need is discovered.

IVS continues in its aim to work for the sustainable development of local and global communities throughout the world.

More about short-term workcamp projects can be found here and long-term projects can be found here