As luck would have it, this month our meeting fell on the date of the Women’s Institute centenary. 2015 marks 100 years of this venerable institution which has achieved so much over the years with strong wills, cooperation, humour, and, let’s face it, style. Belles of all ages came together for a centenary party to mark the occasion in the specially decorated Better Bankside (although slightly bedraggled; if our attitudes were sunny, the weather certainly wasn’t!)
As always, the baking talents of the Belles had not disappointed, and there were plenty of wonderful snacks awaiting us.
But they were to wait until after the main event of the day which was… time travel!
To the proud strains of Jerusalem, the Borough Belles Committee members marched out, each representing a different decade of the WI. Unfortunately, due to the dangers and vagaries of the time travel process, Ms WI 1960s and 2000s were unfortunately indisposed but as always, there was someone willing to jump in and represent the WI! Each committee member described the history of the Women’s Institute in their decade, from the inspirational to the bizarre to the funny to the heartwarming. So here in order we have a potted history of the WI:
Proud beginnings – The 1910s
The first ever WI meeting in the UK took place on 16 September 1915 in Llanfairpwll and its special subject for discussion was ‘The food supply of the country’. It was modelled on similar organisations which were formed in Canada around the turn of the century, born out of the conviction that rural women had an important role to play in their local communities. Education and encouragement were needed to fulfil this role and these and more were found in the welcoming environment of the new WIs – 24 of them by the following year, and 187 by the end of 1917! The constitutional aim of the WI has always been ‘to improve the quality of life of the community’ and its history shows the difference that women working together can make.
The early WI was initially sponsored by the government with a mission to help boost food supplies during wartime and energise rural areas as the aftermath of the Industrial Revolution and increasing food imports from abroad had hit British rural areas hard and poverty was widespread. But the gatherings proved so popular, the WI soon took on a life of its own and its members set about righting wrongs and mounting surprising and enlightened campaigns, many of which were light years ahead of their time. The early founders were veterans of the women’s suffrage movement who transferred their energies to the WI when the battle for votes for women was won.
These members turned the WI into a vehicle for educating women, not just in household skills but also in their role as newly enfranchised citizens. It was concerned with domesticity, but not in a passive sense – the WI valued the skilled work women did in the home and provided training to improve those skills. It also provided an outlet via WI shops for members to earn money from home industries. As an organisation it was non-denominational, non-party political, and in theory at least, included all classes as equals, which was very unusual for the times it was started in.
The first Chairman was Trudie Denman, who had worked for electoral reform with the Women’s Liberal Federation, established the Bush Nursing Scheme during her time in Australia (and also named the new capital of Australia!) and during the First World War worked for the Smokes for Wounded Soldiers and Sailors Society which paid for 265 million cigarettes for service personnel! In her own family business, she concerned herself with the working conditions of the women employees, persuading the directors to take a cut in fees to allow women to be included in the pension fund, and helped found the National Birth Control Council. So a formidable organiser and perfect for the new Women’s Institute. She held the role for 25 years, elected yearly in a secret ballot.
The first AGM was held in 1917, and with only three weeks’ food supply left in the country, food production was still the main priority. Members were urged to ‘take every opportunity of becoming more skilled in land work and therefore in the production of food’. As the First World War drew to a close other issues came to the fore and campaigning began on social conditions; the first ever resolution passed was about state-aided housing.
Women only – The 1920s
As the First World War had ended and the country was still reeling, the NFWI was beginning its work on adult education that would continue far into the future. The first Rural Community Council was formed when the national vice-chairman Grace Hadow gathered representatives of the WI, YMCA, Village Clubs’ Association and Workers’ Educational Association in 1920 to work together for adult education and the first WI handbook was produced in 1921, in recognition of the importance of training and education. Work continued throughout the decade with members urging County Councils in 1924 to “make full use of the opportunities for the development of adult education in rural areas, afforded by the WI movement” and WI lobbying resulted in over 19 counties inaugurating rural library schemes.
In 1921, the first federation secretary of Lindsey, Margaret Winteringham, was elected to parliament and became the first woman to represent a rural constituency. Not only that, but she said that WI membership was the best training she could have had for her work as an MP (MPs, take note!)
An historic vote took place in 1922 around the issue of whether men would be allowed to join the WI. This had been discussed since its formation but when the government’s Development Commission suggested a merger of the NFWI with the Village Clubs’ Association, we are pleased to say that the NFWI rejected the proposal and has been a women’s organisation run by women ever since! (Although, we’re always willing to make concessions – a Worcestershire member suggested that men should be included in WI choirs). 1924 marks another landmark moment in the history of the WI as Jerusalem was sung for the first time at the AGM, with an arrangement specially composed for the WI by Sir Walford Davies.
Meanwhile, the WI were campaigning on a range of issues varying from reducing maternal mortality, increasing the number of women police, combating venereal disease and furthering world peace. In fact, The Times wrote of the WI in this period that it “is one of those comparatively rare democratic bodies which do a large amount of useful work and say very little about it”.
Hard Times – The 1930s
Following the huge economic crash originating in America in 1929, the Great Depression hit Britain hard. Facing this crisis, the government held discussion with the NFWI to organise the setting up of markets throughout the country with a greater focus on training in cooking and nutrition. There had been individual WI markets since 1916 and the WI had a wealth of food production experience. So, with financial support from the Carnegie Trust, the NFWI employed a marketing organiser and in 1832 launched WI Markets. The resolution of 1932 was “That present economic difficulties render it desirable that Women’s Institute members should do their utmost to improve the quality and quantity of foodstuffs they raise, increasing the amounts offered for sale through Women’s Institute co-operative markets or otherwise”. However, it was not just food production, but also high unemployment levels that the WI sought to combat. WIs from all across the country got involved, working with allotment schemes or organising training for the unemployed in furniture repair, rug making and netting for fruit bushes.
At the same time, the WI continued to keep abreast of international affairs. The NFWI strongly believed in the League of Nations and held a conference on the international situation in 1935 to keep members informed of world events. As the situation worsened abroad, in 1938, the year that Hitler annexed Austria and Czechoslovakia, the government asked the WI to assist with preparation for evacuating children to the countryside if war broke out and Lady Denman was asked by the Ministry of Agriculture to become the honorary director designate of the Women’s Land Army. In 1939 in the months leading up to the outbreak of the Second World War however, WIs were urged to continue not only their mission to improve country life but also their regular cultural activities “to relieve the strain of war” and “maintain health, strength and good spirits in the village”.
The Jambusters – The 1940s
During the Second World War, the WI felt that it was important to maintain their meetings as normally as possible, “thus providing for the members a centre of tranquillity and cheerfulness in a sadly troubled world.” While the country was at war, the Women’s Institute used their abilities to contribute to the war effort. Most notably this was through the harvesting and preservation of fruit, often in the form of… jam (you knew we’d get to it eventually!). Recognising the ability of WIs to organise themselves, the Ministry of Food gave them a grant to administer the national Fruit Preservation Scheme and between 1940 and 1945, over 5,300 tons of fruit was preserved; that is the equivalent weight of 420 double decker buses of fruit which might otherwise have been wasted and instead provided food for the nation. This was the war work for which WI members became renowned (and the ‘jam’ image has stuck ever since).
However, the WI also contributed in a number of other ways, including knitting garments such as socks and pullovers for troops. In Cumbria, one productive member knitted 45 pullovers in six months! They were also integral in the care of evacuees and 1,700 WIs used their experiences to respond to the Town Children through Country Eyes survey on the conditions and habits of evacuees. The responses were later influential in the decision to pay a Family Allowance to mothers.
And as early as 1941, WI members started to involve themselves in post war planning. The NFWI sent suggestions for education, land use and local government reform to all relevant government departments. The Queen even sent a message to the WI praising their ‘important National Service… including work for evacuees…and their efforts in increasing the country’s food supply’. This despite the fact that the NFWI headquarters moved to a farm in Hertfordshire in 1940 due to persistent air attacks on London and that as the government asked societies not to meet unless absolutely necessary, there were no AGMs in 1940, 1941, 1942 or 1944 and no resolutions passed in those years.
1943 was the only year during the war in which an AGM was held. The Queen attended and the resolution was the very prescient ‘That men and women receive equal pay for equal work’. During 1943, there was a lot of discussion generally and within the WI around Education and the NFWI sent a survey to all members to help form their response to the Government White Paper on Educational Reconstruction. The discussion which followed prompted the question ‘Why shouldn’t WIs, who have shown remarkable common sense in their educational questionnaires, fill the Adult Education gap and provide a People’s College?’ So at the next available opportunity in 1945, the WI’s resolution was to start a college, and work began. After six years of war and deprivation, it seems amazing that members had the persistence and foresight to take up the challenge and turn it into reality. Finally, in 1948 Denman College opened.
And as evidence that some things never change, a 1946 letter from the Wiltshire Federation, suggested opportunities for sports and games might encourage younger women to join the WI, suggesting that ‘It would help to remove the occasional criticism that WIs consist of ageing members which, though far from justified, does contain a grain of truth.’
Keeping Britain Tidy – The 1950s
In the 1950s, the Cold War was developing abroad and an independent 1951 report stated that the average housewife was working 75 hours a week. But there was much also to celebrate: the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II took place in 1953, all rationing finally ended in 1954 and at the beginning of the 1950s, the NFWI organised a national music festival with the specially commissioned Folk Songs of the Four Seasons being performed by 3000 members at the Royal Albert Hall.
At the same time however, the WI was doing serious work both at home and abroad. In 1952, the Malayan government invited the NFWI to lend them an organiser to help start a WI movement in Malaya and in 1956, West Kent members adopted families in the Funkturm Camp for Displaced Persons in Hamburg and sent them materials for curtains, sewing aids, wool and knitting needles, toys and sweets. In 1959, World Refugee Year, a year which aimed once and for all to solve refugee camps (an issue which is sadly still relevant to us today) WIs raised almost £75,000 and many ‘adopted’ refugee families or whole camps, continuing their support for several years.
At home, the environment remained as important as ever to the WI, and in 1954 the WI inaugurated a huge campaign against litter in the countryside, forming the Keep Britain Tidy Group with representatives from 20 other organisations, and in a nice parallel to our Campaigns and Communities Officer Emily’s proposal this year, the resolution passed in 1958 was “That this meeting urges the appropriate Ministries to take immediate practical action to improve all inadequate sewerage systems with a view to preventing the pollution of our watercourses and seashores”.
It was well put by Lady Brunner, who chaired the National Federation from 1951 that “one Institute can do nothing but 7000, united through County and National Federations, can do much”.
International campaigners – The 1960s
Sadly, Ms WI 1960s was unwell and Ms WI 1920s had to stand in!
The WI was originally set up to improve community life and the WI was still fighting for this in rural areas in the 1960s. Since the 1920s, the WI had been lobbying the government for all villages to have telephones and for rentals to be the same everywhere in the country, and 1960 was the year that this was agreed to be the Post Office, while the withdrawal and lack of transport in rural areas led WI members to respond to a government consultation paper, with East Sussex members even appearing on television to talk about it. However, the new social freedoms and focus on the rights of women in the 1960s can be seen in the resolutions passed by the WI for the government to investigate the state of separated mothers and their maintenance money, and for deserted women to be granted equal rights to married women under the Divorce Reform Bill. Evidence gathered from WI members helped to shape the later Divorce Reform Act.
At an international level, NFWI were encouraging all WIs to support the Freedom from Hunger campaign of 1962, as part of which in 1967, the NFWI established the Denman Rural Training Centre in Bechuanaland (Botswana) to provide short courses for men and women who could only leave their farms for short periods. This was so successful it was taken over by the Botswanan government. In other frankly bizarre news, in the Cold War period, the Kremlin invited the newly elected chairman Gabrielle Pike “to visit the Soviet Union with a friend” and she accepted! In 1962, the resolution passed was for “the NFWI to combine with other women’s organisations throughout the world in order to persuade all governments to reduce experimental nuclear explosions in the atmosphere to an absolute minimum”. The WI has never accepted limits to its campaigning scope, for, as the national chairman put it at the 1966 AGM: “if we are not consciously and constructively trying to build what we call Jerusalem, then we are wasting this power-house of the WI’s collective energy”.
Business as usual? – The 1970s
The 1970s saw some key changes to the way that the WI was run. Up until this point, the WI has been an organisation based in rural areas but in 1970, the NFWI launched its Town and Country project to promote understanding between people living in rural and urban areas, and help them learn more about their respective problems and priorities, involving people and families from different backgrounds (although urban WIs wouldn’t be formed until much later on). Furthermore, in 1971, the AGM discussed changing the interpretation of the non-party political and non-sectarian rules in the constitution of the WI to include political issues. Lady Albermarle spoke in favour as greater freedom of discussion would encourage potential members and future leaders to join, and the resolution was passed. In 1974, the national chairman asked “Don’t you think it’s time we tackled some of the problems not always considered to be the province of women today?”
Yet the essentials of the WI remained the same. They still campaigned for education: in 1972 the NFWI wrote to the government stressing the importance of education for under 5s and held a conference asking if children’s education was too academic rather than focused on life skills. They still believed in the improvement of rural facilities: the resolution of 1973 urged the government to develop a comprehensive transport policy to meet rural needs. They were still concerned with the rights of women and the issues facing them: in 1972, the resolution was that “this meeting urges the government to make it mandatory rather than permissive, as at present, for all local authorities to provide a full free Family Planning service” and the 1975 resolution demanded immediate action to provide alternative accommodation to women facing domestic violence. As one columnist put it in 1977: “Only a fool would mock this formidable army as it marches onward still determined to build Jerusalem in England’s green and pleasant land”.
Ahead of the curve – The 1980s
The WI in the 80s had a backdrop of huge social, technological and political change – the international space program launched Columbia while millions in the UK were out of work. Argentina invaded the Falklands, AIDS was discovered, the IRA bombed the Tory conference in Brighton, the first Live Aid concert was held, Chernobyl exploded, the Berlin Wall collapsed and the shoulder pad went stratospheric. The WI was as always blazing a trail of action and being ahead of the curve on many topics.
The WI were there way before Simon Cowell with their Britain’s Got Talent-esque festival in 1980 where federations competed in 62 festivals to reach the finals at The Royal Shakespeare Company’s theatre to perform celebrations of local history and customs in speech and song. A specially commissioned song by Anthony Hopkins, Early One Morning, was performed in 1981 and described the life of women in contemporary society.
MPs enjoyed home-made jam on their scones in January 1981 when members of the WI lobbied for a parliamentary bill allowing WI cooks to be exempt from registering their kitchens with the local authority – this was duly passed in July of the same year. That’s powerful jam!
There was a dip in membership in the early 1980s with the AGM concluding “we must not allow custom and tradition to scare off new members” – the WI reacted enthusiastically with a huge ‘Life and Leisure’ exhibition at Olympia featuring every federation and communicating the WI values of women taking action and getting involved in every sphere. A WI promotion bus toured England and Wales visiting 200 locations. This photo pictures members sporting the 80s classics of leg-warmers and leotards at the bus launch in 1983!
The WI was highlighting the brutality of Female Genital Mutilation way back in 1983 after a member was deeply affected by a TV documentary on the subject and lobbied MPs with a firm and clear message to outlaw FGM. Despite setbacks the WI doggedly stuck with the cause until the Prohibition of Female Circumcision Act was passed by Parliament in 1985. In 1986 the WI became one of the first groups in the UK to talk about AIDS, educating members about sexual health and condoms and stopping people who had AIDS being discriminated against.
Perhaps in premonition of the banking crisis and credit crunch of the 2000s, the resolution in 1987 was to urge the government to work with the credit industry to bring under control the aggressive sale of credit and to give publicity to the hazards of borrowing money …or perhaps what goes around comes around, even blue eyeshadow and neon legwarmers!
The modern woman – The 1990s
1990 opened with the NFWI’s Women in the Nineties conference, discussing such wide ranging issues as women in leadership roles, the pay gap, global warming and food safety. When they weren’t busy with this, they were launching their Driver of the Year competition, with a South Yorkshire finalist so inspired that she entered the Monte Carlo Dash (a rally for women over 60) which was organised to raise money for an Afghan midwife project. When they weren’t campaigning around healthy eating in 1991 in a House of Commons coalition, they were successfully campaigning against the government’s proposal that non-vocational courses be liable to VAT, with the campaign becoming famous in adult educational circles. This fit well with the 50th anniversary of Denman College which was celebrated with a huge celebration with over 900 members and over 15,000 visitors.
Partnership working to meet larger goals has always been a vital part of the WI’s work. In 1993, the NFWI became a founder member of the Fair Trade foundation and in 1997, the NFWI joined Greenpeace, the Green Alliance and others to express its concern to the government about biotechnology in the light of the recent BSE crisis. The WI has a long history of promoting science and this was reflected in 1996 when the NFWI were invited by the British Association for the Advancement of Science to exhibit at its Annual Festival of Science.
In short, the WI was as motivated and busy as ever. Even when campaigning on very modern issues like limiting the import of genetically modified foods or working on art work for the new Millennium, the original aim “to improve the quality of life of the community” remained central.
Of course, hats off to the most famous WI members of the 1990s, the members of Rylestone WI who launched their Alternative WI Calendar, the proceeds of which went to the Leukaemia Research Fund – it certainly got a lot of publicity for the WI!
Present day – The 2000s
We started off the new millennium with the Prime Minister Tony Blair addressing the WI’s Triennial General Meeting, where he was given a hostile reception by members, involving heckling and slow hand-clapping. However, when not causing embarrassment to political figures, the WI organised a science conference with the Natural History Museum and in 2004, the NFWI archives were deposited at the Women’s Library and opened up to the public while the National Needlework Archive project was launched to record the WI’s needlework textiles. Oh, and Denman College held its first Real Jam Festival!
As always, the WI remained committed to work in the community and good deeds. A Volunteers’ Hours Survey taken from 1,000 WIs showed that their members devoted 3,477,312 hours to voluntary work each year. Members broke the Guinness World record for the most people knitting simultaneously in a single location at the Annual General Meeting in the Royal Albert Hall in 2012 where 3,083 members knitted loops that were then used by the Craft Council in Diamond Jubilee projects. And the Calendar Girls made their last calendar in 2014, having raised more than £4 million for leukaemia and lymphoma research. We were also beginning to be recognised in popular culture: the film Calendar Girls came out in 2003, followed by a stage play, Jam and Jerusalem and Home Fires depicted the WI on the BBC and a WI album by The Harmonies was launched.
Continuing its historic work in supporting rural life, following the Foot and Mouth crisis, the NFWI called on the Government to support family farms and was invited to join the Rural Task Force. Other resolutions in this decade concerned: human trafficking, genetically modified foods, milk prices, renewable energy, Community Hospitals, the inappropriate imprisonment of the severely mentally ill, SOS for honey bees, the closure of local libraries, the employment of more midwives, the decline of our high streets and town centres (which our own then president Lara spoke about on Channel 4 news!) and increasing organ donation.
In the same year as Calendar Girls was released, the first new ‘urban style’ WI was formed in Fulham, bringing the WI to a new generation of younger, city women. ‘New’ WIs sprang up in cities around the country – in October 2013, 350 women queued to join at the first meeting of a new WI branch in Bristol! Our own Borough Belles was founded in October 2009 – the first meeting was a talk and demonstration by cake-maker Rosalind Miller (we started as we meant to go on!).
At the end of the speeches, we as a WI raised a glass to the Women’s Institute. The WI finishes its first 100 years with 212,000 members in around 6,600 branches across the country. We’ve heard about the thousands of tonnes of jam made, and food saved for the nation, the miles of knitting, and millions raised for charity. But the achievements of the Women’s Institute are incalculable. It has been a driving force for change and members are still at the forefront of campaigning on the issues that matter to women, to our own society and to the world. Bring on the next 100 years!
The WI: A Centenary History by Mavis Curtis
Bows of Burning Gold by Helen Carey
P.S. Special congratulations go out to Belle Nicola Sakkas who climbed Ben Nevis and raised over £2000 for Macmillan – well done, Nicola!