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100 years of the Women’s Institute - how it has shaped the UK

PUBLISHED: 16:21 23 September 2015 | UPDATED: 16:21 23 September 2015

Members of Brighton Belles WI , Hanover Queens WI and the Witches of Bevendean WI joined forces to provide a cake stall at the Loving Our Level Celebration Day in Brighton last year

Members of Brighton Belles WI , Hanover Queens WI and the Witches of Bevendean WI joined forces to provide a cake stall at the Loving Our Level Celebration Day in Brighton last year

Archant

This month the Women’s Institute celebrates a centenary of jam, Jersualem...and much more. A hundred years after the first meeting in England took place in West Sussex, Adam Bennett looks back at how the institute has shaped the UK

WI outing in about 1922. Phil Norrell, late husband of Mrs Marjorie Norrell who is still a member of Singleton and East Dean WI, is the small boy looking over the door. Courtesy of Janet HoltWI outing in about 1922. Phil Norrell, late husband of Mrs Marjorie Norrell who is still a member of Singleton and East Dean WI, is the small boy looking over the door. Courtesy of Janet Holt

whether it’s learning to butcher a pig or writing erotic fiction, for 100 years the Women’s Institute has championed education for women. And as well as the fictional Jam and Jerusalem, women have come together to break down social and class barriers, get the vote, raise money for charity and campaign for worthwhile causes. As its membership advances towards a quarter of a million members, the WI is more relevant today than ever before.

The first of many monthly meetings took place on a cold, blustery November day in 1915. And from then on, the villagers of Singleton and East Dean heard the purposeful tread of boots from a new army of forward-thinking women.

Every month the Duchess of Richmond would walk down to the village from her home on the Goodwood Estate. She would knock on all the cottage doors and together the women would walk as a group to their meeting.

From each of the doors a variety of women would emerge. Some were the wives of local farmers wearing their smartest dresses; others were maids and serving staff of the lower classes; the wives of the local vicar and the village doctor were also in attendance.

Outside the Women’s Institute, Britain’s rigid class system meant that these women would not have socialised together. But as a generation of men left to fight in the Great War, women came together, revitalising rural communities, educating one another and getting involved in the war effort.

These pioneering members of the Women’s Institute held their first meeting in a quiet room at the back of The Fox Goes Free, Charlton. Set against the backdrop of the Goodwood Estate, which would soon provide the land the women would be farming, the 400-year-old-pub was an unlikely meeting place for a group of women.

This endeavour was highly successful. By the end of the war in 1918 almost 200 WI communities had been formed, women had the vote and their role in society was transforming.

Aged 27, Janet Holt’s great-grandmother, Elizabeth Ellen Long, was amongst the first ladies to sign up.

“My great grandmother was a WI member all her life. She would proudly wear her enamelled WI badge every day and came to every meeting with her daughter Ivy. It was the only thing they had as they didn’t socialise otherwise,” explains Janet.

Elizabeth Ellen Long, Janet Holt’s Great Grandmother who signed the list of the First Ladies who met at The Fox Inn on 9 November 1915. Courtesy of Janet HoltElizabeth Ellen Long, Janet Holt’s Great Grandmother who signed the list of the First Ladies who met at The Fox Inn on 9 November 1915. Courtesy of Janet Holt

“It was exactly the right time for a women’s meeting of this type,” she says. “Just as the war was kicking off, the women wanted to do something, so they started growing food and doing the men’s jobs because they were fighting at the front.”

The years between 1915 and 1945 were a hive of productivity. Soon after the first meeting, the Agricultural Board sponsored WIs across the country to produce and preserve food, and as a result they were given large amounts of sugar to create jam.

Keen to do their bit, many women joined the Women’s Land Army, which was created in 1915. This was organised by Lady Denman, the first elected national WI leader. There was soon a huge Land Army contingent in the Chichester area, Balcombe and across Britain.

Some 250,000 women joined the Land Army and united the home front by rearing and butchering animals, growing fruit and vegetables and running WI market stalls. By the end of the Great War, Britain’s food production had almost doubled from 35 per cent in 1914 to 60 per cent in 1918.

During both wars the government expected the WI to stock the nation’s larder. These determined ladies, like their husbands, boyfriends, fathers and brothers on the frontline, invested blood, sweat and tears in the future of Britain.

For WI members the post war years were just as strenuous and divisive as those that had come before. By the 1950s, membership had increased considerably and the institution itself had become self-financing.

Women had proven themselves to be just as hard-working as men. Members now sat on reconstruction committees and other boards to tackle how Britain would function in the post war era. From the rural farmlands of Sussex to the inner sanctums of Whitehall, the WI made strides that were previously thought to be unachievable.

Almost every year since its creation, the WI has passed an annual resolution, which it then campaigns for in the year ahead.

“People pat them on the head at their own peril really,” says Julie Summers, WI expert and author of Jambusters. “The only criticism I ever have is that they don’t blow their own trumpet enough, because they are magnificent.”

The Duchess of Richmond in red, centre with June Moran, purple, at the baton handover in January 2015, outside The Fox Goes Free in Charlton, site of the first ever WI meeting in EnglandThe Duchess of Richmond in red, centre with June Moran, purple, at the baton handover in January 2015, outside The Fox Goes Free in Charlton, site of the first ever WI meeting in England

Decades before it became mainstream, the WI was the first to back the Equal Pay for Equal Work campaign, and also chose to fly the flag for more women police officers before the outbreak of WWII. Quietly, the WI’s influence has spread the width and breadth of the country.

Alongside organising charity fundraisers, many members go above and beyond to try and make a difference. After a 2009 resolution to protect the honey bee, Janet Holt chose to take the resolution into her own hands at the bottom of her garden.

“I have three colonies of bees because of the WI. I went to the national meeting and I came home and found a local beekeeping website and a few local beekeepers. I then stuck to them like glue for a couple of years and learnt the craft. I love my bees.”

However, the notion of yearly national resolutions is unlikely to continue after this year’s resolution, Caring for Older Carers. Chairwoman of the West Sussex Federation June Moran believes that the WI’s format must adapt and embrace the latest groups of women.

“It’s no good asking governments for money,” she says. “We want the new members to come up with great campaigns that will work in a new format.”

Over the past 12 months approximately 17,000 members have joined the WI. These modern, working women put a modern twist on longstanding tradition.

“There’s plenty in the world of which there is good reason to be intolerant,” says Julie Summers. “At the same time the WI needs to provide the younger women with the interest to come along. There are often different activities, different trips and different possibilities, and women are responding.”

The Brighton Belles are an example of the modern form of the Women’s Institute. By meeting regularly in pubs, running monthly fundraisers and holding fun extra curricular activities, they appeal to a younger demographic. Emma Whittaker and her ladies also rely heavily on technology to run the group.

“We wouldn’t have existed at all without social media,” she says. “We wouldn’t get fundraising or the opportunities without it. It’s also where we announced our first meeting. It’s free, instantaneous and a brilliant tool for us.”

Brighton Belles also pride themselves on giving back to the community. Alongside organising burlesque dancing and writing erotic fiction, this WI has raised more than £3,000 for a local domestic violence charity.

“Every month we try to do something to raise money and for the last few years we’ve been at the Brighton Tattoo Convention,” she says. “This year we raised £1,000 and had artists donating their artwork and lots of other goodies to give away. We’ve also had some of our members run half marathons and take part in various sponsored events. Over the last three years we’ve raised more than £3,000.”

The 100th anniversary is being celebrated in true WI fashion. Amidst the stereotypes of stitching samplers, flower arrangements and a centenary choir, each group is also going the extra mile to help its community.

“For the centenary we have all pledged to do 100 days of kindness,” Emma Whittaker says. “We’re also giving away 100 cakes at Brighton station in September as well as £100 grants to various community schemes.”

Pushed along by the modern WIs, the Institute continues to make a difference in both grassroots and national campaigns. As the number of women keen to learn, advocate and organise increases, it is likely the Institute will still be relevant in another 100 years.

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Timeline

1915 First WI meeting in England on 9 November at the Fox Goes Free in Charlton, for the Singleton and East Dean WI

1917 137 WI committees have formed and the first Federation is formed in Sussex. Previously formed under the Agricultural Organisation Society, the WI now becames an independent organisation, funded by the Food Department of the Board of Agriculture, as women from across the country stock the nation’s larder. On 16 October 1917 The National Federation of Women’s Institutes (NFWI) is formed

1919 As the war is over, the Board of Agriculture hands over all responsibility for the formation of WI to the NFWI and the government donates a generous grant. The first WI market opens in Lewes and by the end of the year there are 1,405 WI committees across the UK

1923 The first WI choral competition for WI choirs is held in East Sussex

1924 Jerusalem is first sung at the Annual General Meeting. Singing Jerusalem is the WI’s way of showing solidarity with other women’s movements, and demonstrating its commitment to the improvement of rural life

1965 The WI celebrates its Golden Jubilee with a Royal Garden Party at Buckingham Palace. By this time there are over 8,000 WI committees

1975 The WI begins advising their members to check their breasts and lobbies the government to set up breast screening clinics. This leads to the introduction of the National Screening Programme in 1998

1986 The WI is one of the first organisations to discuss Aids. Members vote for more information on HIV and Aids to be given to the public at the Annual General Meeting

2008 Thousands of WI members pledge to reduce their carbon footprint following the launch of the WI Carbon Challenge. The Institute made savings equal to 
filling the Royal Albert Hall with carbon dioxide 108 times

2015 The WI celebrates its 100th anniversary with the Sussex Federation holding events across the county

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