Celebrating a century of the Women’s Institute

PUBLISHED: 22:52 02 February 2015 | UPDATED: 22:52 02 February 2015




2015 marks 100 years since the first Women’s Institute was founded in the UK, and as Nicky Adams discovers, a vibrant WI in Essex thrives today and is about much more than jam and Jerusalem

Stoney Creek in Ontario may be a far cry from Billericay or Black Notley Village Hall, but when a group of Canadian farmers’ wives first got together in 1897 to learn more about keeping their children healthy, they had founded what is today the largest women’s organisation in the UK with no fewer than 212,000 members — 9,000 of them in our own county.

In fact, with 212 groups meeting on a regular basis, Essex has the greatest number of Women’s Institutes of any county in the country and this year they are all celebrating the centenary of the founding of the WI movement in England and Wales, plus the formation of the National Federation of Women’s Institutes.

Always a county keen to move with the times, Essex was quick to embrace the WI when the idea of such an organisation just for women was brought to the UK from Canada by Mrs Alfred Watt in 1915, with the aim of revitalising rural communities and encouraging women to become more involved in producing food during World War I. The first meeting of a British WI was held on September 16, 1915 in Anglesey (with a subscription of 10p in today’s money) and just a year later Essex’s first WI, in Billericay, was formed.

In May 1917, Lady Petre, grandmother of the current Lord Petre, took on the duty of arranging a meeting of women in Chelmsford with the intention of founding a WI Federation in Essex. However, despite her best efforts, no-one came. Undaunted, Lady Petre persevered and managed to persuade a few women in Boreham to gather in the local Scout hut for a talk on bee-keeping.

The WI in Essex had found its momentum and the Federation of Essex WIs was established in September 1917. By the end of that year there were already 20 WIs across the county.

The number of WIs in Essex has since grown ten-fold and, although bee-keeping is undoubtedly still a popular topic of conversation at modern meetings, an enormously wide range of discussions have been enjoyed by WI members over the near-century that has followed.

During this time, the WI’s aims have broadened. The WI is now the largest voluntary women’s organisation in the UK and plays a unique role in providing women with educational opportunities and the chance to build new skills, to take part in a wide variety of activities and to campaign on issues that matter to them and their communities. Recently, the WI has spoken out nationally in support of maintaining funding for libraries, providing an adequate midwifery service and guarding against climate change.

Indeed, alongside the ever-popular demonstrations of embroidery and baking, this year’s main national campaign will be to educate members on the issue of organ donation.

‘The WI is important because it offers opportunities for all women to enjoy friendship, to learn and together to influence national and international affairs,’ says Liz Buxton, archivist for the Federation of Essex WIs, who joined West Horndon WI 41 years ago on returning to the UK from overseas and has been a WI member ever since. ‘There are so many young women who join in order to be able to take part in our campaigns and many more are keen to learn to bake, knit crochet and to be involved in their local communities.’

This was the appeal of the organisation when Pat Pratley, now Chairman of the Essex Federation of WIs, joined her local WI in Stansted Mountfitchet 42 years ago, on arriving in Essex from London.

‘I really wanted to join in with local activities,’ Pat explains, ‘and along the way I have made many friends and learnt so much. The WI really is a living organisation, providing friendship, companionship, education and so much more for all women.’

Such is the enduring popularity of the WI that new institutes continue to be founded. In 2011, Adzovi Nyanyo was one of the first members of a new WI in Forest Gate, which now has more than 100 members.

‘I thought it would be great to be part of a group of women who discuss ideas and meet others living in Newham,’ says Adzovi. ‘Although the WI was an obvious choice, I was sceptical at first and not sure what to expect given the “twinset and pearls” image as Forest Gate is very diverse, but I soon realised that we could make it our own.

‘Today the Forest Gate WI is thriving. Friendships form between younger and older members and we have learnt all sorts of skills and even run stalls at our Saturday market. Our campaign group has successfully lobbied the local council to tackle FGM. It is such a fantastic organisation to belong to and I’m sure the WI will be around for another 100 years.’

The fact that the WI is an organisation that moves with the times is not in doubt, but members also enjoy keeping the history of the WI alive. In readiness for the centenary, members of the Essex Federation journeyed to Anglesey in October 2014 to see the site of the first 
WI meeting on British soil, held at Llanfairpwllgwyngyl in 1915.

‘It was quite awe-inspiring to read some of the original minutes of the first ever meeting of the Women’s Institute in Britain,’ says Sue MacEwen, who has been a WI member for 40 years and currently belongs to Purleigh WI. ‘Madge Watt, the founder, stated in the minutes that at every meeting there should be a social half hour, to reduce chatting during the speakers. Of course the talks were different from those we have today — mostly about preserving fruit and vegetables and the most humane way of killing a fowl! Today’s subjects range from social attitudes to the use of new technologies. However, it’s clear that WI meetings have not changed from the original objective of inspiring women.’

Every member of the WI, all over the country, has had a chance to pay tribute to 100 years of this unique organisation. 
A baton containing a memory stick of images summing up the WI in each Federation has processed the length and breadth of the UK over the past year, including through all 225 WI Federations. Essex, the 47th Federation to be visited, received the baton in grand style in November 2014, parading it along the high streets of our major towns in a week-long celebration and bringing together thousands of WI members from as many institutes as possible.

‘With members working alongside each other in their Federations and beyond, our centenary celebrations really highlight the role that members have played in bringing their communities together since the very beginning of the WI, a century ago,’ adds Janice Langley, Chair of the National Federation of Women’s Institutes. ‘Today, the WI remains a force to be reckoned with.’

Join the WI

For more information about the WI and Institutes near you, visit essexwi.org.uk or call 01245 382233. You can also write to The Federation of Essex Women’s Institutes WI Centre, Whitelands, Terling Road, Hatfield Peverel, Essex CM3 2AG.

A hundred years of the WI in Essex

The Essex Federation held the WI Centenary Baton from November 25 to December 2, 2014 on its journey through all of the UK’s WI Federations. It was received amid great celebration in Chelmsford, Colchester, Southend, Basildon, Brentwood, Saffron Walden, and the county office in Hatfield Peverel before a grand finale in Tilbury, where it was ceremonially passed on to the Kent-West Kent Federation.

In Chelmsford there was a parade of 100 local WI members, some in period dress of 100 years ago, from the High Street up to the cathedral led by the town crier ringing his bell and bringing traffic to a stop. There they were met by Lord Petre, the Lord Lieutenant of Essex (whose grandmother was the first lady chairman of the Federation of Essex WI) and The City Mayor and Mayoress, also a WI member, for a reception and display in the cathedral.

In Colchester, a reception in Colchester Castle was attended by the Mayor and Mayoress of Colchester and local WIs.

In Southend the baton was paraded the length of the pier, accompanied by 200 women, who enjoyed fish and chips at Jamie Oliver’s restaurant at the end. Jamie couldn’t be there himself, but sent a message of support to the WI which was read out at both his restaurant and the overspill. The RNLI had kindly opened the lifeboat house for members to see the lifeboat before travelling back by train.

In Billericay the baton was paraded along the high street and shown off in a display of crafts by local WIs before being whisked off to Brentwood for a traditional candle light display.

In St Mary’s Church, Saffron Walden, a packed congregation witnessed the blessing of the baton and heard choral singing, then saw the Chairman plant a centenary rose in the garden.

On the baton’s final day in the county, a small reception was held at Orsett Hall to hand over the baton to Kent West, whose Federation had arrived by Lifeboat to collect the baton and take it to Gravesend.

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