Thaxted's Women's Institute group The Guildhall Girls
PUBLISHED: 06:00 16 March 2016 | UPDATED: 10:20 21 March 2016
My mother wasn't a member (she opted for amateur dramatics instead) but my grandmother was. In fact, it was almost compulsory during the decades immediately after the war, and certainly if you lived in a rural community.
The Women’s Institute has been an enduring part of English society and joining a group crossed my own mind a few years ago, but that was at a time when many groups were closing. Back track 10 to 20 years and older committee members were not being replaced and interest was dwindling. However, thanks to a revived trend in knitting, baking and sewing, it would seem that the revitalisation of the WI is well and truly under way. Home making, cooking and arts and crafts are all rather fashionable and sociable pastimes now and provide a perfect opportunity for a monthly meet up.
Of course, the WI has been about much more than groups of women demonstrating home skills over the years. In fact, it has been highly active in bringing national and local causes to the public’s attention with political (with a small p) ambitions having seen members campaign for more midwives, equal pay for women, organ donation and a concern that those suffering from mental health problems be given care (not custody) when detained. The institution has had great success, proving themselves as a formidable and organised force, while not losing their essential Britishness – and the values of politeness and good grace.
The very first Women’s Institute was founded by farming women at Stoney Creek, in Ontario in Canada, back in 1897, and Britain’s first group began in 1915, at Llanfairpwllgwyngy in Anglesey, in response to the need to get women in rural communities more involved in food production during World War I. Groups also provided support to women and communities and offered tips on how to make the most out of available ingredients – resourcefulness has never gone out of fashion after all.
Now the WI prides itself on providing educational opportunities by encouraging members to learn new skills while still campaigning for important causes and helping within the community, both of which remain a priority. Membership currently stands at 212,000 with 6,300 groups registered. Essex has around 222 groups across the county.
Ria Whittington had previously, but briefly, joined the WI when she lived in Bishop’s Stortford while working as a busy theatre nurse, but having her first baby made her even busier and lack of time meant attending meetings was tricky. When Ria moved to Thaxted with her young family, she was inspired to get involved and thought about joining the WI once more, but, sadly, the group had disbanded a year before because the group was unable to replace committee members who had more than put in their years of service. The group still exists independently, however, as The Ladybirds and some attend the new group.
Ria did some research and knew that she needed nine people to start a new WI group. She explains: ‘I emailed all the people I hoped would be interested. Some didn’t reply at all and some thought I was mad, but luckily enough did volunteer. There may have been some bribery involved along the way – almost certainly in the case of my big sister, Lara, who I persuaded to become group treasurer.’
Thaxted’s new WI now goes by the name of the Guildhall Girls — so called because of the town’s famous historic building — and this is where they meet on the first Wednesday of every month. So how many members now take part?
‘We have a maximum membership which is 60, which is the capacity of the Guildhall,’ says Ria. ‘The youngest member is in their mid-twenties and the oldest is a very young 84. I think that today’s WI does bridge the generation gap well. Although not all of the older members always enjoy the topics of discussion or activities, everyone is broadminded enough.’
The group has monthly events which (for this year’s programme) include pole fitness, foraging, a butchery display and a cheese evening so far.
So what does Ria enjoy most about being a member of her group and the organisation?
‘I enjoy the community aspect of it, where women in general are passing on knowledge and just simply talking to one another. The experience and wisdom of older women, it seems, is getting lost in the modern age, where people seem to have stopped speaking in general. No one really chats in a queue or starts a conversation in a shop. If you are seen to want to share small-talk, you are regarded as a bit unusual.
‘I love being part of the organisation because of its history and that it is like an old tree rooted in so many things. I love that the WI has been the instigator of so many important changes, a lot of which they haven’t been credited with perhaps, but we are proud to be part of that process all the same.’
This year the Guildhall Girls have chosen, as they do every year, a local cause to support. Ria explains: ‘We are encouraged to support local charities and this year we are supporting the fundraising drive for Thaxted Church, which is in need of a disabled toilet, kitchen and store room. For a building that is 600 years old, this is no straightforward matter and the project is likely to cost up to £60,000. The church is used throughout the year for many events, including the Thaxted Festival and, at present, the differently able bodied have to make their way to the local pub, that very kindly provides use of their facilities.’
Fundraising plans are varied. ‘We are planning a first birthday celebration for the group in the summer, when we will be holding a Lindy Hop,’ says Ria. ‘Dance teachers will be coming from London to teach people to swing dance and there will be food, a bar and live music. The date is to be confirmed, but keep an eye on our facebook page or website for further details. We will also be taking part in the Thaxted Market in early spring, where many homemade items can be bought to support the church.’
The Guildhall Girls seem to be a very motivated lot, certainly if Ria’s engaging personality is anything to go by. Along with her fellow co-president, Rachel Wicks, and the rest of the committee, they really are committed to bringing fun and informative events to the town without losing the social appeal of bringing women together to share and care. There is even a sub-committee that organises regular Girls’ Night Out events, so no wonder there is currently a waiting list – although Ria is keen to stress the meetings are always open to guests throughout the year.
Jam and Jerusalem it may still be, but with just so many more ingredients added in, I think it is time for me to go along and check out my local group.
Find out more
For further information on the group and meeting times, visit www.thaxtedwi.com