The Founding of the Women’s Institute in the UK
- June 16th 1915 -
For many the WI is the epitome of Britishness - cake, Jam and Jerusalem. What some may not know is that this very British institution was originally started in Stoney Creek, Ontario, Canada, back in 1897. At a meeting of a branch of The Farmers’ Institute, Adelaide Hoodless gave an inspiring talk about how women could help each other. She then, with local farmers Erland and Janet Lee, started what was to become the first Institute and Laura Rose was appointed its first organiser in 1899 with the backing of the Ontario Government. Quickly this was expanded into an Associate County Women’s Institute and started spreading round the globe.
In June 1915 the idea spread to the UK and to Wales in particular. Its aims were twofold. Firstly to revitalise rural communities and secondly to encourage women to be involved in producing food during World War One. Originally it was set up under the Agricultural Organisation Society (AOS), with John Harris as the secretary. He asked a Canadian, Madge Watt, to try and establish as many as possible across the UK. The first meeting took place in September 1915 at Llainfairpwllgwyngyll (Llanfair PG). A sub-committee was set up and Lady Denman became its Chairman and by the end of that year there were 40 WIs.
By 1917 there were 137 and the running of the organisation was transferred from the AOS to the Food Department of the Department of Agriculture and then became the independent National Federation of Women’s Institutes on October 16th. It drew up its own rules and an executive committee was elected with Lady Denman still in post, supported by Grace Hadow as the vice-chair. By the end of 1918 the number of WIs had risen to 199 and a new monthly magazine, Home and Country (It’s now called WI Life), was established and it had its first weekly market in Lewes, Sussex. Such was the popularity of the movement that by the end of the following year the number of groups had shot up to 1405.
By the end of the First World War the WI had helped raise the UK food self-sufficiency from 35% to nearly 60%. As thanks the government granted them a £10,000 grant. In the Second World War the movement again concentrated on helping in agriculture, as well as in the factories, and between 1940 and 1945 preserved over 5300 tons of fruit, saving 12million pounds of fruit that would otherwise have been wasted. The image of jam in the WI had been born.
In the 1920s a music committee was appointed and WH Leslie was asked to be the advisor. He held a conducting course for aspiring music leaders and approached Sir Walford Davies to write an arrangement of Hubert Parry’s setting of Jerusalem for choirs. It was sung at the AGM in 1924 and has been sung at this meeting ever since, such was the success of the piece. In 1948 Denman College was opened and, in their own words, “Offers a wide variety of day and residential courses in cookery, craft and lifestyle, set in a Georgian mansion and 17 acres of Oxfordshire.”
Members would decide on a single issue at their Annual General Meeting. In 1922 for example, it campaigned to reinstate the Metropolitan Police women's patrols that had been disbanded and to increase the number of women in the police force. It also campaigned, in its early days, to get more women on juries as the rules of jury service, such as having to own property, excluded most women in society. More recently it has secured government concessions on legal aid for victims of domestic abuse, extracted £10million from the Chancellor to protect the endangered honey bee, campaigned for more midwife training places and was one of the first to talk about, and bring to the attention of the general population, the dangers and problem of AIDS.
The Golden Jubilee was celebrated in 1965 and the Queen, its patron, invited them to Buckingham Palace. By the Centenary in 2015, the organisation had over 215,000 members and nearly 7000 WIs. When it was established one of its roles was to break down barriers in society. It attracted ladies of the manor, their cooks and housekeepers and housemaids, the local shopkeepers and the wife of the farm labourer. Its website today says that, “The WI 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.”
The WI has become trendy too. The 2003 film, Calendar Girls, showing members of the local WI taking their clothes off for a calendar, certainly brought the organisation to the front of popular culture and the recent setting up of local WIs in certain towns has brought a younger membership. Politicians too must never underestimate the power of the members, as Tony Blair will remember after they booed him at a meeting. A Canadian concept has now become an institution as much embedded in British culture as the changing of the guard, tea, warm beer, cricket on the green and Beefeaters.