‘Jam!’. That’s what many people would reply if asked which word the Women’s Institute first brought to mind.
And there are good historical reasons for that. During the First World War, jam-making was a serious business, as was the bottling and pickling of all sorts of fruit and vegetables.
Food shortages were a real danger, and the Women’s Institute, also known as the WI, was formed to harness the skills and dedication of women in producing and preserving food.
Inspiration from Canada
Shortly after the outbreak of war in 1914, the Agricultural Organisations Society was approached by a Canadian, Madge Watt, who understood the important role women had to play in Britain’s war effort.
With many men away, women had to pool their resources and keep their spirits up. This was particularly vital in rural communities, where much work was to be done.
Women’s Institutes had been active in Canada since 1897, and the AOA charged Watt with putting her experience into practice in Britain.
England’s first Women’s Institute meeting
Britain’s first WI was formed in Wales in September 1915, and the first in England followed soon afterwards, at Charlton, West Sussex.
At the inaugural meeting on 9 November, the publican of the Fox Goes Free, Mrs Laishley (herself a founder member), made the new Singleton and East Dean Women’s Institute welcome.
For many women, that evening was the first time they set foot in the Fox. Rather than in the public bar, the meeting took place in a more secluded back room, where a plaque commemorates the historic event.
Women’s Institute Halls
Finding a place to meet wasn’t always easy. For example, the new village hall at Singleton was for men only. Early meetings were held in spaces such as schools and private houses, or public houses.
After the war, the WI was instrumental in getting village halls built. And many WIs established halls of their own.
Some were purpose-built, like the interwar hall at Parbold, but many had a ‘make do and mend’ quality. Some groups acquired army surplus huts. Others took on redundant buildings, such as the Mechanics’ Institute at Newbrough or the Baptist Hall at Tatsfield, Surrey.
At the formation of the WI, its founders knew that success would ‘depend on the inclusion of women of all ranks’. The Institute played an important role in breaking down social barriers, with women from all walks of life working and learning together. In the early days, women from middle- and upper-class backgrounds often took leading roles.
The first chairman, Lady Denman (or Trudy), was active in many areas of women’s welfare. She helped found the National Birth Control Association, and her home in Sussex, Balcombe Place, was the Women’s Land Army headquarters during the Second World War.
Education was one of the founding principles of the WI, and in 1948 the Institute opened its college. Every WI in Britain raised £10 towards purchasing the eighteenth-century Oxfordshire house, Marcham Park, renamed Denman.
In the early days of the college, members slept in dormitory-style rooms and helped with household chores in between courses which might include learning to change a tyre or butcher a pig.
The Women’s Institute Today
The women forming the 1915 meeting at The Fox could not have imagined that in its first century, the Women’s Institute would grow to about 6,600 branches (or Institutes) with 212,000 members, providing opportunities across Britain for education, social activities, and campaigning.
An avenue of lime trees at Denman, planted in memory of Madge Watt, reminds today’s members of that fruitful campaign on the home front one hundred years ago.
My late mother who had been chairman of her local WI, always got very angry at the use of ‘Jam & Jerusalem’ to describe the WI. Mind you when she was Chairman they sang 2 verses of Jerusalem. A friend of mine at a different branch was a bit stunned when I told her that, as she said they only sing it when they are visited by someone from the county office. They also drink white wine during meetings.
Having given talks to a number of WI branches. the bit I dreaded was having to judge the members’ competition and choose a winner.
I use Chairman as that was my mother’s preferred title as opposed to Chair or Chairwoman.
The subject is fascinating; we feminists of the 1960s should have been watching our grandmothers’ activities very carefully, I think.
But I had no idea that finding suitable meeting places had been a problem. You mentioned that some suitable places were for men only and some otherwise suitable places were made redundant during the war. No wonder the women had to use whatever was available eg schools, homes or pubs.
Thanks for the link