A black and white image of women in rows, some wearing hats, posing for a photograph at the inaugural meeting of the Women's Institute
A brief introduction to Listed places

A Brief Introduction to the Women’s Institute

Britain’s first WI was formed in Wales in September 1915, and the first in England followed soon afterwards, at Charlton, West Sussex.


That’s what many people would reply if asked which word the Women’s Institute first brought to mind.

A black and white image of women in rows, some wearing hats, posing for a photograph at the inaugural meeting of the Women's Institute
The inaugural meeting of the Cosheston branch of the Women’s Institute was around 1921.

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.

General view of the exterior of the Fox Goes Free public house, as viewed from the south-east
The Fox Goes Free in Charlton, West Sussex. The first Women’s Institute meeting was held in this pub in November 1915. © Historic England Archive. View image DP218063.

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.

General view of the exterior of a Women's Institute hall in Parbold, Lancashire
The Women’s Institute hall at Parbold, Lancashire. The building is fairly unusual, being purpose-built to a distinct design with the initials ‘P. W. I.’ inscribed proudly on the gable.

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.

Mechanics Institute, Newbrough, Northumberland
The Women’s Institute in Newbrough, Northumberland. The former nineteenth-century Mechanics Institute in Newbrough, Northumberland, was gifted to the local WI in 1948, and inscribed panels reading ‘Women’s Institute’ were added. © Historic England.

Working together

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.

A general view of the building exterior at Balcombe Place, West Sussex
Balcombe Place in Balcombe, West Sussex. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

Learning Together

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 18th-century Oxfordshire house, Marcham Park, renamed Denman.

Denman College, Oxfordshire
Denman College in Marcham, Oxfordshire. The WI bought this elegant eighteenth-century country house for its college and renamed it ‘Denman’ in honour of its first chairman. © Denman College.

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.

Further reading

2 comments on “A Brief Introduction to the Women’s Institute

  1. Stephen Barker

    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.

  2. artandarchitecturemainly

    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

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