100 years of opportunity: The WI centenary

Seven Hills WI

Seven Hills WI - Credit: Archant

A baton will pass through the county this month, marking 100 years since the foundation of the Women’s Institute in Britain. Far from just ‘Jam and Jerusalem’, the movement has given opportunities to millions of women. Leigh Goldsmith reports

The Queen Mother at a Herts WI county rally at Knebworth House in 1949

The Queen Mother at a Herts WI county rally at Knebworth House in 1949 - Credit: Archant

One hundred years ago, women of Britain were to witness the start of a revolutionary movement that would help transform their lives. Inspired by a movement set up in Canada in 1897, a group of feisty, educated and socially motivated women held the first British Women’s Institute meeting in September 1915 in Anglesey.

The main aim of this new and inspirational organisation was to educate, socialise and encourage rural women to have a voice and to use it with confidence. Formed during the First World War, the group remained non-sectarian and non-political. Instead, members used their influence, knowledge and contacts to help the war effort and focused on improving life for women in rural communities.

The WI came increasingly into towns from the 1960s, as the focus shifted to including women in all communities and led to an explosion of new groups. Today these groups hold regular meetings with invited speakers, campaign on issues such as food labeling, equal pay and the environment, and hold workshops, courses and classes on everything from crafts to astronomy.

The WI in Herts

The first WI in Hertfordshire was set up in 1917 in Northaw, and in 1919 the Hertfordshire Federation was formed.

The county had a royal boost in 1949 when the Queen Mother attended a county rally at Knebworth House to help raise funds for a Herts WI head office in St Albans (it was purchased in 1955 – the county HQ moved to its current home in Wheathampstead in 2010).

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Today, there are 94 WI groups in the county with almost 4,000 members.

Federation chairman, Ann Hall speaks of an organisation which has made a huge impact on her life and the lives of thousands of its members.

‘I joined in 1981 because I loved every aspect of it. I had been sewing all my life and the art and craft done by the group lent itself to me. It has given me a huge confidence to do things, go places, I would never have thought of going.’

Such experiences included an invitation to see the Queen at Hatfield House during her Jubilee Year celebrations. ‘I said to her, “A fellow member Ma’am”, and she said, “Indeed”. I was thrilled. What other chance would I have had to do that?’

Summing up the ethos of the organisation, Ann says, ‘It’s always great fun. But fundamentally it’s about giving women opportunities and confidence.’

Rita Howe joined the Datchworth WI in 1987 as way of getting to know the place and the people after moving to the area.

‘I wanted to join something; to be part of something,’ she explains. ‘It opened up the whole area for me and gave me friendship and true camaraderie. It gives you a feeling of belonging and sharing time with people of like interests.’

For many, the opportunites provided by the WI are a lifeline when circumstances change, such as a children growing up or the death of a partner. Datchworth member Diane Large had become a member in Sawbridgeworth in 1970, but had not been for many years. ‘I went along because the house was empty, the children had moved on and I was bored and wanted to do something,’ she explains. ‘It gave me a new lease of life.’

Ann Hall recalls an incident that sums up the camaraderie of the WI. ‘I was on my way to a Digswell WI meeting one night. Driving in the dark, down country lanes, I was unsure where I was going. I then realised I had gotten a puncture, so I pulled over to await breakdown assistance. I called to tell the ladies of the WI what had happened and where I was. Some minutes later, I saw a lady coming with a cup of tea and a slice of cake. I didn’t know her but knew straight away she was from the WI. She walked over and handed me the cake and tea. It’s this gesture that sums up the essence of what the WI is.’ Centenary celebrations in Herts

May 5-12 Hertfordshire Baton Week – the WI national baton will go through dozens of towns and villages in a 200-mile journey across the county. It will end at the annual AGM at Royal Albert Hall on June 4.

May 10 Herts WI at the Living Crafts Show, Hatfield House

May 23-24 Herts WI at Hertfordshire County Show, Redbourn

May 28 Literary Lunch, Ardmore Hotel, St Albans

For full details of these events, which are open to all, and others during the year, see thewi.org.uk