Whilst the Great War raged on in 1915, on the home front, Britain’s first Women’s Institute was founded in Anglesey, Wales, in an attempt to keep families better fed.

Inspired by Canada

Our Women’s Institutes (WI) took their inspiration and organisational structure from Canada, where Adelaide Hoodless had founded that nation’s WI in 1897 as a way for wives of Farmers Institute members to share domestic science skills and foster friendship. By 1905, Ontario alone had 130 WI branches.

A Canadian lady and enthusiastic WI member, Madge Watt, moved to Wales in 1913. Two years later, she met John Nugent Harris. Harris was Secretary of the AOS — Agricultural Organisations Society. The Development Commission, a government body, funded the AOS, the purpose of which was to create farmers’ co-operatives for wartime food production.

Watt told Harris about the WI in Canada. Harris, aware that the AOS needed more people, asked her to establish the WI in Britain. Watt’s first meeting took place in Anglesey in September 2015. However, despite her enthusiasm and persuasion beforehand, only a handful of women attended. Those who were reluctant to take part felt uncomfortable being around others of different social classes.

The Great War years

Before long, however, Watt’s organisational and persuasive skills attracted more women. At the time, it was unusual for women to leave the house other than to run errands. Housework, cooking and tending a garden or part of the farm took up most of the day. Those who attended Watt’s meetings enjoyed the friendships they were forming with other housewives. One woman told another and a movement was born: one that not only helped the individual, but also the nation at a time when food was essential.

By the end of 2015, Wales had several chapters of the WI — and Watt had already branched out into England, where the organisation was established in Dorset, Sussex and Kent. Watt had taken the WI from one coast to another — Wales to Kent — within three months!

In October 2016, the WI chapters were so numerous that the AOS set up a subcommittee to oversee them. The AOS appointed Lady Gertrude Denman as head of this subcommittee. In September 2017, the Treasury decided that funding for the the growing WI movement should be transferred from the AOS to the Women’s Branch of the Food Production Department of the Board of Agriculture (which also organised the Women’s Land Army). At that point, Lady Denman, not wishing for the WIs to come under government control, was able to negotiate an agreement with the Board of Agriculture whereby the Board would fund the establishment of new chapters which would then become self-financing via members’ dues.

On October 16, 1917, delegates from 137 WI chapters and Lady Denman set up a central committee of management and created a constitution as well as set of rules. She was elected to head the WI.

The WI stipulated from the beginning that it was not to be politically or religiously aligned. That meant — and still means — that every woman can join. The objectives are to:

a) Study home economics; b) Provide a centre for educational and social intercourse and for all local activities; c) Encourage home and local industries; d) Develop co-operative enterprises; e) Stimulate interest in the agriculture industry.

A Scottish WI was established in 1917, known as the Scottish Women’s Rural Institute. Catherine Blair had a harder time there than Madge Watt in Wales. Women in East Lothian (outside Edinburgh) only met up with other ladies once a year at the local fête.

Although home economics has always been central to the WI, other topics discussed at early meetings varied by region. In England and Wales, lessons and tips on resoling boots from old tyres were popular. In Scotland, women were more interested in learning how to butcher pig’s carcasses.

During the Great War, the WI helped to bring new methods of food conservation to British housewives. Incredible as it might seem, conserving fruit at home was virtually unknown in 1916. The WI was able to get new American sterilising equipment shipped across the Atlantic. All 199 chapters expressed an interest in receiving and giving lessons on this new preserving technique.

The WI promoted the notion of foraging, although that was not what it was called then. Women understood the value of fruits growing in the wild and how they could be used for food. Some of this produce was conserved in the new American style. Other fruits were made into jam.

If there is one thing Britons identify the WI with is jam making. The WI demonstrated how to increase the yield of jam:

… for those women who had access to a ‘copper’, the quantities that could be made were enormous. Mrs Dunstan, writing in the WI’s own magazine, Home and Country in July 1919, recalled ‘We could make nearly one hundred pounds of jam in it at a time, and as the fire would burn anything such as rubbish, peels etc. our fuel bill for making six and a half tons of jam was less than two pounds.’

Also:

War time also brought out the best of women’s craftwork skills and ability to ‘make do and mend’.

In the summer of 1917, the WI opened a crafts stall at the National Economy Exhibition in Hyde Park, London. The public saw how experienced and creative members were in making rugs, toys, baskets as well as fur and leather accessories.

Today, the WI is Britain’s largest voluntary women’s organisation with 212,000 members in 6,600 local groups. Men are also welcome to attend. Although the focus is very much on domestic science, a number of chapters are also career-oriented, as many members work outside the home.

Centenary banquet

On October 10, 2015, a centenary banquet at the Drapers’ Hall in London was held to honour the WI.

Chefs, some of them Michelin-starred, competed to prepare winning dishes for the four-course meal. The competition was shown from start to finish on the BBC’s Great British Menu, which started in August with weekly regional heats around the country.

We watched every episode. What surprised us is that so many of the chefs attempted to reproduce WI recipes. Time and time again, the chefs judging their efforts warned them about trying to do something the WI members are all expert at — jams, cakes and bread! Friday’s episodes, which determined a regional winner, were judged by three other notables in the food world — as well as a WI member.

This is an indicative comment from one of the WI judges when it came time to select the chefs cooking at the banquet:

… guest judge Mary Quinn turned up and said that the WI has no time for drizzles or smears.

If I had been competing, I would have taken more of a classic approach and prepare dishes outside of the WI’s purview, rather than cheap cuts of meat and Scotch eggs. It was a banquet, not Sunday lunch. Yet, on the day, every dish looked breathtaking! The WI members and supporters attending loved every bite.

Best wishes to the WI for their continuing work in promoting British produce, especially dairy, as well as their campaigns for wildlife, particularly bees.

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