From humble beginnings 100 years ago has grown an extraordinary organisation giving friendship, opportunity and a voice to thousands
Anniversary celebrations for the county WI
Britain was barely back on its feet as it struggled in the aftermath of the end of the First World War; those men who survived had returned from the frontline and their wives and mothers were adjusting to a return to domestic normality when the Norfolk Federation of Women’s Institutes was formed in 1919.
There were already some WI groups across the country, the first formed in 1915 to revitalise rural communities and encourage women to become more involved in producing food for the wartorn nation.
But as the war ended, the organization continued to grow across the country and into Norfolk. From those humble beginnings, something incredibly special grew – and it is now the largest voluntary women’s organisation in the UK with almost 220,000 members coming together for friendship, shared experiences, learning and campaigning.
Throughout this year, there will be a hectic programme of events celebrating the centenary of both the Norfolk Federation, and also the East Suffolk Federation. Over the last 100 years the WI has witnessed huge change from the advancement of women’s rights to the transformation of the traditional family unit, changes in the work environment to astonishing advances in technology.
In Norfolk and East Suffolk there are around 8,500 members, with the earliest groups beginning in the villages, gradually spreading to towns and then into Norwich.
Of the WIs still going from the start in Norfolk, six were formed in 1919, and there are five which actually opened their doors in 1918, a year before the federation was formally started.
One of the longest standing WI members here in Norfolk is, of course, The Queen, who has been part of the Sandringham group since 1943 and who still makes an annual visit to West Newton Hall to catch up with members, listen to the guest speaker and enjoy a cup of tea and cake.
OLD CATTON WI
Old Catton WI was one of the first to be formed in 1919 and they are planning a different celebration every month to commemorate the centenary.
“The main thing people love about the WI remains the companionship it offers and I have felt that myself. My husband died in 2013 and having that network around me has been a huge support and has opened up my life,” says president Lorna Brigden.
When Old Catton first formed it had 77 members, with an annual subscription of 2 shillings, and they still meet in the same place today.
“Everyone was known only by Miss or Mrs, and most wore hats. Today we have 60 members with the annual subscription of £42. Everyone is known by their first name and no one wears a hat! But the ethics are still the same, to improve the lives of all women.”
The programme from the very first meeting in April 1919, includes a lecture on ‘Diet with relation to health’, a competition for the best buttonhole, tea and refreshments, followed by round singing and games.
“When the movement started many women stayed at home looking after the family, and the
WI gave them independence and a welcome break to meet, exchange views and problems with other women and to make friends. Today many women work and can socialise with colleagues, but on retirement they can feel isolated and joining the WI can help. But there are also a lot of new WIs starting up with young members with families who need the companionship of others in the same situation.”
In its inception, the talks and activities would have focused on domesticity; today, while some crafting and baking remains, members can enjoy everything from singing, gardening, darts, ten pin bowling and walking, fundraising, outings and even holidays with other WIs.
“We are also a forceful organisation when we come together. If we want to make a stand against something or raise the profile of an issue, people do listen. Our campaigning is often overlooked, but we can have huge influence to make positive change.”
Ditchingham WI is actually 101, formed in 1918, just prior to the Federation and is one of the county’s oldest groups.
President Sue Huggins says she initially became a member when she had her daughter 35 years ago, staying involved before work and family commitments took her away from the WI for several decades. She joined Ditchingham WI just over a decade ago, and low numbers meant it was close to closure.
“I agreed to take over the presidency. We had eight members but I really didn’t want it to close, it was too important, and now we have 27 members and it is going from strength to strength. But, in particular with afternoon groups, you are battling the pressures on women’s time, especially attracting younger members who might work or have families to look after.
“If you look at old programmes from those first few years, it is fascinating as it was very much about how women could learn skills to be good housewives, which is so contrasting to today. So much of what the WI is about is as relevant now as it was 100 years ago. Friendship remains at its heart, and we are still campaigning hard for women across the world. Things like fighting poverty is sadly still an issue which needs our attention today.”
LEFT: Members of the Ditchingham WI in 1926
BELOW: Members of Old Catton WI during the centenary celebrations with their original WI banner, dating back 98 years, when it won first prize in a WI show in 1921
ABOVE: Norfolk Federation of Women’s Institutes Pageant programme from 1926