Won­der women:

From hum­ble be­gin­nings 100 years ago has grown an ex­tra­or­di­nary or­gan­i­sa­tion giv­ing friend­ship, op­por­tu­nity and a voice to thou­sands

EDP Norfolk - - EDP NORFOLK MAGAZINE - WORDS: Rachel Buller

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 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

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