Wednesday, 10 August 2022

Wargrave Local History Society - The history of the WI

A PRESENTATION about the history of the Women’s Institute was shown to members of the society at this month’s meeting.

Wendy England and Judy Palmer, advisors from the Berkshire Federation of the WI, gave the talk.

The WI, which is the largest organisation for women in the United Kingdom, is a non-party-political, non-sectarian charity, which was founded to educate women in rural areas.

It originated in Stoney Creek in Ontario, Canada, in 1897 following a talk given by Adelaide Hunter Hoodless to the local farmers’ institute.

Fellow Canadian Madge Watt suggested that a similar organisation be set up in England and Wales.

The first branch here was established in Anglesey in 1915, with Berkshire’s first branch formed in Hurst the following year.

As this was during the First World War, members were taught practical skills such as fruit picking or pruning trees to provide food during the conflict.

In 1917 the organisation held its first annual meeting, when Lady Denman, the wife of former Australian governor Thomas Denman, was elected as national chairwoman and then led the organisation for the next 30 years.

In 1919 the first WI market was established in Lewes, East Sussex.

Now, while such events are no longer held, many members often contribute produce to country markets.

William Blake’s poem Jerusalem was adopted as the institute’s anthem in 1924 and is still sung at meetings.

At the outbreak of the Second World War, members of the WI helped to evacuate children from vulnerable towns and cities to rural areas considered less at risk.

They also made jam and canned fruit, with the Government even allocating additional sugar to the normal rations to enable the jam to be made.

At the end of the war Lady Brunner, a member of the Oxfordshire committee, who lived at Greys Court, helped form a WI college at Marcham Park, a 100-acre estate with a large house and cottages near Abingdon.

It was renamed Denman College and opened in 1948, receiving a grant from the Ministry of Education and contributions from county federations. Lady Brunner became the national chairwoman in 1951.

The WI has led a number of campaigns, including anti-litter initiative Keep Britain Tidy and raising awareness of hazardous chemicals in household products.

Members of the royal family have also been involved with the institute, Queen Mary joining the Sandringham branch in 1919 while the Queen attends meetings at least once a year.

The Princess Royal and the Countess of Wessex are also members.

The institute hit the big screens in 2003 in Calendar Girls, a film centred around a nude calendar produced by the Rylestone branch to raise money for a local hospital, and has also been featured on many TV programmes.

Mrs England and Mrs Palmer concluded the presentation by telling members that the institute now has more than 210,000 members in 6,300 branches across the country and continues to thrive.

The next meeting will be held on Tuesday, October 10, when Martin Andrews will talk about photographer William Henry Fox-Talbot.

On Tuesday, November 14, John Harrison, who leads the team of bell ringers at All Saints’ Church in Wokingham, will speak about the history of bell ringing.

The society’s annual Christmas party will take place on Tuesday, December 12.

Meetings are held at the Old Pavilion in the recreation ground, off Recreation Road, Wargrave.

For more information, cal; Peter Delaney on 0118 940 3121 or visit

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