100 years of the Women's Institute and its presence in Buckinghamshire
PUBLISHED: 10:01 26 October 2015 | UPDATED: 10:02 26 October 2015
The WI is enjoying something of a renaissance, with a new generation of women signing up. Sandra Smith discovers the jam is still there, but much, much more
The Women’s Institute’s trademark production of homemade jam is as familiar as its rousing rendition of an iconic hymn. The WI is, after all, one of this country’s most well-known organisations, one that has, over the past 100 years, evolved from a local initiative designed to educate rural women and encourage them to share their skills for the benefit of our war torn nation, into the largest voluntary women’s group within the UK.
Subscriptions may have risen from two shillings to £36 (making the current rate a bargain in real terms) but the ongoing popularity of this historic movement is undeniable. So, with the current centenary celebrations reigniting interest, I spoke to members and discovered the WI’s appeal and significance is as relevant as ever.
At my first port of call - the Buckinghamshire Federation of Women’s Institutes’ headquarters in Stuart Lodge, High Wycombe – I’m greeted by Pat Poole, Vice Chair and Press Officer. Focussed, enthusiastic and nippy with the latest technology, any preconceived bias I may have harboured is soon dispelled.
“We have 4,000 members in Buckinghamshire,” she advises before a Skype call and text messages briefly interrupt us. “Five new Institutes have been established in the last two years. Part of our remit is to educate women and we’re a campaigning organisation, too.”
Around the property - BFWI’s hub for the last 50 years – I encounter dedicated volunteers, cupboards overflowing with archive material as well as a shop selling cookery books overflowing with mouth-watering recipes. The tangible energy level is duplicated just a few weeks later during a conversation with Sian White. At 41 she is one of the new generation of women drawn to the WI.
“I joined Buckingham WI after attending a talk about the history of Stowe School,” says the GP. “Everyone was so lovely and welcoming. This is completely different from my work life and our speakers are varied, covering topics from Chinese wok cookery to the Amber Room at Catherine Palace, St Petersburg.”
Sian not only appreciates the social side, she declares the group carries a lot of weight in local campaigns and planning matters.
“We all share experience and knowledge,” she adds. “Topics which on the surface might not appeal have added to my knowledge. And the ladies have been very welcoming. We even try to coincide our trips with my day off.”
As part of this year’s celebrations a Ceremonial Baton, housing a memory stick containing a dozen photographs from each Federation, has crisscrossed the country, in Buckinghamshire transported by canal boat, motorbike, tractor and Morris Traveller.
But there have been numerous other events, too, such as a spectacular Garden Party held on the front lawn of Waddesdon Manor when members, adorned in colourful summer outfits, arrived laden with hampers. Many favoured traditional picnic rugs though groups such as Stony Nightingales and Marlow Bottom embraced style, assembling dining tables bedecked with linen tablecloths, candelabra and wine.
Some 1,300 members attended this private event, revelling in the opportunity to mingle with other Institutes, soak up the sounds of a vintage brass band or browse the displays in a large marquee where Jane Cutler of Cheddington WI, a member of the Investigation and Discovery Team as well as serving on the Education and Current Affairs Committee, entertained with simple scientific experiments.
It is outside the marquee where I bump into the current Chair of Bucks WI, Jenny Street.
“I’m lucky to be Chair during this special year,” she declares between duties. “My aim is to get the WI out to people and up our publicity. Young people are returning to crafts.”
On an even more lavish scale, many county members headed to Buckingham Palace for a dedicated Garden Party. Christine Sivers of Ivinghoe and Pitstone WI – the county’s oldest Institute – recalls this prestigious event.
“The WI Centenary Garden Party at Buckingham Palace was wonderful. Two military bands played, we were allowed to wander around the gardens and the tea tent overflowed with sandwiches (minus crusts, of course), fancy cakes and scones, all served on white china plates. The Duchess of Cornwall, Countess of Wessex and Princess Alexandra represented the Royal Family. The afternoon was relaxed, not at all stuffy, and a fitting celebration for a fantastic organisation.”
Camaraderie amongst members defies age, geographical boundaries and social status. This is never stronger than at Denman, a Georgian mansion turned college set in 17 acres of picturesque English countryside where an array of courses from Tai Chi to Jacobean Crewel Embroidery is available.
Kimble and Ellesborough President, Elizabeth Hine, is a veteran of several workshops: “I once did Boogie Wonderland to Tamla Motown and loved it! I’ve also learned willow weaving for Christmas decorations. The best thing about Denman is that it is perfectly okay for a single lady. The work is intensive and food fantastic ,with biscuits and coffee in morning, and tea and cake in afternoon. Members may even use the college as a B&B when travelling.”
In a nod to inclusivity, each Federation is responsible for furnishing one bedroom at Denman, providing reading matter as well as homemade drapes and cushions.
Back in her own Institute, Elizabeth spearheaded a Thanksgiving Service at St Peter and St Paul Church as part of their Founder’s Day celebration. This included a quarter peal by the Ellesborough Bellringers during lunch and the planting of a flowering cherry tree in the Church grounds.
But that isn’t the end of the celebrations. This eventful year culminates in a Bucks County Museum exhibition which takes the theme of the WI in wartime with social activities, health, education and sustaining communities also covered in a tribute to the organisation and its work.
Despite the enormity of change witnessed by members during the last century the concept of sharing skills and broadening knowledge remains at the core of the WI and it is to the organisation’s credit that it continues to blossom by embracing new ideas and broadening its appeal. But then as Chair of Bucks WI, Jenny Street, insists, “A little bit of pink elastic goes a long way.”
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