11th September 1915. Not all Jam and Jerusalem.
One notable early Women’s Institute member was pre-war militant Suffragette, convicted bomber and arsonist, Edith Rigby, wife of a Preston doctor who founded Lancashire’s first W.I. becoming President of the Hutton and Howick W.I. Lancashire, in 1916.
Edith had earlier been jailed seven times for planting a bomb in the Liverpool Corn Exchange, burning down Lord Leverhulme’s summer residence and instigating a fellow Suffragette to set fire to Blackburn Rovers football ground. Her activities were rejected by the majority of the WI.
The British, Women’s Institute was founded Today in Wales in 1915, at the home of Colonel Cotton, a member of the Agricultural Organisation Society (AOS), in the Anglesey village of Llanfair PG.(1)
The Colonel chose Wales as it had a large number of churches each with its women’s social organisation attached and was born when the Canadian Institute brought a message to the AOS, about the co-operative ideals of their organisation.
It was a time in World War I when food shortages resulting from German submarine blockades, inspired Women’s Institute markets to sell home-grown products and bottled fruit along with culinary advice.
They later campaigned for women’s rights which included female suffrage and in 1921 for the right of women to sit on juries-debarred from not having property rights-and in 1922 for reinstating the women’s London police, disbanded in 1918.(2)
The Women’s Institute being non-political didn’t take on the task of being involved in organising children’s evacuation in 1939, concentrating its energies in forming The Produce Guild.
This educated members in intensive cultivation of gardens and allotments and making available seeds and fertilisers.
Post-war the W.I. was a pressure group concerned with planning issues, and with the introduction of Family Allowance, after evacuation had revealed the poverty of many of the city children.
The W.I. is essentially a rural organisation concerned with low-key projects to conserve rural Britain and the protection of open spaces, but which resulted in the 1949 National Parks Act. Then a year later their survey, ‘Your Village’, revealed a dire lack of services in villages, including telephone boxes.
The ‘Keep Britain Tidy’ campaign in 1954 resulted in the 1958 Litter Act, and the publicity concerning the fate of our wild flowers, resulted in the 1975 Wild Plant Act.
These successful campaigns, if nothing else, demonstrates the W.I. power as a ‘ginger-group’, whose quiet, but influential voice had the ear of government.
The independent spirit of the W.I. was shown in 1999 by the Yorkshire W.I. posing semi-nude for a charity calendar; and the booing and heckling of Tony Blair a year later, when making an overtly political speech to its Conference, showing he didn’t know his audience and his penchant for doing things ‘on the hoof’.
(1) Women’s Institutes was originally founded in Canada in the 1890.s.
(2) Rectified in The 1974 Juror Act.
thewi.org.uk/Pic of Litter Campaign.
telegraph.co.uk/100 years of brilliant work. Emma Barnett, 24.5.2015/Pics.
historyextra.com/facts about WI/Pic of Malton/Getty Images.
telegraph.co.uk/Jane Robinson.16.10.2011. Article on WI.