Sheena Murray reflects on the changing ways in which the Abberley WI branch has provided a valuable source of sociability and support at the heart of village life from its beginnings in 1920 up to and beyond the present day.
We know Abberley WI existed from 1920. A definite reference is made to the WI in the volume of signed ‘Hut Minutes’ dating from 1923. The Hut was bought for £130: £60 paid by WI, £45 by the Cricket Club and £25 paid by Lady Brooke of The Elms. In June 1923, the WI voted to pay £10 for lamps and in August, £50 for furnishings.
Social events were often run to raise funds for The Hut. In 1927, Lady Brooke organised a bazaar to pay for chairs.
Following a WI Christmas Party at The Hut in 1931, a complaint was made to the Police who advised the WI Committee to seek a theatrical license. This was duly done.
In 1932, Mrs Gertie Billingham organised a dance on Boxing Day for renewing or dyeing of the curtains. £5-3s-4½d was raised.
In 1935, Capt Astley Jones offered to give the new site for a new hall subject to the Committee paying for the conveyance. This new hall was to be invested in the names of 5 trustees from each of the WI & the CC.
In 1940 the WI agreed to give all proceeds from their Whist Drives and Dances to the Building Fund of the new Hall.
The WI closed in January 1940 and reopened in May 1943. However, by 1943, the Village Hall had been requisitioned for ‘War Work’ and the WI met instead in the Men’s club. It had reached a peak of 75 members in the late 1940s.
The members enjoyed many educational talks, particularly those advertised by the County Federation. These were run by Worcs County Council tutors and usually consisted of 5 or 6 week courses eg in sewing, cooking , flower arranging, canning, gardening. These were open to the public too.
Local WI members began to attend events in Worcester at the Shire Hall and went down to London in the early 50s for the NFWI Annual Council meetings.
The members were constantly fund raising for local organisations and those further afield: the new WI Denman College, the Worcester Hospital, The Children’s Hospital, The Society for Blind Children. There were lots of dances, concerts & Old Time dancing, particularly during the 50s, often organised by Mrs Elsie Norwood with a band of faithful helpers, as well as many Whist Drives. The Christmas or New Year Dances were especially popular for many years.
Membership of the WI was at its peak of 75 in the late 1940s and remained high and above 40 into the mid 1970s. There was a lot of socialising within the WI and between WIs of neighbouring villages. This continued well into the 1970s/80s and to a degree continues today except that the Social Half Hour of games, quizzes and competitions eventually gave way to social chit chat with the tea/coffee and biscuits.
They remained interested in discussing both local and national resolutions and often submitted resolutions to the County Federation but it was never noted if anything further came of any of them.
The WI Drama Group formed in 1962 under the leadership of Mrs Elsie Norwood. Fetes and Fairs took place at least annually or Garden Shows – these most often raised money for the Village Hall
In earlier years there must have been a Youth Club because in 1965 the WI was asked if anyone was willing to help in reforming one. It did not note if this happened.
The WIs up until this period were predominantly made up of young women, many of whom stayed loyal to the WI as they grew older.
Somewhere during this period younger women no longer joined the WI and the numbers dropped significantly. As seems to happen today, women join the WI when they feel ‘old enough’ or other pressures in their lives have dropped away or they have retired. The remaining ladies of Abberley WI continued to enjoy much of the pattern mentioned in earlier years. Transport was easier and many people enjoyed their own cars.
Treasure hunts by car took place, outings were easier to arrange and theatre trips to Worcester, Malvern & Birmingham were popular.
WI numbers continued around 30 over the millennium and remains there today. 2013 has attracted new members but inevitably others have moved away or died. The WI celebrated the new millennium with a scrumptious dinner at The Elms Hotel and has met there almost annually since.
The village saw 2000 in at a fabulous party at the Village Hall, predominantly organised by Sue Coley. It was a family affair, with people arriving on the back of tractor led trailers and a crèche/children’s section for children to enjoy themselves separately from their parents.
NFWI have, following a nationwide survey of members and non members, on their perception of the WI, worked hard at promoting the WI with its modern image with brilliant results throughout the Country and our County, mostly with the formation of new young women-led WIs. Although older WI numbers are on increase too.
Abberley will strive to continue to promote its modern image to the Village. Fascinatingly the Open format of the Abberley Lives project appears to have created a lot more interest in the WI.