Sheena Murray had a wonderful time researching the early history of the WI amongst the National Federation of WIs (NFWI) archives held at the Women’s Library in London. Here she provides a brief summary of their key preoccupations and places them in the local context.
The NFWI archives tell us that when the first WIs were formed in the dark days of the First World War they concentrated on producing food for the war effort and revitalising rural communities.
In many villages music played a great part and I like to think Abberley was keen on this as there are many references in the post war period to the piano. Perhaps there was community singing .
The Archives also tell us how important Tea has always been. At a time when most meetings took place in the afternoons, tea was served with sandwiches and cakes and each WI had ‘Tea Hostesses’ for each meeting. Every member took a turn and this could have been the Lady of the Manor or anybody else in the village. This reinforced the democratic nature of this radical new movement.
The first one-day school for village conductors was held in London in early 1924 with Mr Leslie in charge and with his help NFWI brought out the first Women’s Institute Song Book, with songs & music suitable for monthly meetings.
It was Mr Leslie’s idea that Blake’s Jerusalem should be sung at the AGM in 1924. It had been used by the National Union of Suffrage Societies in the 1918 celebrations of women’s enfranchisement. It would appear that by singing Jerusalem the WI marks its links with the wider women’s movement. However, the choice of Jerusalem was quite controversial and the topic of much WI debate!
From the earliest days WI resolutions covered many provocative themes, some of them with a modern ring:
- The Bastardy Bill -1920,
- Probation Officers, Venereal Disease, -1922,
- Qualified Women for Jury Service – 1921
- Women JPs taking more cases concerning women and children – 1924.
- The Age of Consent, Adult Education, the problem of buses and lorries on our roads and an agitation to retain country policewomen.
- National savings, School lunches, Care of Teeth, Rural telephones, Oil pollution, Anti-litter – first mentioned in 1925, precursor to Keep Britain Tidy campaign.
In 1925, NFWI put in a strong plea for Young Farmers’ Clubs. Abberley had an active club in the 1950s (the records are in the Hive) and since 2010 a fantastic YFC has reformed in Abberley.
It was a memorable period between 1928 -35. The vote was given to women aged 21 after many years of campaigning. There was huge unemployment due to the Wall Street Crash, followed by the advent of World War Two.
NFWI continued to press for many improvements in the countryside and nationwide.
In 1930 one of the resolutions was passed asking for improved water supplies in villages.
In 1931 one was passed requesting better medical supervision of pregnant women in rural areas.
In 1933 all WI members were asked to support local efforts to deal with unemployment and distress among men and women.
In 1938 Lady Denman, Chairman of NFWI, became Director of the Women’s Land Army.
Pre-war resolutions also included concerns on public footpaths and rights of way, the shocking living and pay conditions of nurses, care of children ‘of tender years’ left alone at home – precursor to The Children and Young Persons Act of 1952.
The Produce Guild was formed in 1939, with funding from the government, to encourage more home grown food and to preserve more fruit and vegetables.
During the Second World War, many WI branches felt that it was important to maintain their meetings as normally as possible. Sadly, with no records and therefore, inexplicably, Abberley WI just stopped meeting in January. 1940. It reformed in 1943.
NFWI were determined to plan for a better future, even during the turmoil of war. Resolutions discussed included urging the Government that equal facilities for full education should be provided in town and country and a demand that men and women should receive equal pay for equal work.
WI members were encouraged to grow more food in their gardens and small holdings as rationing continued.
Rural midwives were allowed to use analgesics for the first time.
The WI was also supported The Beveridge Report which laid the foundations of the welfare state.
In 1950 the WI campaigned for more flexible visiting hours in hospitals, especially in children’s hospitals.. Improvements slowly happened and the WI persisted for over 20 years to get the visiting rights that people have today.
They campaigned for village postal services, village schools, village surgeries, village transport and the deplorable state of the railways and toilets on the trains and in the stations and even in 1946, suggested that suitable compartments for mothers and babies should be available – not yet recognised in 2013.
In 1952, WIs pushed for the speedy provision of electricity for agricultural use in rural areas. They also highlighted the dangers of certain types of comics that were distinctly unfunny.
In 1922, 1953, 1955 and right up to 1965, campaigns were fought regarding the welfare of horses for export and in transit to slaughterhouses.
1954/5 saw one memorable resolution that resulted in the Keep Britain Tidy Group. Other areas covered were Foot and Mouth, Violence in the Press(!) Smallpox vaccinations.
Good water supplies and sewage facilities were still being fought for in 1958, in spite of resolutions in 1928, 1930, 1934, 1937 and 1943.