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ARTICLE BY Professor Maggie Andrews, University of Worcester for Voices of War & Peace: The Great War & Its Legacy
The greatest legacy of the First World War for rural woman was the Women’s Institute Movement in Britain.
The WI was originally founded in 1897 Canada and it was a Canadian, Mrs Alfred Watt, better known as Madge, who promoted the organisation supported by the Board of Agriculture, with the aim of improving the nation’s food supplies. For as it was noted:
Probably there is no woman who leads a more cramped, unattractive life than the countrywoman. In most villages there are no amusements, no interests, nothing outside the little home and the garden. But the countrywoman has become a very valuable asset to the nation. But for her, in many villages throughout the country, there would be no one to care for the gardens and allotments
(Coventry Evening Standard, 11 August 1917).
During the conflict, the WI endeavored to assist those with cottage gardens, allotments, market gardens and farms to grow more food and in order to prevent waste – to either preserve this food or sell their excess to other housewives through WI stalls. Women were encouraged to work on the land, run pig and rabbit clubs, collect herbs, set-up toy making and other rural industries organise soup kitchens and cookery demonstrations.
Mrs Watt started the first Institutes in Wales and in Sussex in 1915 and the following year visited Worcestershire, where her ideas were favorably received by a number of forceful, confident and often titled women. One of these was Lady Isabel Margesson of Barnt Green, where the first WI in the county was founded. Lady Isabel and her daughter, Catherine, like a number of initial WI enthusiasts, had been suffragettes; indeed, Isabel chaired a meeting in Glasgow in September 1914 at which Mrs Pankhurst had been arrested amidst ‘an outrage’, which bordered on a riot. By 1916, Isabel and Catherine were busy organising women to work on the land or in rural industries and to develop good parenting skills, and correctly saw the WI as aligned to these causes. In November of 1916, Mrs Watt was invited to Pershore to set up what is now the oldest WI in Worcestershire; she spoke enthusiastically to a crowded room of:
the aims and objectives of Women’s Institutes, which she said were to study domestic economy, provide a centre for educational and social intercourse encourage home and local industry, develop co-operative enterprises, and stimulate interest in the agricultural industry
(Worcester Herald Saturday, 25 November 1916).
The women who attended the very first meeting of Pershore WI were from a range of social backgrounds. Their ages varied, the majority were married, some widowed and others were single. Mrs Ferris’s husband was a market gardener’s labourer, whilst Mrs Gregory was married to a night watchman; Miss Roberts had retired from a life in domestic service and Mrs Russell was a charwoman. Predictably the role of Honorary President fell to a representative of the landed aristocracy: Virginia, Viscountess Deerhurst, who lived at Pirton Court and was wife to Lord Coventry’s eldest son and heir and chair of the County Agricultural Committee.
The first members of the Pershore WI committee came from the more middling, professional classes in the town. They included the wives of two doctors, a vet, the vicar and some of the wealthier fruit farmers. Many were already involved in civic and voluntary organisations in the town. The President, Mrs Rusher, lived with her doctor husband in a substantial house called The Paddocks on Worcester Street, whilst the role of Treasurer was allocated to the vet’s wife, Mrs Jenny Rae Lees, who lived on Bridge Street. Committee member Mrs Phillips was the vicar’s wife and had for many years been a nurse at the Cottage Hospital. Mrs Edith Hooper, Branch Secretary, was married to Geoffrey Hooper a successful market gardener whose business and community connections were numerous, including membership of the Pershore Abbey Restoration Committee prior to the war. Edith was herself involved with a number of charities including the Soldiers, Sailors and Families Association (SSAFA), which looked after the welfare of wives and families of those in the services. There were also women of more modest means on the committee such as Mrs Rosa Janet Edwards, wife of a Post Office clerk, or Miss Gertrude Anne Chick, a 39 year-old spinster, who lived in Wisteria Cottage on Bridge Street and earned her living as a dressmaker.
The drive to increase food production led Pershore WI to form pig and rabbit clubs, grow herbs, procure copies of potato recipes and arrange cookery demonstrations in Pershore and surrounding villages including Wyre, Wick and Defford in 1918. Miss Roberts, a retired domestic servant and WI member, served on the local Food Control Committee and the WI also worked with the Women’s War Agricultural Committee to provide housewives with jars for making jam, seed potatoes and seeds to grow vegetables. Pershore WI also encouraged women to take up rural industries and crafts; organising demonstrations, instruction and competitions in: basket-making, hat trimming, needlework and co-operative boot mending which both instruction and tools and leather being procured for women to use. The money housewives saved mending the family footwear convinced many husbands that much was to be gained by their wives becoming members of the WI. Their craft activities were also used to support men at the front: women sewed and sent keepsakes and the WI obtained wool to knit garments and fabric to make shirts for men in the Worcestershire Regiment.
For many housewives the support, advice and help of the Women’s Institute was very welcome; little wonder that this organisation, not only survived but thrived in the post-war era providing a social hub and activities for women, particularly when the WI’s own hall opened in Priest Lane in October 1921.
Pershore Women’s Institute is now the oldest surviving WI in Worcestershire and, in 1916, was one of the very first branches to be formed in England.
The Women’s Institute Movement was originally founded in 1897 by Adelaide Hoodless in Stoney Creek in Canada, and swiftly aligned with the British Columbia Department of Agriculture who saw it as a means of organising women to improve rural food production and living conditions. Amongst the organization’s early executive officers was Mrs Madge Watt, of Collingwood, Ontario, a well-connected former professional journalist and campaigner for women’s rights. In 1913, to avoid the scandal that surrounded her husband Alfred’s suicide, Madge and her two sons sailed to England where she set about trying to persuade influential groups, including the government, that rural food production, preservation and preparation could be improved by the formation of Women’s Institutes.
Although she made little headway in peacetime, the outbreak of war provided Mrs Watt with an advantage: national concerns over the food supply persuaded first the Agricultural Organisation Society and then the Board of Agriculture to employ her to promote Women’s Institutes.
In 1915, Mrs Watt formed the very first British Women’s Institutes in Wales and in Sussex, portraying the WI in her speeches as a means of enabling women to grow more food by working on the land and cultivating their gardens. The WI motto ‘For Home and Country’ linked everyday domestic life to national interests and chimed well with the wartime ethos that the many tasks women undertook in their homes contributed to the war effort. Mrs Watt encouraged all members to ask: ‘What is my home, my garden, my farm doing for my Country?
With the support of the Coventrys of Croome Park and Geoffrey Fielder Hooper, a wealthy and well-connected market gardener in Pershore, Mrs Watt was invited to Pershore in the November of 1916 to set up a WI. The Worcester Herald reported the very first gathering of the Pershore Women’s Institute:
A meeting under the auspices of the Agricultural Organisation Society [A.O.S.] and Worcestershire War Agricultural Committee was held at the Masonic Hall on Tuesday night [21 November], where a discussion took place regarding the possibility of forming a Women’s Institute in the town.
The room was packed and much interest was shown in the proposed scheme, Viscountess Deerhurst (chairman of the War Agricultural Ladies Sub-Committee) was announced to preside, but was unavoidably prevented from doing so. Mrs Geoffrey F. Hooper, who took her ladyship’s place, spoke on the paramount need of increased food production, and paid a warm tribute to the good work which the Ladies Committee were doing in training, helping and encouraging women to work on the land. ‘We had got to use all possible man-power to thrash our enemies, and we should have to utilise all possible women-power to take the place of the men in the fields of industry’. She quoted a letter from the Earl of Crawford, president of the Board of Agriculture, who said that ‘we should have to depend entirely upon ourselves. We must make every use of lawful and honorable agencies at our command, and of these the help of women must be placed in the first rank. There was plenty of work on farms and in gardens, which women could do, and which in various parts of the country they were doing with the greatest success’.
An address was given by Mrs [Madge] Watt from Canada, who has undertaken the initial organization of Women’s Institutes in this country, on behalf of the A.O.S. She congratulated Mrs Hooper on the splendid attendance, and said the interest and enthusiasm shown augured well for the success of the scheme in Pershore. She said she understood the result of the canvass amongst the women of Pershore no less than 840 had volunteered to work on the land, and she had also learnt from the Chairman that no less than 400 men had gone from the town to serve the colours, which she considered a marvelous record. The speaker dealt in a very comprehensive manner with the aims and objectives of Women’s Institutes, which she said were to study domestic economy, provide a centre for educational and social intercourse encourage home and local industry, develop co-operative enterprises, and stimulate interest in the agricultural industry.
Worcester Herald Saturday, 25 November 1916.
In Pershore the WI used the Masonic Hall, behind the Angel Inn, as the venue for their monthly meetings, and paid 6/- (£12 today) to have the use of the room, china, gas and a woman who made the tea and tidied up after. The first meeting of the newly formed WI was reported in the Worcester Herald on 22 December 1916:
THE WOMEN’S INSTITUTE
Viscountess Deerhurst, hon, president, took the chair at the first meeting of the Women’s Institute (affiliated to the A.O.S.) held at the Masonic Hall on Friday night. A demonstration of domestic cookery was given by Miss Richards, of the Worcestershire County Council and the hints she gave as to making soups will doubtless prove valuable. Miss Day, the official organiser of women’s work, gave an address on “Women on the Land” showing what great assistance might be rendered by women who were willing and properly organised. There was an exhibition of Red Cross appliances and comforts for the troops, and explanation given of the re-modeling of children’s clothes. The social elements were provided by the older pupils of Miss Brickell’s school.
Worcester Herald, 23 December 1916.
The Evesham Journal noted that at this meeting:
The Hall was crowded, and the keenest interest was taken in the remarks of the lecturer, who gave numerous hints and illustrations, valuable alike to all her hearers no matter of what degree, station or income on “How to make the most of our Food Rations.” A large gas stove (manipulated by Mrs G.F. Hooper, the hon secretary) turned out the complete article, which on being sampled by the judges was pronounced to be absolutely A1 – wonderfully economic for the pocket, nutritious for the body, and lastly in the order of things today, palatable to the taste.
Evesham Journal, 22 December 1916.
The newspaper also pointed out that the: Pershore Women’s Institute was ‘meeting with marked success, which its laudable objectives and excellent management deserves’.