The Women’s Institute: A Pocket History

When you think of the WI you think of ladies of a certain age singing Jerusalem at every meeting and of their reputation as exceptional bakers and jam-makers.

It’s not how things started. The very first Women’s Institute was formed as a branch of the Farmers Institute in Ontario, Canada and was a reaction by Adelaide Hoodless to the death of her infant son. Realising he had died due to impure milk, she devoted herself to the education of young mothers and in 1897 gave a speech to farmers’ wives which inspired the formation of the first Women’s Institute to educate rural women.

Within a decade there were 500 Institutes across Canada; Adelaide helped found the National Association of the YWCA, the National Council of Women of Canada, the Victorian Order of Nurses and had published a book entitled ‘Public School Domestic Science’.

The first Institute in the UK appeared in 1915 in Anglesey, North Wales and was formed in the UK as a whole to encourage women to become involved in food production during the First World War. It was soon followed by the first in England (Sussex) and now, nearly 100 years later, the UK has 69 Federations, and 6600 individual WI groups – making the WI the largest women’s voluntary organisation in the UK.

It’s safe to say the WI became a force to be reckoned with. In 1921 Margaret Winteringham, both WI member and the Honorary Secretary to Lindsey Federation (Lincolnshire),  was elected as Member of Parliament for Louth. Only the second woman to be elected to Parliament she cemented the links of the WI to suffrage, women’s rights and it’s active role in national issues. It still encourages members today to put forward issues as ‘resolutions’ that the organisation as a whole can campaign on.

As it heads into its first centenary, the WI is fast shedding it’s ‘Jam and Jerusalem’ image -the Manchester WI alone has over 80 members from all walks of life – from administrators and solicitors to business women and marketing managers and ages range from early twenties to early sixties. What all the members have in common is a willingness to learn new skills, a want to meet new people and explore what Manchester has to offer. Sister groups, in Bolton, Prestwich & Whitefield, Didsbury Village and Urmston & District are seeing a surge in enquiries and interest from younger women too.

If you’re interested in joining, or finding out more, the Manchester WI holds its meetings at Chetham’s School of Music in the city centre and the next meeting is at 7:00pm, Thursday 30 August. Details can also be found via the Facebook page, or Twitter account.

Thanks to Charlotte for this history lesson in the W.I- Vintage Manchester will be at the meeting on Thursday as its a vintage themed special!