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Focus on Girton Women's Institute

Girton Women's Institute
Girton WI members outside their new Hall, 1920

The Women's Institute movement started in Stoney Creek, Ontario, Canada in 1897 as a branch of the Farmers' Institute, inspired by Adelaide Hoodless, a farmer's wife, with the aim of providing education, information and support to women in rural areas who often lived very isolated lives. In 1899 it gained the official support of the Ontario state government, and the movement quickly spread throughout Canada. In 1913 Mrs Alfred (Madge) Watt brought the idea from Canada to the UK, and the first British Women's Institute was set up in Llanfair PG (the Welsh village with the longest name in Britain) in 1915, with government support, with the aim of involving women more in food production during the First World War. By 1916 there were 40 WI's in Britain; by the following year the number had quadrupled. The first Cambridgeshire WI was started in Bottisham in 1918, and close behind came Girton WI in 1919.

Girton Women's Institute started out by meeting in the school (now the Cotton Hall) or in the Village Institute (now the Social Club), depending upon which was available. Within a year there were already 120 members, so nearly every household in Girton was represented. They were lucky enough to be given a small plot of land in the High Street, and a prefabricated hut was purchased at a Ministry of Munitions sale. It was transported across to Girton by horse and cart, and as benches, chairs and tables were included, the first furnishings bought were "a clock and a piano".

Although the first presidents of local WI's tended to be the ladies from the big houses, the president and committee had to be re-elected each year, so everyone was given an opportunity to participate. Committees were drawn from all corners of the village, there was an equal subscription for everyone, and all members had equal rights. The Women's Institute movement was therefore important in developing women's sense of democracy and their confidence in a public arena, challenging the widely held view that "it is not womanly to speak in public". Taking the message to the next generation, Girton WI sponsored a girls' club and then a Girl Guide company in the 1920s. Other organisations also used the WI Hall over the next decades, including the Brownies and the Infant Welfare Clinic, which was started in 1936. Electricity was installed in October 1936.

The Women's Institutes interpreted their role as generally to improve the conditions of rural life, and not simply to increase food production. In spite of their "Jam and Jerusalem" image, from the very earliest days they addressed broader issues in education, health and social welfare. The Cambridgeshire Federation of Women's Institutes gave important support to the County Council in establishing Village Colleges in Cambridgeshire, and involved themselves in a "clean milk" campaign (important in the days when milk-borne TB was prevalent), in the state of the public lavatories in Cambridge Market Square ("satisfactory" in 1922), and in rural maternity and bus services. Other concerns were getting villages connected to mains water supplies (brought to Girton in 1930), electricity (street lighting arrived in 1933), and modern sewerage (the village was connected to the main city drains in 1951). As early as the 1930s, Girton WI was arousing opinion against the use of fur from trapped animals.

Cultural activities were also pursued, including music and drama. Before the Second World War, the Cambridgeshire Federation held a number of rallies and pageants, the first one at Downing College in 1919. In a Festival of Olden Days in 1933, Girton, Fulbourn and Swavesey WI's represented the Victorian period and featured "Mrs Saddler of Girton as a notable Queen Victoria". An accompanying "display of rural treasures" aroused so much interest that it inspired the Rotary Club to sponsor the establishment of the Cambridge Folk Museum in 1935.

The War Years

War broke out in 1939, and in June 1940 Girton WI Hall was requisitioned by the military and the WI was evicted. The military proceeded to make no use whatever of the building, which remained empty for several months. During that time children broke in, and following complaints the authorities finally agreed that the WI, Brownies and Infant Welfare Clinic could use the hall again. In 1942 the Home Guard took over. When the hall was de-requisitioned in January 1945, the military offered to hand it back at valuation, namely "buildings at 140, shutters at 10, and barbed wire at 2". This last item was clearly a step too far, and Mrs Leakey, then President of Girton WI, wrote refusing the offer and appending a list of dilapidations that had occurred during the tenancy of the military. The dispute was finally resolved when the WI was given back the hall and outbuildings plus 102 14s. 4d. to cover the necessary repairs.

During the war Women's Institutes throughout the land were involved in the evacuation scheme. Mr Pease, Chairman of the Parish Council, was Billeting Officer for Girton, but Mrs Leakey and Mrs Green of the WI were deputies and did most of the work. Finding homes for evacuated mothers and children (some of the latter unaccompanied by a parent) was not altogether an easy task, for example when a family of seven sisters demanded to be billeted together. Evacuation continued until late in the war as the threat from German V1 and V2 rockets succeeded the Blitz. As late as March 1944, 26 lads turned up from London requiring accommodation. The maximum number of children billeted in Girton at any one time was 190, placing a considerable strain on the village's resources. But Girton WI welcomed evacuated women and children to social gatherings on Monday afternoons, and did their best to find bedding and clothes where they were needed. The WI Hall also provided a venue for dances, Whist Drives and sales of work to raise money for the Red Cross and to buy comforts for troops.

These were the days of "Digging for Victory", and Girton WI turned its attention to the problems of food supply. In 1941 Miss Hibbert-Ware proposed that the WI form an "Onion Club" to grow more onions, the surplus to be distributed to areas where there was a shortage. Other initiatives in which Girton WI actively participated were preserving fruit and vegetables, keeping rabbits (for food and for their skins, and not as pets!), collecting rose hips (the Girl Guides taking the lead) for their valuable Vitamin C content, collecting medicinal and culinary herbs, and a huge recycling effort that would put our current endeavours to shame. As the war drew to a close, the Women's Voluntary Service asked WI's to knit babies' vests and make other garments to be sent to a devastated Europe. Girton WI established itself as the most productive institute of the area, and had finished 72 garments by November 1944. This was no mean feat in the face of severe shortages of wool and other materials.

The Postwar Years

The coming of peace saw many changes to village life. Increasing numbers of women were finding employment outside the home, and more people were living in villages and commuting to jobs in towns and cities. WI daytime activities therefore became less well supported and meetings were held in the evenings. Nevertheless, locally and nationally WI's continued to have an impact. Each year local WI members have the chance to put forward issues they would like the National Federation to campaign on. The proposed resolutions go through a rigorous selection process before the most popular are voted on by Delegates from all over Great Britain at the Annual General Meeting of the National Federation, held at either the Royal Albert Hall or another significantly large venue. Among such issues have been equal pay for women (the first resolution on this was passed in 1942), breast cancer screening (1975), AIDS education (1986), and the presence of hazardous chemicals in everyday products (2006). Other campaigns have concerned provision of a national and free family planning service, provision of nursery school places, GM food, climate change, and the inappropriate detention of people with mental health problems. Never strident, never aggressive, the WI nationally carries its point by the common sense of its approach and the solid background of factual homework which goes into the presentation of its point of view. But the perceived attempt by Tony Blair in 2000 to use an address to the NFWI for party-political purposes was famously greeted with a slow handclap; the Women's Institutes remain firmly non-partisan. To bring us up to date, in 2009 the resolution debated in Girton and forwarded to the National Committee concerned the threats to the bee population. Girton WI has initiated activities during the year to highlight the issue, including an informative exhibition in the WI Hall in November when a beekeeper was on hand to answer questions and bee products were on sale.

The National Federation of Women's Institutes opened Denman College in Oxfordshire (named after the first President of the NFWI, Lady Denman) in 1948 to host short residential courses for WI members, and it was funded and furnished through the efforts of WI's nationally. In more recent years the Cambridgeshire Federation was responsible for furnishing the main entrance hall, and Girton WI provided wall hangings and embroideries to decorate one of the a residential rooms. Nowadays open to anyone, men and women, WI members and non-members, Denman College courses cover everything from traditional "women's skills" such as cookery and needlework to archaeology, art history, music appreciation, calligraphy and public speaking, and Girton members have attended courses in subjects ranging from embroidery to birdwatching.

As Jessie Salter, sometime Chairman of the Cambridge Federation of Women's Institutes, has said, "People still think about jam making and crafts when WI is mentioned - some of us are very good at it, so why not, but we do so much more." Among the activities undertaken by CFWI members in recent years that their grandmothers would not have dreamed of are gliding, darts and clay pigeon shooting. Jessie Salter again: "It is much easier to display our cooking and our crafts than it is to show abseiling and gliding, motor sports, golf and computer studies which WI members are doing during the rest of the year." Margaret Morrison, longstanding member of Girton WI and twice President, recalls a Scottish Country Dancing group she led in the 1980s and 1990s. That group has sadly closed, as has a Drama Group that once had an enthusiastic following, but as some activities fall by the wayside, others take their place.

Girton Women's Institute
Girton WI celebrates 90 years. From left to right: Jean Coxall (Chairman of CFWI), Clarice Ingram, Dorothy Horner, Ruth Bond (Chairman of the National Federation), Jill Free, Evelyn Dennington (back), Yvonne Belcham, Fiona Connan, Yvonne Abbott and Janet Webb (in front).

In 2009 the varied programme for the monthly meetings included talks on Milton Country Park, the problems faced by the hard of hearing, and a visit from Christopher South of Cambridge Evening News, and in 2010 the WI is looking forward to "An Audience with Queen Victoria" and a talk on "The Joys of Collecting". Girton WI also has an informal singing group, craft and games evenings, and a walking group.

The Cambridge Federation (whose headquarters are in Girton) arranges a programme of talks, activities, monthly coach outings and weekend breaks in which Girton members actively participate. In 2009 Girton and the Cambridge Federation celebrated their 90th birthdays. Girton celebrated with a trip to the Raptor Centre and an "open to all" birthday tea party in the WI Hall in July. The CFWI had an extensive 90@90 array of celebrations, culminating in a "Words and Music for Christmas" in St Andrew's Church, Girton - for which Girton WI supplied the refreshments. Girton WI also, jointly with the Garden Society, organises the annual Girton Show, held in Girton Glebe Primary School.

The WI Hall is itself a valuable asset to the village. It is used for children's drama classes twice a week, ballet on Monday nights, two separate art classes, and WEA classes, as well as meetings of the Garden Society. If its original builders were to come back to earth they would surely be amazed to see it still in thriving use 90 years after it was first hauled by horse and cart up the hill to Girton. And those founding members of Girton WI would surely be proud to know their small local institute was an early part of what has become such an important, groundbreaking and influential national organisation.

Angela Blackburn

Girton Women's Institute meets on the first Wednesday of every month at 7.30pm at Abbeyfield, Wellbrook Way, Girton. New members and visitors are always welcome.

Contact: girtonwi@gmail.com
Twitter: @wi_girton

This article appeared in the Girton Parish News in 2009.

[I am indebted to Sheila and Maurice Hornsey for information used in this article, especially to their pamphlet "Girton Women's Institute in the War Years, 1939-45" (2002).]

"Focus on Girton" is a series of occasional articles on the organisations of Girton. The first series ran from September 2005 to April 2007 and concentrated on public service and commercial organisations. This present series covers the community and voluntary organisations of the village. Articles are written independently by members of the editorial team of the Girton Parish News, with the consent and cooperation of the organisation concerned. The selection of organisations featured is entirely at the discretion of the editorial team. The articles do not in themselves represent an endorsement of the aims or activities of organisations. No link exists between the publication of an article and any advertising in the Girton Parish News, whether in the same issue or more generally.