Beginning on the Welsh island of Anglesey, where the WI’s first meeting was held in a garden shed in 1915, Worsley will explore how the institute brought together thousands of women and embarked on campaigns, including the 1918 crusade for decent housing and its fight for equal pay in 1943.
Worsley also uncovers the crucial role played by the WI on the home front during both world wars, and discovers how, after declining membership during the 1960s, the WI reinvented itself for the 21st century,
Here, ahead of Cake Bakers and Trouble Makers: Lucy Worsley’s 100 Years of the WI, we share five facts about the Women’s Institute…
1) Britain’s second female MP was a WI member
Mrs Margaret Winteringham was a member of the WI and the honorary secretary in Lindsey, Lincolnshire. In 1921 she became the first English-born woman to be elected as a member of parliament, and was the second female to be elected to parliament. As a result of her success, Mrs Winteringham became known among members of the WI as ‘Our Institute MP’.
2) WI members supported Tommies during the First World War
The WI in Britain was first set up in 1915 to encourage women to grow their own vegetables and preserve food in order to aid the nation on the home front. With sponsorship from the Agricultural Organisation Society (AOS) the WI was created, and the first meeting was held on 16 September in a garden shed at Llanfair PG on Anglesey in North Wales.
By the end of 1916, some 40 WI sub-committees had been set up across Britain. As this number rose significantly to 137 by 1917, the government decided to hand over responsibility for opening WIs from the AOS to the women’s section of the food department of the Board of Agriculture.
By the end of the First World War, 199 WIs and seven county federations had been established. This figure shot up to 1,405 by the end of 1919.
3) The WI sparked a national debate about child evacuees
In 1941, the WI published the results of its survey of WI members who were housing evacuees from towns and cities. The survey, which showed that some young evacuees were malnourished, unclean and in poor health, prompted national debates about the health of children living in poverty in urban areas of Britain.
This debate led to the establishment after the end of the Second World War of family allowances to help those in poverty.
Members of the Women’’s Institute selling home produce on stalls at Malton, Yorkshire in 1942. This photograph shows Lady Worsley (middle left) serving a pound of potatoes. (Credit: Ministry of Information Photo Division Photographer/ IWM via Getty Images)
4) The WI was actually founded in Canada
The Women’s Institute first originated in Ontario, Canada, in 1897. After giving a talk at the Farmer’s Institute, reformer Adelaide Hoodless inspired farmers Janet and Erland Lee to set up an organisation to bring together women from different communities, and to teach them about childcare, controlling family budgets, and some aspects of farming.
5) The WI prompted a ‘great jam debate’
Renowned for their jam making, in 1979 the WI launched a ‘great jam debate’. The institute argued that the law should be reformed so that WI members could be exempt from registering their kitchens with local authorities in order to sell their jam to the public. The WI was successful.