Thousands mark Women’s Institute centenary

A county syndicate of ladies known to put on a good spread showcased 100 years of expertise as they came together to celebrate in Garstang.

By Nicola Jacques
Sunday, 11th October 2015, 9:09 am
Lancashire WI Show Committee members, from left, Davida Mackay, Helen Roberts, Jean Rimmer, Audrey Weatherill, Ann Wilson, Margaret Rich and Pam Wade
Lancashire WI Show Committee members, from left, Davida Mackay, Helen Roberts, Jean Rimmer, Audrey Weatherill, Ann Wilson, Margaret Rich and Pam Wade

The Women’s Institute is marking its centenary, but this longtime movement is anything but old-fashioned, with a huge resurgence in popularity seeing close to 1,000 people a week joining in 2015.

The WI’s 35th annual Lancashire, held at the Best Western Garstang Country Hotel and Golf Club, had thousands of exhibits in more than 90 classes. The event is believed to be the largest craft and produce show of its kind in the north-west and this year was aptly named ‘More than Jam and Jerusalem’.

Despite its reputation as a stalwart of village fetes and local shows with its homemade jam and cakes, the WI has more radical roots. It was formed at a time when British women were struggling for equal rights.

Ribchester WI's entry in Ribcehster Field Day 2015, celebrating the WI in all its roles.

Founding Lancashire member and Preston suffragette Edith Rigby was one of the first women to ride a bike and is famously known for the burning down of Lord Leverhulme’s bungalow at Rivington.

The very first WI meeting was in Anglesey, September 16, 1915. Edith set down its Lancashire roots in 1918, opening the first group in Hutton and Howick.

This group remains very much active today, its 80 members meeting in New Longton the first Monday of each month.

But they are not alone; there are 167 WIs operating in the county, and each has marked the milestone in its own individual way. This, says Lancashire Federation of Women’s Institutes chairman Shirley Thornton, is what has helped the movement to thrive, through catering for all interests and making the WI relevant for members old and new.

from left, Kathleen Collinge, President of Hutton and Howick WI, Mary Gibson, Chairman of Lancashire WI Federation and Mayor of South Ribble, Coun Dorothy Gardner with the Womens Institute Baton which is visiting every federation

She says: “The last year of celebratory events has been fantastic. There is great interest in the movement, with new WIs opening in all corners of our federation – in workplaces, towns and cities.

“We now have more than 7,000 members in Lancashire and the future is looking very bright. I am proud to be leading it at this exciting time.”

The Lancashire Federation was founded in 1920. Of the original 14 groups, there are six still going today: Hutton and Howick, Ribby with Wrea, Claughton on Brock, Downham, Longton and Balderstone.

The WI has always been open to ordinary women of the community, but Liz Williams, honary archivist for the Lancashire Federation of Women’s Institutes, points out these ordinary women have been capable of extraordinary things. As much as their cake making, campaigns have also been very much part of the organisation’s tradition – starting with rations during the war.

In 2012, the Lancashire Federation resolution, put forward by Horwich WI, to recruit more midwives was mandated.

As a result, WIs nationwide pressed on the government to invest more in midwifery training and employment.

And everyone will recall the charity campaign of one small group of WI ladies which led to an iconic image that would change the face of the WI and lead to their very own film, ‘Calendar Girls.’

A timeline of the Lancashire federation’s developments over the years has been published in itsregional magazine, Hotpot, which has now been in circulation since 1971.

Liz says: “So far in this centenary year we have welcomed members in nine new WIs and we are finding that the movement is as relevant today as it was 100 years ago.

“We have always welcomed women of all ages and we currently have members with ages ranging from 18 to 100. If you ask members what the WI means to them, the majority would probably reply ‘friendship and support, and an opportunity to broaden horizons.’ This has certainly been my own experience of the WI.”

One of the Lancashire show’s co-ordinators and a member of Claughton on Brock WI, Pam Wade earlier this year attended Buckingham Palace for a centenary celebration garden party.She says the strength of the movement is still very much about the community values.

The importance of those principles was highlighted throughout the show at Garstang, which welcomed members and guests from across the north-west and beyond. Like the organisation, the show has grown dramatically over 30 years from being held in the village halls of Barton and Bilsborrow to its ‘home’ in Garstang.