100 years of the Women’s Institute in Hertfordshire

PUBLISHED: 11:39 17 September 2019

An early Herts Federation meeting at Hitchin Town Hall (photo: Hertfordshire WI)

An early Herts Federation meeting at Hitchin Town Hall (photo: Hertfordshire WI)

Hertfordshire WI

With an ethos of education, friendship, support and activism, Hertfordshire WI is 100 this year and still enriching and changing lives

Many people associate the WI with nothing more than the oft-quoted 'jam and Jerusalem' - a vision of tea parties and hymns. But as the Hertfordshire branch of the National Federation of Women's Institutes celebrates its centenary, there is much more to discover about this organisation - not least its forward-thinking activism.

One long-standing member, Jean Curl, aged 90, joined Bedmond WI back in 1953 and has seen many changes.

'Women these days want something a little different from the WI,' she says. 'Even though our core values are still important, we have a more modern way of achieving them. You have to move forward, and the WI is open to change.'

This is echoed by a younger advocate, Ellie Marshment, 42, of the Paper Dollies WI in Kings Langley, who joined in her 30s.

'Any change in a big organisation is going to be slow, a little like turning the Titanic. However, the willingness is there, and while it can't be done overnight, the federation strives to stay with the times.'

The Queen Mother visiting a WI fete at Knebworth House in 1949 (photo: Hertfordshire WI)The Queen Mother visiting a WI fete at Knebworth House in 1949 (photo: Hertfordshire WI)

One hangover from its long history and one that has been an obstacle to wider membership was that many meetings were held during the day. How can working women attend? This is now being addressed with more evening meetings.

'Most people were shocked when I told them I was joining the WI,' laughs Ellie, adding that she was attracted to the diverse network of people who enjoy learning new things and having fun, and that each group is completely different. 'You can try out different groups, until you find the one that's right for you,' she suggests.

With 86 branches across Herts, and around 4,000 members, there are many varied activities to experience, from the traditional crafts and baking to music, tai chi and cocktail making. Guest speakers cover a huge range of topics, with recent ones including homelessness, archery and drag artistry. And there's participation in games and sports too like hoola hooping and shooting. One group took part in a flash mob in Stevenage town centre.

'It's all about fun and education,' Ellie says.

As an educational charity, the WI is completely self-funding and it isn't all about eating cake and drinking tea.

The Herts WI marks its centenary this year (photo: Matthew Taylor/Alamy Stock Photo)The Herts WI marks its centenary this year (photo: Matthew Taylor/Alamy Stock Photo)

'Although that really is a big part of it too,' says Ellie, who admits she can always be found near the tea hatch at meetings. And to be fair, they need the tea and cake to provide energy for some of the forward-thinking campaigns they're involved in.

The National Federation of Women's Institutes is a powerhouse when it comes to lobbying and educating.

'We were campaigning against single use plastic long before David Attenborough,' Jean says. 'And educating in ways to combat childhood obesity before Jamie Oliver got on board.'

Some years ago you may remember the Calendar Girls from the Yorkshire WI, who posed naked to raise money for Leukaemia research. 'They certainly put us on the map,' Jean smiles. 'But we need to keep thinking of new and fresh ideas.'

Little Gaddesden WI at The British Empire Exhibition, Wembley 1924 (photo: Hertfordshire WI)Little Gaddesden WI at The British Empire Exhibition, Wembley 1924 (photo: Hertfordshire WI)

A lot of the charity's campaigns are about raising awareness. Ellie says its Don't Fear the Smear project is one she is passionate about.

'So many women are wary of cervical cancer screening and it's something that, even as an individual, I can make a difference with.' She adds that just by sharing knowledge with friends and her daughter it could help save lives.

Jean mentions last year's national campaign, Mental Health Matters, which focussed on combatting loneliness. Something, like Ellie, she says we can all do as individuals. 'If you see a person who might need someone to listen to them, you can be that person.'

Ellie suggests the WI is rather like a support network in itself.

'After suffering with severe back pain in the past myself, so many members truly cared and offered to help me, like a family.'

More than just jam... (photo: Oleg Fedotov/Getty Images)More than just jam... (photo: Oleg Fedotov/Getty Images)

And just like a family, the WI is made up of members ranging in age from 18 to an incredible 99 years. The wonderful thing, is that after speaking to women from different ends of the age spectrum, they were united by the fact that the WI had brought them fun, friendship and support.

'People forget that the older generation have lived a life,' says Ellie. 'They too may have danced until dawn and they have plenty of stories and knowledge to share.'

Jean says it's a reciprocal relationship: 'Our young members are incredibly important as they can teach us new skills, and vice versa.'

'Any woman from the age of 18 can join the WI,' Jean adds. 'It's so inclusive.' And they are in good company, even the Queen is a member.

And while it's not a prerequisite to sing Jerusalem at meetings, when it's belted out by 7,000 members at an AGM as the Queen enters the room, you know this is a force to be reckoned with.

Both Jean and Ellie are united in the belief that the WI gives members the confidence to do things that they never thought they would do.

'You have a go, and if you get egg on your face, you wipe it off and have another go,' says Jean. And while the Hertfordshire WI may have changed over the last 100 years, it still revolves around learning new skills, friendship, and belonging; and if that isn't worth celebrating, I don't know what is.

And as for the jam? I ask Jean. 'I wouldn't know. I've never made it in my life!'

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