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90 Years of the Bedfordshire WI


Ruth Gill, Business Support Officer at BLARS and Chair of the Bedfordshire WI celebrates nearly a century of Bedfordshire WI, the records of which are held in the Archives.

The WI was formed by Adelaide Hoodless, of Stoney Creek, Canada. Adelaide was a fairly well-to-do woman, but she had lost a child through a lack of knowledge of basic hygiene. She felt that if she was ignorant in this area, then a great many other women would be too. In order to change this, Adelaide arranged for lectures and classes in domestic science and home crafts to be made available to local women. The word spread, and soon a network of Women’s Institutes was formed. The first WI in the UK was formed in Llanfair PG, Anglesey, in 1915. 

Bedfordshire Federation of Women’s Institutes was formed in September 1919 but the WI movement had come to the County in 1917 with the formation of Dunstable WI and, by 1918, eight Institutes had been formed of which five are still running. Our first County Chairman was Mrs. Whitbread of Southill where a branch was also formed. Mrs. Whitbread was, of course, a member of the famous brewing family.

First World War WI Leaflet

Leaflet promoting the activities of the WI during the First World War [Ref.WW!/WA5/1/3]

So why was the WI so successful? Women had been flexing their political muscles before the War with the suffragette movement and during the War they had worked in industry and on the land whilst their men folk were fighting. So imagine the country in 1918. A war had just been won, but at terrible cost. Most women had lost a son, brother or husband or had a relative who had been left with terrible injuries. The women had common ground – loss.

Women obviously felt the need to come together for friendship and support as they tried to rebuild their lives and the WI must have filled that need, as by the end of 1920, 21 Institutes had been started in Bedfordshire. A year later, in 1922, there were 30 Institutes in the County with over 1500 members. By 1930 there were 49 Institutes with a total membership of 2655.

Incidentally, Jerusalem, which is now synonymous with the WI, had also been the Suffragette’s hymn, so perhaps, bearing in mind that many former suffragettes were founder members of the organisation, it gives an insight into the psyche of our members.

The activities of the Bedfordshire Federation in 1930 were many and varied. The handbook for that year reports that the WI had a marquee at the County Agricultural Show in Ampthill Park and the Prince of Wales, later to be Edward VIII, admired the craft items made by Bedfordshire Women. Nationally the WI was going from strength to strength and each year members were invited to put forward matters upon which they felt strongly, which is still the procedure.

In 1929 every Institute in the County had been involved in a costume drama entitled “The Masque of the Lady Margaret” about Bedfordshire-born Lady Margaret Beaufort. This was held in Bedford Park with a cast of hundreds and all the beautiful costumes were designed and made by members of the Institutes.  The following year, in 1930, an Exhibition of Cookery and Country Products took place at the Corn Exchange and 29 Institutes put in a total 1,420 exhibits. Moving forward to 1940 and the first full year of the 2nd World War, WI members enthusiastically answered the call of the Ministry of Food to start a fruit preservation scheme for the war effort. In 1940 alone this Federation made 44,800 pounds of preserves using about 9 tons of sugar.  No wonder the WI is well known for its jam! Dean WI made 250 pounds of jelly and Stondon 6 gallons of tomato sauce. Our preserves must have been exceptional as we supplied Harrods!

Members were actively involved in community war work including vegetable growing, raising money for ambulances, salvage schemes, canteens for troops, clubs for evacuees, , comforts and welfare work for local troops and the home guard, blood transfusions, Red Cross, hospital supplies, clothing depots and “Spitfire” funds.

When the Queen’s coronation was held in 1953 Bedfordshire had 101 institutes with a membership of almost 5000. Bedfordshire Federation was allocated four tickets in the Abbey for the Coronation and a draw took place. Oakley, Pertenhall, Shefford and Turvey were the lucky winners and they in turn drew lots as to which member should attend. 

Carlton WI 1954

Carlton WI members at a tea party in 1954 [Ref X498/50]

By the time of Bedfordshire’s Golden Jubilee in 1969, the Federation had 5,400 members and the activities held were very varied. Members entered local and national competitions in large numbers and Institutes had choirs, drama groups, book clubs, walking groups and were proficient in a large variety of crafts. They also took part in all types of sport including bowls, tennis and rounders to name but a few.

In the 1970s membership in Bedfordshire was about 3000 which is our approximate membership today. In 1973 the Federation was able to buy our own headquarters in Adelaide Square with the help of the County Chairman, Margaret Polhill of Howbury Hall. An interest free loan was given by Mr. Polhill and this was repaid by the membership within three years.

Women’s lives and expectations have changed dramatically in the 90 years of the Federation. From the 1960s, more and more women have been employed outside the home and had access to their own transport which obviously made them more mobile. With these changes in circumstances, women were able to enjoy other activities outside their village environment and at that time, unfortunately, the WI seemed to lose its appeal to younger women. 

Fortunately, as the national perception has changed since the Millennium, there has also been an upsurge in interest and membership. Younger women who never learnt to cook, make jam or do handicrafts have found the WI a fountain of knowledge and new Institutes are springing up in unlikely areas – in London in places like Covent Garden, Ealing and Islington, and in workplaces.. In Bedfordshire in 2008 we opened a new Institute in Biggleswade made up of a wide ranging age group. We are obviously evolving and adapting and continue to remain relevant to women of today.