Dorset WI members talk about what they have done for the cause
PUBLISHED: 10:22 14 December 2015 | UPDATED: 10:22 14 December 2015
As the National Federation of Women's Institutes celebrates its centenary, Jess Thompson talks to some Dorset WI members who have baked, preserved, skydived, campaigned and drummed for the cause
With an organisation venerable enough to have The Queen as President of one of its branches – Sandringham WI – you’d expect the celebrations for the National Federation of Women’s Institutes centenary to be substantial. And locally they’ve certainly been keeping Dorset Federation Chairman, Linda Whatman, and her team busy. “Yes, it’s a lot of work,” she chuckles, handing me a cup of tea when I visit her in her bungalow in Shillingstone. “But I just love being involved with the whole movement so I don’t mind. More than 200 of our members have attended events at Buckingham Palace and the Royal Albert Hall this year. There’s also been a nationwide baton relay. In Dorset it travelled 680 miles, with groups of WIs organising tea, lunch or special parties along the way.”
Inside the hollow baton, each County Federation was asked to insert a memory stick with 12 photos. “We chose ‘Dorset Members in Action’ as our theme,” says Linda, “so future generations will see us carrying out activities including archery, stone carving and walking in our beautiful countryside. As well as Beaminster WI member, Charlotte Hyslop, doing a skydive in aid of Parkinson’s UK.”
Locally the WI has particular reason to celebrate, for whilst the first WI started on Anglesey in North Wales, three of the first four established in England were in Dorset: Wallisdown, Hamworthy and Upton - the latter is soon to celebrate its own 100th anniversary.
Originally established to encourage rural women to grow and preserve food for the war-ravaged nation, by 1947 Dorset had 145 WIs. When asked to provide accounts of their WI life in Dorset during the Second World War, 83 of them got involved, hand-writing and illustrating stories of German airmen parachuting into the county and photos of rat-catching competitions. Thanks to a 2007 ‘Hidden Treasure’ award from the British Library, an exact replica of the Dorset WI War Records is now on show at the Dorset History Centre, as well as pages from the original being available to view on line.
June Salt, now 85, joined her local WI in Broadmayne in 1960 when she was thirty, and 55 years later she is still an active member. “The WI is a bit like Radio 4 - it educates, entertains and informs you,” she tells me. “It’s added immensely to my life.” Proud as she is of the organisation’s ideals of Truth, Tolerance, Justice and Friendship - it’s the latter she’s most grateful for. “Take my dear friend who’s just turned 90 for instance. She moved to Broadmayne three years after me and I don’t think I’d have met her otherwise.”
After more than five decades with her local WI, you’d expect Mrs Salt to have many memories and she doesn’t disappoint. “In the 1980s our President decided we should have a celebratory night picnic on top of Broadmayne Bank Barrow, which we did, using lanterns to light our way. Someone saw us and decided we must be doing something quite dreadful and called the police. When they arrived they were most amused and shared a glass of wine with us!” she laughs.
“We’ve had a gentleman visit our meetings who’s got a wonderful selection of African drums, so we’ve all enjoyed a good drumming session. And once a lady was doing an Indian cookery demonstration and the room got so hot the lights blew. But there’s always somebody who’s got a torch in the WI, although it made the tasting session quite tricky.”
Over the last 100 years the format of the WI’s monthly meetings has changed little. Some still begin by singing Jerusalem, while others save the rousing anthem for special occasions, but all meetings start with ‘Business’. After that there’s a speaker, demonstration or film – wildlife is always popular – and then it’s teatime.
“There’s always cake – it’s not possible to have a meeting without it,” says Linda. “In most WIs you have a rota of helpers who bake throughout the year. Although I know some WI’s now go down the pub.”
The original WI blueprint has also proved remarkably resilient over the years. ‘Cohesive’ is a word that’s mentioned a lot, but the WI has also modernised to help attract new members, and the organisation continues to grow in Dorset. “We’ve had a new one start recently in the wilds of Netherbury,” says Linda. “They’ve already got 25 members in just three months. I attended their inaugural night and, my goodness, the food they’d laid on! They must all be top notch chefs.”
As a county, Dorset has just over 3,500 members, and Linda would love to see that rise to 4,500. To supplement their income, which comes from membership fees, they organise educational and fundraising events; their popular WI Tea Tent at Camp Bestival, an award-winning family festival held in the grounds of Lulworth Castle, is one of their biggest. “Scores of our ladies bake and donate cakes for Camp Bestival, last year we sold more than 2,400 slices.”
Nationally the WI is working hard to attract younger members – and this is particularly apparent within the newer, urban branches. Emma Forrester doesn’t look like someone you’d immediately associate with the WI. The 25-year-old with vivid aubergine-coloured hair, piercings and discreet tattoos, joined Ferndown’s Absolutely WI in 2013. “My husband and I had just moved from County Durham and I didn’t know anyone locally,” says the Emma, who works as a project manager for a marine consultancy. “I’ve always got on well with older people, so decided to give the WI a go. I’m definitely the youngest by a long way. There are all sorts of women, from all sorts of backgrounds. There’s a barrister, a nurse, someone who works in sexual health. And they’ve all got life experience which someone my age just doesn’t have.”
Emma says she loves the fact that the WI is as famous for its campaigns and community involvement as it is for crochet and cakes. “Last Christmas there was terrible flooding around Ferndown and we helped provide support for the local community. I know that near Weymouth they had a campaign for winter coats for homeless people and collected over 600 in just a week.” And, says Emma, the WI isn’t afraid to tackle issues such as domestic violence and FGM. “It’s not all jam and Jerusalem, the WI is a different form of feminism that’s equally important today. It’s like the original women’s lib, and I really like that.”
Dorset Federation Chairman, Linda Whatman would agree, although she’s more than happy for the WI to be known for its jam. “Jam was one of the things that got us going as an organisation. When you think of what we did in both wars – the Government would come to the WI first if there was a disaster.”
As I get up to leave, rather unexpectedly she presses me to join. “You could go to three or four; try them out.” I congratulate her on her recruiting commitment, to which she retorts, “Why would anyone not join the WI?” Why not indeed.
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