February meeting – Carol Harris – Lady Denman and the WI

At our February meeting we indulged in a lovely presentation from Carol Harris about Lady Denman and the WI. Carol
loves delving in archives and specialises in social history, particularly Women’s history so was able to tell us about the start of the WI in; a false start in the UK, and then getting off the ground in Anglesey as part of the war effort in 1915.  The Women’s Institute was originally brought to life to revitalise rural communities and encourage women to become more involved in producing food during the First World War.

When the National Federation of the WI was formed in 1917, Lady Denman was elected the first National Chairman. She was a sound businesswoman, having learned much from her father and husband who were successful businessmen, and she was a remarkable leader, not only of the WI. She was also the first Chairman of the Family Planning Association, President of the Ladies Golf Union, a Trustee of the Carnegie United Kingdom Trust and a Director of the Westminster Press.

The WI has always been political and calling for social change with their first resolution in 1918 calling for local authorities to take advantage of the government scheme for state-aided housing. With the food shortages after the Great War the government funded the WI to set up a Produce Guild to encourage members to produce home-grown food and preserve fruit and vegetables. Further action included supporting evacuees in WW2 and resolutions included the Keep Britain Tidy national anti-litter campaign, making people more aware of HIV and Aids and more recently to reduce plastic soup. During the Great Jam Debate in the 1970’s, the WI successfully lobbied for members to use the fruit harvest to make jam for the public.

Carol’s photos included those with the Queen Mother and the Queen at their local WI events and many photos of smart women in lovely hats making their presence felt at political events.  We also learnt that the WI was a founding member of the Fair Trade Foundation in the 1990s and therefore many issues we take as a given today are only in place because of the pressure that the WI and others brought about.

The presentation finished with the ill-advised speech that Tony Blair, British Prime Minister at the time, gave to the WI in 2000 Annual General Meeting. The profile of the WI increased as a result and membership continues to go from strength to strength.  Carole finished with a photograph of a packed Royal Albert Hall in 2015 when the Queen addressed over 5000 members.