Away from the frontlines of World War II, in towns and villages across Great Britain, ordinary women were playing a vital role in their country’s war effort. As members of the Women’s Institute, an organization with a presence in a third of Britain’s villages, they ran canteens and knitted garments for troops, collected tons of rosehips and other herbs to replace medicines that couldn’t be imported, and advised the government on issues ranging from evacuee housing to children’s health to postwar reconstruction. But they are best known for making jam: from produce they grew on every available scrap of land, they produced twelve million pounds of jam and preserves to feed a hungry nation.
Home Fires, Julie Summers’s fascinating social history of the Women’s Institute during the war (when its members included the future Queen Elizabeth II along with her mother and grandmother), provides the remarkable and inspiring true story behind the upcoming PBS Masterpiece series that will be sure to delight fans of Call the Midwife and Foyle’s War. Through archival material and interviews with current and former Women’s Institute members, Home Fires gives us an intimate look at life on the home front during World War II.
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About the Author
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Praise for Home Fires
‘That image of defiant jam-making sums up the way many see the wartime contribution of the Women’s Institute. But Julie Summers . . . shows its much wider contribution.’
‘Millions of words have been written about the military and social history of both world wars, but Summers carves out a little area of her own by examining the vital work performed by the Women’s Institute who, through its meticulous organizational skills and national network, found its finest hour in the face of conflict.’
—Daily Mail (London)
‘I thought I was fairly well up on the WI contribution to the World War II effort until I read Julie Summers’s book! I was wrong – every chapter was a revelation – full of information, reminiscences, humor, and social history. It is also well written, well researched, and easy to read. Reading it not only gave me great pleasure but also made me proud to be a member of such a long lasting, valuable, and vital organization – an organization which is still working actively to “improve the quality of life of communities” both urban and rural.’
—Helen Carey OBE, former chairman of the National Federation of Women’s Institutes (1999‒2003)
‘Julie Summers recounts how thousands of women rallied around during the dark days of Hitler, baking cakes and knitting jumpers as if their lives depended on it.’
—Mail on Sunday
‘Superb . . . Overall, this book tells a wonderful story – highly recommended.’
—Who Do You Think You Are? magazine
‘Home Fires: Francesca Annis and Samantha Bond head the cast of this classy period piece about the friendships and hardships of a Women’s Institute group in Cheshire during World War II. The series is based on the bestselling factual book by Julie Summers about the role the WI played during the conflict.’
Julie Summers was born in Liverpool but grew up in Cheshire, where the Home Fires series was set and filmed. Her first book, Fearless on Everest, published in 2000, was a biography of her great uncle, Sandy Irvine, who died on Everest with Mallory in 1924. Her grandfather, Philip Toosey, was the man behind the Bridge on the River Kwai, and her biography of him appeared in 2005. Fascinated by how people cope with extreme situations, she has turned her attention on the effect of the Second World War on noncombatants – the women and children. Recently she published Fashion on the Ration, a book that looks at what we wore during the Second World War. Her book Home Fires, the story of the Women’s Institute in wartime, has inspired Masterpiece’s new fall 2015 drama series of the same name, featuring Samantha Bond, Francesca Annis, and many others.
An imprint of Penguin Random House LLC
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New York, New York 10014
First published as Jambusters in Great Britain by Simon & Schuster UK Ltd, 2013
Published with a new preface by Simon & Schuster UK Ltd, 2015
Published in Penguin Books 2015
Copyright © 2013, 2015 by Julie Summers
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Cover photo © ITV Studios Ltd. A coproduction of ITV Studios and Masterpiece.
In affectionate memory of Ga and to all the unnamed WI members who made the countryside tick during six long years of war
1 Let the Sunshine Stream In
2 The Gathering Storm
3 The Piper’s Call
4 Coupon Culture
5 Digging for Victory
6 Boil and Bubble, Toil and Trouble
7 Knit One Purl One
8 Gaiety, Song and Dance
9 Building for the Future
10 A Final Word
The story of the journey from book to TV series has been for me an intensely personal one. It has been exciting, at times a little alarming but without doubt one of the most thrilling experiences of my life. Taking a non-fiction book and turning it into a drama series is a creative process like no other that I have been involved in. However, let me start at the beginning.
When my then editor at Simon & Schuster, Mike Jones, asked me in November 2009 whether I thought the Women’s Institute had done anything interesting in the Second World War I agreed to go and find out. Given that I have written a whole book on the subject, you will not be surprised to know that the answer to his question was emphatically yes. The most surprising thing I discovered about the WI in my first weeks of research was that it was a pacifist organisation. That was not a fashionable thing to be in the late 1930s, but it proved in some ways to be the making of them during the Second World War. They could not be swallowed up into war work so they had to define their own rules and stick to them. As we shall see, this is exactly what they did, devoting themselves to the humanitarian side of the war effort. It never occurred to me, or to Mike I suspect, that we were about to embark on a project that would eventually inspire a major drama series.
Home Fires took a long time to research and write. It was by no means an easy book as there was almost an embarrassment of material and yet very little in the way of ‘voice’, so I had to dig deep to find the heart of the wartime WI and the members who had kept the countryside ticking. Minutes and record books charted their activities and listed the immense quantities of herbs collected, fruit preserved and pies baked. It was only when I met women who had been wartime members, or whose mothers had been active in the WI during those years, that the personal stories added real life experience to those extraordinary achievements. Those are the stories that you will read in Home Fires.
Eventually I handed the manuscript to Mike in March 2012 and spent the summer dealing with editing questions and selecting images. This is a creative process because every image in the picture section has to earn its place and the all important captions have to justify their inclusion. In September 2012, about six months before the book was released in the UK, I signed up to go on an Arvon script-writing course. I felt I needed to try something new after writing ten books, to try a completely different discipline, which might present an interesting challenge. Spending a week at Totleigh Barton in Devon with an enthusiastic and diverse group was a wonderful experience, but within hours of starting the course I realised that this was not for me. I do not watch enough television and especially not the kind of series that my fellow students wanted to write. However, I was determined to get as much out of the course as possible so I threw myself into it with my customary enthusiasm. One of the tutors was Simon Block. When we met for a tutorial on the last day of the Arvon course he asked me what I did as a day job. I told him I was a writer and he laughed. ‘I thought you were!’ he said. We both agreed that I should not give up the day job and I should continue to pursue my passion for storytelling.
That morning Mike Jones had sent me the final design for the hardback jacket. The mobile phone reception at Totleigh Barton being somewhat patchy, I had had to walk to the top of a hill to receive the email. I was thrilled with the jacket and I showed Simon the image on my phone. This started a conversation about women on the home front during the Second World War, one of enduring interest to me ever since I wrote Stranger in the House in 2008, which looked at the effect of returning men on the women of Britain after 1945. It was a little researched or understood subject, but one which had an enormous impact on the way society coped in the post-war years. Home Fires gave me another perspective on women in the countryside and the research for it produced some wonderful stories. As I was preparing to leave Totleigh Barton the following day, Simon took me aside and said: ‘Julie, I think Home Fires has the potential to be enormous.’ Actually, he was even more extravagant than that. I doubt that either of us had the slightest inkling that we were about to embark upon what I can only describe as an incredible journey.
I returned to Oxford and carried on with life as normal, finishing the proofs of the book and considering what I might write next. Four weeks later I received an email from Simon telling me about a conversation he had had with a friend who worked as a television producer at ITV Studios. She would like to meet me, he wrote, and I was sure to like her because she had worked on Foyle’s War. This was recommendation enough. I met Catherine Oldfield, then a development producer at ITV Studios, in Covent Garden. My diary for that day, 22 October, records ‘lunch at le Deuxieme. Evening lecture at Eastbourne Congress theatre. Many miles covered.’ Quite the understatement as it turned out. At that lunch I agreed to send Catherine a draft of Home Fires and she in turn asked me to scribble down any ideas I might have about the type of setting that could work for a drama series. Well, I had been on a script-writing course, hadn’t I? The following week she wrote to tell me that the book had made her cry and that she would like me to meet Francis Hopkinson, Creative Director of Drama at ITV Studios, to discuss buying the ‘option’ for it. To my delight, Simon Block was signed up as the series creator and writer. Simon is a key player in so many ways and since we first met he has become an inspiration and a friend. He, Catherine and I spent a day at my home in Oxford before Christmas turning ideas over and over. It stands out in my mind as the most wonderful, creative and exhausting day I have ever spent. By the end of it Simon had begun to draw three characters, two sisters and a young man, who would be the first creations in his drama. It was so exciting to watch him conceive completely fictional characters, pulling them out of the air, as it were. They seemed to me to be ghostly shadows that would eventually become solid human forms inhabited by actors. My contribution to those discussions, as it has been ever since, was as a historical consultant. Not just facts but tone, mood and detail about the WI as well as some history of Cheshire, which is the county of my birth and in which the drama was to be set. I felt the county offered so much scope. With Liverpool and Manchester as its (then) two major cities, the Battle of the Atlantic, the war’s longest running battle, and the huge number of camps – army, air force, German and Italian prisoner of war and Polish Resettlement – plus the Wirral, and the neighbouring counties of Lancashire, Yorkshire, Derbyshire, Staffordshire, Shropshire and North Wales, there would be no shortage of material or incidents to draw upon.
Over the ensuing months Simon produced an outline and then a first script. Reading that was a very special and precious moment. Finally a version of that script was submitted to the ITV commissioners and I received a telephone call from Catherine one afternoon telling me that ‘we’ had the green light to make a show of six episodes. That day, 18 March 2014, I wrote in my diary ‘HOME FIRES ARE GO!’. As with everything to do with this series, that was an understatement. What had appeared to move at glacial pace now accelerated to a hundred miles an hour. Within a month I found myself sitting in a script development meeting at The London Television Centre talking about the National Register of 1939, the beginning of rationing in 1940 and the running of a secret ballot WI style. Over three days we bounced ideas around while Catherine tried to keep everything in order, writing notes all over the walls. By the end of the third morning we had rough outlines for episodes two to six.
I have been so very fortunate that Simon and Catherine have allowed me to be involved in the scripts, not in the writing of course, but in the historical detail and in the tone. It is difficult to capture the mood in the country in the first weeks and months of the war, and most especially in the early summer of 1940 when the most likely outcome was an invasion of Britain. We know the way the war ended, but at that stage it was far from clear. I felt that each episode had to match the prevailing mood of the time and this is certainly something that Simon has woven into the scripts.
At one point during the script development meeting Simon said, ‘I have a question for you to which I don’t think you will know the answer. What day did it start snowing in 1940?’ To his surprise and my slight embarrassment, I did know. A big WI agricultural meeting, scheduled to take place on 31 January in London, had to be cancelled as it had started snowing heavily four days earlier and transport was impossible. Trains were marooned, villages all over the country cut off and two days before the meeting there were snowdrifts ten to twelve feet deep in places. My family all know that I am, like my father, fascinated by the weather and I love the shipping forecast, so it is not really a surprise that I had paid attention to such a dramatic weather event. Since then I have been consulted on any number of questions to do with the WI, the war or the home front. One day my phone buzzed while I was having lunch with my mother and aunt. Sophie Bicknell, the show’s script editor, wanted to know what the price of a pot of jam would have been in 1939. It was an urgent request because the art department was dressing the set for a scene to be shot that afternoon. Fortunately Mum, Jane and I managed to work it out (about 1s 3d) and I could ring Sophie back minutes later.
By August it was time for the first read-through. To hear the words of the scripts spoken by actors for the first time was powerful and emotional. Simon’s scripts came alive in a whole new way for me and I began to hear the voices of the women he had created and given life and character to. Three weeks later I drove up to Cheshire for my first set visit. Nothing could have prepared me for the thrill of seeing the black and white world that I have known for the last fifteen years through pictures, words, diaries and books come alive.
The team were filming the opening sequence to the series. So, no spoiler alert. Steph Farrow and her son, Little Stan, were driving a herd of shorthorn cattle into a Cheshire farmyard. Simple as that. But for me it was an emotional explosion. There were smells, so familiar from my childhood but now linked to Simon’s drama. There was noise, colour, movement, heat and energy. It was overwhelming and I had tears in my eyes when I saw Steph, played by Claire Calbraith, encouraging the cows into the yard. ‘Slow as you like, Stan,’ she says to her son. Slow as you like indeed. I didn’t want it to stop. And because this is television there were several takes, so it did not stop. Everything about the set was perfect as far as I was concerned. The vegetables planted in the middle of the farmyard, the hen coop, the old car in front of the stables, and lovely reddy-brown and white cows munching grass along the hedgerows and mooing as if indignant at having to do the same thing more than once.
A week later I was on set again, this time dressed in a 1930s two-piece blue tweed suit and wearing a grey wig crowned with a brown hat, matching brown shoes and a lovely big brown handbag. This was my Hitchcock cameo day. One very precious moment for me was sitting in the green room listening to Francesca Annis and Samantha Bond rehearsing their dialogue. Those ghostly shadows from 2012 had blossomed into living, breathing characters. And here they were, in front of me, passionate and vital.
Since that magical day the production has moved on. I have visited the village and seen the butcher’s shop dressed up as a wartime greengrocers and the chip shop disguised as a petrol station with a sign in the window saying ‘Business as usual. Excuse our appearance . . . we are currently part of ITV Home Fires’. I have seen a completely fictitious but wholly convincing war memorial with the names of men carved in the font created by MacDonald Gill for headstone inscriptions after the First World War. The old Cheshire signposts to Great Paxford almost caught me out and I briefly wondered if there really was such a place in the county. Fiction and reality were beginning to meld in my mind. Now the filming is finished, the production team has dispersed, the directors have had their say and the series is ready to air. To think that the corner of Cheshire where I spent much of my childhood will become known to a television audience in the United States is especially thrilling. During the war there were American camps in Cheshire, both army and air force. From June 1942 the RAF airfield of Burtonwood near Warrington became USAAF Station 590, the largest airfield in Europe, with some 18,000 personnel. As readers will discover from this volume, the wartime First Lady, Mrs Roosevelt, was a great supporter of British women on the home front during the Second World War. She made a visit to Britain in 1942 and found time to go to Barham in Kent, near the south coast, where she met Mrs Churchill and Lady Denman, and inspected a village Women’s Institute. As a result of this visit she organized for material help to be sent directly to the WI for their preservation scheme.
When you read this book you will not meet Steph Farrow, Frances Barden, Joyce Cameron or Alison Scotlock. You will meet real women: Edith Jones, Ruth Toosey, Sybil Norcott and many others. Their stories are the life-force in Home Fires, for they were the ordinary country women who lived and survived extraordinary times. For them the Second World War was fought off screen but was present in their lives all the time. It was the backdrop to their every day and for many it altered their lives completely. Some found strengths they did not know they had, others like Edith, already resourceful, simply blossomed as she took on more and more responsibility. For others still, the war took away family members. The common thread for all those women in Home Fires is the Women’s Institute. During the war it gave shape to tasks and focused energies. It had a purpose, as it had always had, which was to improve the lives of women in the countryside. It offered women such as the real-life Sybil Norcott or the fictitious Steph Farrow the opportunity to try something new, to explore their potential, to change their own perception of themselves and develop interests outside their farms. And, of course, it offered comfort, safety, friendship and humour for all the members who needed it. They are the WI members who are the DNA of the series.
All this has moved seamlessly to the screen. Simon Block has taken those real-life women as his inspiration and drawn on some of their characteristics to create the characters who people Home Fires. I would like to think that if Ruth Toosey were to meet Frances Barden or Sybil Norcott were to walk into Brindsley’s butcher’s shop to buy some lamb chops, they would both feel at home and in familiar surroundings. That, I think, is the magic touch that Simon has brought to Home Fires.
In June 1939 the Women’s Institute held its annual general meeting in London. The weather was glorious. Many of the delegates who came to London from all over the country had never been to the capital before. Cicely McCall, who was responsible for the WI’s national education programme, observed the scene with fascination. She met one excited seventeen-year-old from Cumberland who had slept with her train ticket under her pillow for a month before the meeting, so thrilled was she to have been asked to represent her institute. Dressed in their best suits and dresses, wearing hats, gloves and sensible shoes, more than 8,000 women, many fanning themselves in the heat, crowded into the magnificent Empress Hall in Earls Court. The seating was arranged in alphabetical order by county beginning with Berkshire, Buckinghamshire, Cambridgeshire, Cheshire and so on. Stewards dressed in cream overalls with broad green and red ribbons over one shoulder showed people to their seats. There was a buzz of conversation and an air of eager anticipation.
The national committee members walked up onto the stage. Everybody stood up. Miss Nancy Tennant from Headington raised her right hand to conduct. The organist played the opening bars of ‘Jerusalem’ and 8,000 women lifted the roof with the well-known anthem. The great theatre reverberated to Parry’s beautiful tune and the voices rose and rose. As the music faded, the delegates took their seats.
Lady Denman, dressed formally and wearing a green hat, stood up and welcomed her delegates. She then asked Miss Hadow to greet their honoured guests from the Associated Countrywomen of the World, who had gathered in London for a mass rally. Twenty-three countries were each represented in the Empress Hall by a woman delegate, many in national dress. Miss Hadow stood up. Tall, thin, every bit the vision of a blue-stocking academic, she addressed the meeting: ‘Lady Denman and Fellow Countrywomen, we are met here today in our great parliament to welcome our sisters from other lands. In the first place, we are country women; we live on the land and serve the land. And in the last resort, it is not by armed force, or even by industrial prosperity, but it is by the land itself that men live.’
There was loud applause and appreciative murmuring from the delegates. She went on:
In the second place, we are women, we belong to the constructive sex, whose whole instinct is to reserve and to foster life, to build homes in every land. In the hands of women, of wives and mothers, and I will even dare to say of sisters, daughters and spinster aunts, the health and happiness of mankind very largely is laid. Those two things, the unity of the land, the unity of our common womanhood, speak a universal language. It is in that tongue that in the name of 328,000 English and Welsh women I do indeed say to our guests from other countries – You are Welcome!
The applause swelled. As she sat down the foreign delegates stepped up onto the stage one by one. Some neither spoke nor understood English but all of them understood the applause and the smiles that greeted each fresh announcement. America, Sweden, India . . . One by one by they came forward, made their bow, and sometimes said a few words. Latvia, Norway . . . Germany. Miss McCall was in the hall and watched as the German delegate walked onto the stage.
She was a tall woman. Her shoulders were flung back, her face set as she stepped on to the platform. There was a second’s tense silence, as though suddenly eight thousand pairs of lungs had contracted, and their hearts too. Then came deafening applause. It rang round the hall tumultuously. It fell, then grew again increasing in volume as though each perspiring delegate on that very hot June morning could not enough say: ‘Welcome! We are all country women here today. We are non-party, non-sectarian. We wish for peace, goodwill and cooperation among nations. You have had the courage to come here in spite of rumours of wars. We bid you welcome!’
Countess Margarete Keyserlingk was overwhelmed. The look of strain on her face disappeared and pleasure and amazement replaced it. She spoke in German: ‘It is with great pleasure and thanks to you all and to my delegation that I am able to be here today to bring you greetings from my country, in the hope that this meeting will lead us all to a greater understanding of one another.’ As she stepped off the platform she hesitated and almost stumbled. We shall never know what message she took back to Germany because within three months Poland had been invaded and Britain had declared war on her country.
When I set out to write a history of the Women’s Institute in wartime I had in mind an historical overview with anecdotes from village institutes about jam-making, vegetable-growing, salvage-collecting, knitting and other activities we associate with the Second World War. As I have gone along I have realised that this is not what lies at the heart of this book. There are many top-down biographies of the Women’s Institute but what I was interested in was the bottom-up story, the ordinary countrywomen who were at the heart of the village institutes. What has grown out of my research is a picture of the remarkable role played by ordinary women in rural Britain during the war. Unpaid, unsung, to a large extent uncomplaining, these women quietly and often with humour, made the countryside tick. The role of the WI was crucial in two ways: on the one hand, the government relied on its links with the National Federation of Women’s Institutes to make direct requests of countrywomen to look after evacuees, collect everything from National Savings to bones for the munitions industry and to care for the nation’s larder; on the other hand, the WI at institute level offered women a safety valve. At their monthly meetings, after they had completed their business and agreed on the many requests for their help towards the war effort, they could let their hair down. And they did. Singing, dancing, sketches and readings, beetle drives, musical bumps, and ‘identify the ankle’ competitions all helped to lighten the mood and send them on their way to take up the tasks set for them.
This book is a tribute to these women. Some were grand county ladies, others were farm labourers’ wives and daughters. The majority were somewhere in between. In the institute there was no differentiation between their backgrounds. Though it would be foolish to suggest that all social boundaries were broken, they were, however, porous. The story of how they all buckled to and helped out is of more interest to me than who was the president or secretary on any given committee. The WI bound them together. Sybil Norcott, a WI member for nearly seventy years, summed it up: ‘The WI is in my heart. It is in all our hearts. It is a way of life.’
I have been fortunate enough to interview a number of women who joined the WI during the war, albeit as very young members, or whose mothers, aunts or other family members were involved. Their personal perspectives give the historical material its colour and they are the only ladies in the book who are referred to by their Christian names. Peggy Sumner joined her WI before the war and is still a member. Her county, Cheshire, honoured its nonagenarian members in 2011 with a service in Chester Cathedral. Sybil Norcott, also a Cheshire member, was a child during the war but her mother belonged to her local institute and Sybil used to go to meetings as her mother was afraid to walk through the woods to the hall on her own.
Ann Tetlow and Dorcas Ward have known each other since they were a few months old. Dorcas’s mother and grandmother were founder members of Bradfield WI in Berkshire. Her mother was secretary throughout the war and her minute books are amongst the most colourful and descriptive I have read. Ann’s mother was also a very active member of the institute and used to allow Ann and her brother to attend the social half-hour of their afternoon meetings.
Caroline Dickinson’s mother, Ruth Toosey, was my great aunt. She was on the committee of her WI in Barrow for several years during the war and she also held an ambulance licence with the Women’s Voluntary Service, as well as being responsible for the girls of the Women’s Land Army in her village. Dr Gwen Bark was a doctor who ran baby clinics in Tarporley, while bringing up her own young family and being an active member of her WI. She was outspoken on matters to do with child health, milk and the Beveridge Report but was also keen to encourage young mothers to find something of interest beyond the home in order to keep them mentally alert.
And Edith Jones, the wife of a farmer from Smethcote in Shropshire, whose great niece, Chris Downes, has given me access to Edith’s wartime diaries. These offer a view of the war as well as the activities of her village and her farm-life during those years. In 1938 she wrote on the first page of her diary: ‘It is interesting to keep a diary. To look back on past events. Things often work out for our good. Ups and downs have been worthwhile. With God’s help let us make this year worthwhile for each other in our family life.’ The great beauty of her diaries is that they were written without a view to being seen by anyone else and are at once personal but objective. She recorded everyday life: ‘The weather is spring like, so I prune “my” apple trees. 6 of them. I like being out on these bright days but feel stiff after being on the steps and reaching! We move the pullets from the cabin to the big house. They look healthy and red. Geoff and Jim are ferreting.’ But she also noted events out of the ordinary: ‘Jack saw the “Northern Lights” last night. He said there was a very red sky like a fire, but it had faded when I looked out. He was pleased when I heard on the wireless that it had been seen all over England and that he too had seen it.’ Edith was secretary of her WI from the day it was set up in 1931 and in addition to her monthly and annual minutes, she wrote an article about life in rural Britain in the early twentieth century that helps to cast a contemporary light on the benefit the WI brought to rural communities such as hers. I will introduce each of these women at an appropriate point in the narrative and some, notably Edith, will appear in more than one chapter.
All the other stories come from minute books, contemporary records held by the National Federation in its archives at the Women’s Library in London, letters, diaries and anecdotes that have been passed on to me. The women in these stories are referred to, as they would have been during the war, by their title and surnames. Traditionally the married women would have used their husband’s Christian names to identify them if more than one member of the family belonged to an institute. So Mrs Peter Walker was the sister-in-law of Mrs Trevor Walker and the mother of Edith Walker, addressed of course as ‘Miss Walker’.
One other woman will feature: Clara Milburn of Balsall Common WI near Coventry. Her diaries were published in 1979, an edited version of the fifteen exercise books she had filled with daily observations about life during the war. Peter Donnelly, who edited the diaries, described how they began: ‘In the early uncertain days of 1940 Clara Milburn took time off from her loved (and sometimes loathed) garden and sat at her desk to begin a task she’d thought of starting for some time now. Opening a cheap soft-backed exercise book, she wrote “Burleigh in Wartime” on the first thin blue line, underscored it, and set to work on a project without any foreseeable end.’ Mrs Milburn wrote mostly of things that concerned her and other women: first and foremost the fate of her son, Alan, who was a prisoner-of-war in Germany, but also of her dismay at the ever-increasing price of what little was available in the shops, the terrible plight of the people of Coventry during the bombings there, and of her clothes, her garden and her institute.
The Women’s Institute covered England and Wales. Scotland had its own organisation called the Scottish Rural Women’s Institute, which was independent of the WI and although it functioned on broadly the same lines as its English and Welsh equivalent, it does not come under the umbrella organisation and therefore will not feature in this book. Not every village in England and Wales had a WI during the war years. In fact only one in three had an institute but often they would cover more than one village, such as Edith Jones’s Smethcote Institute, near Shrewsbury, that also catered for Picklescote, Woolstaston, Leebotwood and Lower Wood. WIs were encouraged to involve those without institutes in communal activities such as fruit-canning and bottling or running market stalls so that the spread of its organisational reach was larger than that of any other organisation in the countryside. Its membership was ten times that of the Women’s Voluntary Service at the beginning of the war and twenty times the size of the Townswomen’s Guild. The WVS expanded to half the size of the WI during the war but with a proportionally smaller number of members in the country villages than in the towns. Many WI members belonged to other voluntary organisations, some sat on rural district or parish councils, others ran Guides or Brownies while others still were school governors or members of charity committees local to their areas. Some women worked full time, others were housewives or farmers’ wives whose domestic life was their work. The spread was enormous and the energy equalled it.
The Second World War was the backdrop to the lives of Britons for six years. For children who were five or six at the outbreak it shaped their childhoods; for young women it coloured their adolescence and the formative years of their adulthood; for middle-aged and older women it came as an all too grim reminder of the Great War that had ended just a generation earlier and cost the country nearly a million lives. As Peggy Sumner reminded me, the women who were members of her WI were the wives, sisters, fiancées and young widows from that war.
At the outbreak of the Second World War the population of the countryside almost doubled. Key workers, evacuated families, unaccompanied schoolchildren and military camps resulted in unprecedented pressure on rural life. Food, housing, transport, schools, local services were all affected. As the country adapted to wartime conditions it was women who were at the forefront of helping with the adjustments needed. This was an era when wives were chattels and women made up a quarter of the workforce. Their lives in the countryside were not easy. When the war began over two thirds of rural housing had no access to electricity and main drains, a large number had only one tap or a pump in the kitchen to supply water. Some women even had to get their household water from a village well and privies were the norm. Washing was done in a copper, usually on Mondays, fires had to be laid daily in cold weather and some women still cooked on an open fire rather than a range or stove. Oral contraception was twenty years in the future and pain-relief for childbirth was unavailable except in hospitals. And yet this was the post-First World War generation of women who generally had less help in their homes than their grandmothers had.
The UK title for this book, Jambusters, was the inspired suggestion of my brother, Tim. He deserves credit for a very clever pun, though I suspect he did not know at the time he suggested it just how apposite it would be. During the war the WIs bust logjams, circumvented bureaucracy and improvised in many different ways. They wrote a major report on evacuation, were involved in advising eleven ministries, including the Treasury, and as a result influenced government thinking about children’s health and education, housing and post-war reconstruction. They ran canteens for troops, baked pies for farm workers, and collected hundreds of tons of rosehips and herbs for the pharmaceutical industry. By their joint effort, members contributed millions of knitted garments to keep troops and refugees in Europe warm. They made 12,000,000 lb. (5,445,000 kilograms) of jam and preserves, helped to set up over 1,000 pig clubs and made more than 2,000 fur-lined garments for Russia. And in amongst all this major activity they sang, put on plays and organised parties to entertain their villages and keep their spirits up. The Second World War was the WI’s finest hour.
In her speech to the annual general meeting of the Women’s Institute held in the Albert Hall in 1943, Queen Elizabeth thanked the women for their enormous contribution to the war effort. As joint president of Sandringham WI with her mother-in-law, Queen Mary, where her daughter, Princess Elizabeth, became a member in 1943, and as a regular visitor to other institutes, she had first-hand experience of the WI’s work. She said:
When we have won through to peace, a great page in the history of Britain’s war effort should be devoted to the countrywomen in this dear land of ours, who, left to carry on in the villages, tackled their job quietly and with wonderful efficiency: and institutes up and down the country have given a grand demonstration of how women can work together cheerfully and lovingly for the good of all. I am so glad to have this opportunity of paying my tribute to the NFWI and to all my fellow-members.
It will take a whole book, not just one page as suggested by Queen Elizabeth, to pay tribute to and celebrate their extraordinary achievements on the home front during six long years of war.
Home Fires opens with a brief history of the WI and introduces a small number of the key players who ran the organisation at national level. Then we follow the course of the war, seen through the eyes of women who have all been involved in or associated with the WI in one way or another at institute level. We will look at some of the large variety of activities women undertook at the behest of the government and its national body, such as jam-making, food production and knitting. The book ends with a brief summary of the post-war lives of those women whose personal stories have featured.
All the stories in this book have been checked as far as possible for accuracy, and if there are any errors in the narrative, I take responsibility for them. No names have been changed but a small number of stories have been told anonymously so as not to cause offence to relatives who might still be alive. To every woman who has helped to bring this book to life I offer my warmest thanks.
The village of Milton in Cambridgeshire had a wartime motto which I think sums up the contribution made by the WI: ‘Say little, serve all, pass on. This is the true greatness – to serve unnoticed and work unseen.’ Women did not trumpet their achievements and many of them were unquantifiable anyway since the aim was to keep going, and make life a little easier for others.
LET THE SUNSHINE STREAM IN
A friend said, ‘Come along with me.’ I said, ‘No, I’m not.’ But she kept bothering me and my husband said, ‘For goodness sake go with her and stop her worrying.’ So I went with her and that was the best day’s work I ever did.
A WI member, 1919
Not every woman in the countryside joined her WI, but for those who did it probably presented the only opportunity for them to socialise outside the home and to learn about life beyond their immediate environs. Edith Jones was one such woman. She described her village in the early part of the twentieth century:
Life in the truly rural areas could be rather humdrum before the motor transport came into its own. Some of us lived 10–12 miles from the market town and 3–5 miles from the nearest railway station depending on where our houses were situated. We were in a scattered area, mostly farmers and connected with farm work and the women had a full time job in the home for there was no electricity nor piped water or any other modern convenience and everything was ‘made at home’. We seemed to have little time or cause to visit our next village unless it was for a fresh sitting of eggs in the spring or a jar or two of honey in the autumn ready for winter colds. The menfolk generally managed the cattle auctions, touching each other for a lift in the farmers’ gigs but if the farmer’s wife went too they knew they’d have to be sober to touch a ride back.
Edith married John Cecil (Jack) Jones on 10 July 1914, less than a month before the outbreak of the First World War. They moved to Red House Farm in Smethcote as tenant farmers, with milking-cows, sheep and poultry on some sixty acres. It was not a large farm, even in those days, and they had little money. They milked morning and evening with the help of Jack Middleton, who lived in nearby Picklescote. Jack was an ex-soldier of the Great War. He never married but lived with his elderly mother and earned his living by catching rabbits and working for Mr Jones, earning five shillings for eight hours’ work, Edith noted. The cows came into the milking shippon opposite the house to be milked but that building had no water so the cows had to be driven down to the pond at the end of the farmyard to drink after milking. In addition to the cattle and sheep there were Edith’s chickens, of which she was extremely fond. She sold eggs at the farm gate as well as taking them into Shrewsbury market on Saturdays. When there were tasks on the farm, such as caring for sick animals, Edith invariably helped out. She wrote about drenching and hand-feeding a calf that was poorly. For three days she looked after it but, she wrote, ‘at a quarter to one on Saturday morning the calf died. The men buried it. It had tried hard to rally.’ Although she was clearly touched by the calf’s death Edith was unsentimental about animals. Farming was a way of life and there would always be deaths as well as births in the countryside.
Jack Jones was a quiet man committed to his farm and the community. A rural district councillor who also served as a churchwarden, he was a regular pall-bearer at funerals. He went to market weekly to buy or sell stock and he enjoyed the quiet life of the country with its seasonal rhythms. His wife was different. Edith was extraordinarily industrious and gifted at turning her hand to mending and making almost anything. She was also an avid reader, and despite her busy life as a farmer’s wife would try to set aside an amount of time each afternoon to reading or studying. She loved the wireless and used to note programmes that she had listened to in her diaries. In March 1938 she wrote: ‘Sowed antirrhinums and sweet peas in boxes. Listened to the Parliamentary discussion on the unrest in Central Europe.’ Six months later Chamberlain returned from Munich: ‘The European Peace Pact was signed! May it be a lasting pact and for our good. War has threatened and been hanging over us and the relief when peace was declared was immense.’ That year, on Armistice Day, she remained hopeful: ‘Nice morning. I gather and clear up wood under yew trees. Chop some then Len comes and finishes them. There is now a good supply in the shed and it looks tidy. We keep the two minutes silence and feel thankful for peace in the country.’
Her great-niece, Chris Downes, remembered how Edith always wanted to know more about the world she lived in.
She had a passionate belief in the value of education and she read widely on any number of topics. I remember when she was in hospital in her eighties having had a hip replacement. We visited her and she was astonished that other women in her ward were just sitting in their beds. ‘You wouldn’t believe it, Christine, they just sit there and do nothing. They’re not even interested in reading or playing Scrabble.’ As a young woman she had studied butter-making at Radbrook College in Shrewsbury. She was very skilled and achieved top marks for her butter-making.
The Joneses were childless but in 1926 they were asked to look after Edith’s nephew, Leonard Manley. The Manley family had moved from Shropshire to Staffordshire, to a farm near the river. Leonard suffered from rheumatic fever and his parents were told that if he remained in the house by the river he would die. Leonard believed he was going to spend the summer with Aunt Edith and Uncle Jack at Smethcote but in fact he stayed with them for the rest of his childhood and became for them the son they never had. He remained close to his parents and siblings and there were regular family visits but his home was Red House Farm. When he was old enough he went to Rodbaston Agricultural College in Staffordshire and did a one-year course just before the outbreak of the war. The relationship between Leonard and his aunt was close, so that when Chris was born she called Edith ‘Gran Jones’. ‘I told my friends at school that I had three grandmothers, my mother’s mother, my father’s mother and Edith. The teachers said that was not possible but it was true. I regarded all three women as my grandmothers and I saw a great deal of Gran Jones. She and Jack retired down the road to Church Stretton in 1947 when Leonard married my mother, Gwladys Hughes.’
In the late 1920s a local bus service started, described by Edith as ‘a red letter day indeed’. This meant that women could take the bus to Shrewsbury market on Saturdays to sell produce and do their own shopping:
Some had baskets of eggs, butter, cheese and chickens, also rabbits and flowers for the market. On the bus they could meet with their neighbours and get to know the women from the other places of call, for [the driver] had a circular round to pay his way and fill the bus. At times overfill it! It was an entertainment just to sit and listen to the conversations, exchanging recipes and how they managed their homes. An eye-opener indeed at times. Something to keep our minds amused for several days. Then there was the next time to prepare for and look forward to.
Not long after the local bus service had brought women a degree of freedom a new rector, Mr Tuke, arrived in Smethcote. He was different from the previous incumbent and people were delighted that he and his wife seemed to take a genuine interest in the life of the parish. ‘When visiting the people they heard about the ‘local bus’ on all sides and how much difference it had made in our lives. The rector’s wife thought it would be a good idea to form a branch of the Women’s Institute movement and was warmly supported by most of the women though some still shied at any new ideas.’ Edith was an enthusiast for the new institute. She relished any opportunity to improve her knowledge of the world beyond Smethcote and at the first meeting she was elected to the committee and given the role of secretary. Mrs Tuke, who had been the first president, died at the end of 1931, which was a great sadness but the institute kept going. In May 1934 Edith wrote in her diary: ‘Have heard that Rev Tuke and Miss Hollier are engaged (shock).’ Miss Hollier, treasurer under the first Mrs Tuke, married the rector later that year. The shock wore off and she soon became accepted as part of the community. In time she was elected president of Smethcote WI and continued to have an interest in the institute until her death at the age of a hundred in 2001.
Smethcote Women’s Institute had fifty members from the surrounding villages of Picklescote, Woolstaston, Leebotwood and Lower Wood. There were farmers’ wives, local women who had lived in the villages for years and Mrs Tuke, new to the parish. At the first meeting they had a demonstration on how to make slippers from old felt hats. The meetings were to be held on the second Wednesday of each month at Smethcote, Woolstaston and Leebotwood alternately. As the Joneses had no car, Edith had to walk or later cycle to all the meetings. Chris remembered that she walked long distances, thinking nothing of covering the two and a half miles to Leebotwood for a meeting in the winter. The first annual report of Smethcote WI recognised this as an issue, noting that ‘the average attendance is 34. The district being very scattered, many members have a long distance to come.’ This theme runs through all the annual reports, especially during the war when members had to resort to walking or cycling as petrol rationing limited car use for those who had them. The early reports are full of colour and optimism for the future and there is a real sense of the energy that the WI released in these women. For many it was the first time they had had an opportunity to be creative, to try singing in a choir or to hear lectures on diverse topics from home dyeing and boot repairing to a visit to the Stork margarine works, which seems to have been of particular interest to the members in 1934.
Edith remembered the early days when not everyone thought the WI was a good thing:
The men were not used to the women having a ‘cause of their own’ and were rather up in arms about it. The bus service had spoilt them, now the WI. What would be the next move? What indeed. Well, we started the WI meetings combining three villages in rotation to make it fair for all and soon became popular and we’d arranged to have afternoon meetings to be home again for the family meal and to attend to the fowls and dairy work.
Our local bus driver was willing to support us and took us to the group and other area meetings. That was something else we had to get used to: ‘competing with the outside world’ as it seemed to us. Standing up in public and giving our views when asked and in the competitions we well held our own for the women had been brought up to home-made crafts and some were really skilled at it and only now could it be brought to light. The men folk were sheepishly proud of their women when they returned home with prizes and gradually could admit the WI was a good idea. Well it grew and thrived until 1938. The war seemed imminent and much thought was given to what might be necessary. We had first-aid classes and came home proudly with our signed certificates. We had talks and demonstrations to be of help in time of need, and of course the war happened and many of our men folk joined the forces and often the women had to take their place on the farms as well as do their housework.
Alongside her WI minutes and annual reports for Smethcote WI Edith kept annual diaries. She wrote just a few sentences a day in the little books, which had seven days and an eighth section for memoranda per double-page spread. In January 1938, for example, she wrote: ‘I have had 6 letters for my Birthday. I appreciated the remembrance. Although I am getting older I do not feel it much because (I suppose) I keep so fit and well, for which I am always thankful. Good health helps one to enjoy and keep an interest in life. Such a blessing.’ The books were bound in soft leather and several of her wartime diaries were ‘The Electricity Supply Diary and Handbook’, which is ironic considering Red House Farm, where she lived, did not have electricity until long after the war. The diaries provide a glorious insight into the life of a middle-aged countrywoman, emphasising the repetitive nature of her highly structured week but also offering glimpses into her personal life, such as buying blouses in Shrewsbury after she had had a good sale at the market, as well as juxtapositions of war news and home life such as ‘one day [WI] school for chutney and jam making. I go with Mrs Muckleston, held at Church Stretton. City of Rome taken by our troops.’
Over the eight years leading up to the war, Smethcote WI members concentrated their efforts on learning dress-making skills, baking cakes and learning about child welfare. Edith took part in the competitions and frequently won with her Victoria sponges. Len told Chris years later that he loved it when Edith entered the WI cookery competitions because she always practised beforehand so that he and his uncle were then treated to excellent cakes. In 1938 she won second prize for her fancy dress costume ‘Departed Spirit’ and at the annual meeting that year she noted: ‘Prizes for competitions for the year were awarded to Mrs Langley 1st with 20 marks, I was 2nd 17 marks and M Langley and G Gretton tied for 3rd with 9 marks each. My prize being a coloured tablecloth.’ In addition to the competitions the committee organised outings and sent delegates to county meetings, often with the assistance of the bus driver, who would obligingly take a group of women to Shrewsbury or further afield to attend group meetings.
In 1937 they sent three members to London to see the Coronation decorations. The following year it was Edith’s turn to go to London for the WI’s annual general meeting. It was her second visit. This time she travelled with several other women from Shropshire and they stayed at a hotel in the West End. Her diary entry for that day recorded: ‘Arrive at 2:15 after leaving luggage at Cora hotel. Three of us go over the Tower, St Pauls, (All Hallows modern church). Meet others at the Strand Corner House for tea (Lyons) then to Coliseum for show, which we all enjoyed. Then walked down Regent St to see shops lit up and call at milk bar then turn in at 12:30! Wet afternoon. Very wet at Smethcote.’ The following day she attended the meeting. ‘Meeting in Albert Hall is crowded. Lasts all day . . . Some were interesting, others dry,’ she noted about the speakers, adding that she hoped to write an interesting report about the meeting for her institute. Len met her off the 10.15 p.m. train with the pony and trap and brought her back to the farm. ‘So pleased to see him’, she wrote. The following day she was tired. Her entry was brief: ‘Fine generally, wet later. Do not have a busy day.’
Just over a year later the war broke out. Edith’s annual report from 1939 had a quite different flavour: ‘From the beginning of the year until September the Institute seemed to be making steady progress but the outbreak of war and the extra work thrown on members by evacuees in the district has made it difficult to adhere to our programme.’ In her private diary, on 2 September 1939 she wrote: ‘Yeomanry called up for National Service. Len goes off this morning. We feel sad at this vital passing and shall pray for his safe return.’
The war changed the lives of those women. Numbers dwindled at the institute as people found they had too many other responsibilities but Edith was pleased to see that by 1940 new people had moved into the villages from the cities and were delighted to be invited to WI meetings. This gave the institute a new impetus and energy because, as she wrote, these women brought new ideas and introduced fresh blood. She believed that the WI had helped her and others ‘to appreciate people to whom otherwise we wouldn’t have given two thoughts’. When the war came and people had to work together, Smethcote, like other villages, had a ready-made organisation that could be called upon to coordinate whatever response was required.
What was unique about the WI was its extraordinary reach. From early on it existed at three levels: national, county and village. The London-based National Federation of Women’s Institutes had serious lobbying powers and a reputation as a powerful force that was well organised, passionate and clear in its aims. It had already brought about changes in a whole variety of matters from district nurses to railway lavatories, from venereal disease (it submitted a report on this to the Department of Health in 1922) to water pollution on Britain’s beaches. On the other hand the WI had the largest grass-roots membership of any women’s organisation in the country and was bigger, in its total number, than all but the largest of the men’s Trades Unions. In 1939 there were 5,546 Women’s Institutes in England alone, totalling 328,000 members. The middle level, equally active and useful, comprised the Voluntary County Organisers who looked after groups of WIs within their county and were often women who held posts in local government offices or had the ear of council officials. At the outbreak of war the fifty-eight county committees were used by the National Executive to reach the individual institutes with astonishing rapidity. One way and another, the WI reached almost every corner of the countryside.
The WI was, and remains today, independent. It runs its own affairs, finances itself and educates its members at its own college. But it is also well connected: government representatives sit on WI committees and WI representatives sit on government committees. That has been the case since the earliest days and at almost no time in its history was that more relevant than during the Second World War.
The Women’s Institutes set out to cross class barriers as well as those of religion and party. At the outset there was some resistance from the lady of the manor, or, more often, the lord of the manor, but these hurdles were overcome surprisingly quickly and stories abounded of goodwill between women who would not otherwise have spoken to each other, much less joined forces to help one another. One early member wrote:
The institute has brought together in our very rural village women of all classes in true friendships, women who have lived in the same village for many years as total strangers to each other, not perhaps from any unkind or class feeling but from sheer want of opportunity for meeting and making friends. Women who have never ventured out to church or chapel or village entertainment . . . now come eagerly to our meetings, forget their shyness in opening up their minds to new ideas and welcome opportunities for developing their hidden talents.
The WI is democratic. Members vote for their committees in a secret ballot, which has had the result that no single person or faction has been able to manipulate the WI to a minority purpose. It is not a secret society or religious organisation. Church, chapel, atheist or agnostic, anyone can join the WI and be sure her beliefs will not be attacked. Every difference is respected. It is not political, nor is it affiliated to any party. This has been one of its greatest assets. Since party politics play no part in the WI this means the institute can comment without prejudice on government legislation. The WI is the village voice and encourages its members to speak out on decisions that affect their lives. The only qualification for setting up a women’s institute was that a village had to have a population of less than 4,000.
The first Women’s Institute in Britain was formed in the Welsh village of Llanfairpwllgwyngyllgogerychwyrndrobwllllantysiliogogogoch, on the Isle of Anglesey, on Wednesday 16 June 1915, the day that Lloyd George took the oath as Minister of Munitions. Although seen by many as a quintessentially British phenomenon, the WI was started in Canada nearly twenty years before Mrs Stapleton-Cotton became president of the first WI in England and Wales.
So what had inspired Canadian countrywomen to come together and form women-only institutes and what were they for? The answer was education. ‘Not education for education’s sake’ . . . though ‘very beautiful in theory’, asserted Mrs Adelaide Hoodless, the founder of the WI movement in Canada, ‘but when we come down to facts, I venture to say that 90 per cent of those who attend our schools seek education for its practical benefits.’
Mrs Hoodless had married John Hoodless of a prosperous business family in Hamilton, Ontario, in 1881. She bore four children, two boys and two girls. In 1889 their youngest son died at the age of fourteen months, due to an intestinal infection as a result of drinking contaminated milk. Infant and child mortality was prevalent, with up to 20 per cent of babies and infants dying before they reached their fifth birthday, the majority as a result of bacterial infection. Mrs Hoodless appears to have blamed herself for her baby’s death and for the rest of her life she devoted herself tirelessly to promoting ideas about domestic hygiene. She believed that while girls should be educated at school in academic subjects, they also needed to learn the practical skills they would require to run a home and a family when they grew up and married. This, after all, was the future for the overwhelming majority of women of that era.
Domestic science was a new concept to the audiences at Adelaide Hoodless’s lectures given as part of her promotion of the importance of home economics. She defined it as ‘the application of scientific principles to the management of the home. It teaches the value of pure air, proper food, systematic management, economy, care of children, domestic and civil sanitation and the prevention of disease.’ She urged her listeners to consider the importance of respecting domestic occupations and giving value to the education of the woman as a homemaker, concluding: ‘The management of the home has more to do with the moulding of character than any other influence, owing to the large place it fills in the life of the individual during the most plastic stage of development. We are therefore justified in an effort to secure a place for home economics or domestic science in the education institutions of this country.’ Most importantly, she believed in ‘elevating women’s work to the level of a profession and putting it on a par with a man’s work’.1
Her appeal did not fall on deaf ears. At that time in North America women’s issues were beginning to come to the fore. The International Council of Women had been formed in 1888 in the United States, advocating women’s human rights and working across national boundaries. At their first conference in Washington DC in March and April of that year there were eighty speakers and forty-nine delegates, representing women’s organisations from nine countries. Britain was represented by Lady Aberdeen, wife of the Governor General of Canada, who became the council’s president in 1893. At the conference of the Canadian National Council of Women in the same year, Mrs Hoodless succeeded in persuading them to back her campaign to introduce domestic science into the school curriculum.
Her conviction that things would only change if women could bring basic scientific knowledge into their homes convinced her to tackle the issue at the grass roots as well as at the national level. ‘Is it of greater importance that a farmer should know more about the scientific care of his sheep and cattle, than a farmer’s wife should know how to care for her family, or that his barns should have every labour saving contrivance, while she toils and drudges on the same old treadmill instituted by her grandmother, perhaps even carrying water from a spring, a quarter of a mile from the house, which I know has been done?’2 The emphasis on raising the status of women’s work to that of men was a key part of her message.
A speech she gave at a conference of the Farmers’ Institute at the Ontario Agricultural College in Guelph was heard by Mr Erland Lee, secretary of the Farmers’ Institute of Wentworth County. He immediately invited her to speak at their next Ladies night at his institute in Stoney Creek. Some thirty-five farmers’ wives were present at the talk. They received enthusiastically her suggestion that as the men had a Farmers’ Institute so the women should consider having one of their own. The farmers’ wives were so keen that they invited her to return the following week, on 19 February 1897. That night the idea of a women’s institute was born and a week later what became known as the ‘Stoney Creek Women’s Institute’ was called into being and its first meeting was held. Its motto, chosen five years later, became ‘For Home and Country’.
Mrs Hoodless continued to lecture on girls’ education while the movement of women’s institutes grew and flourished throughout Canada. She herself was credited with founding the movement but it was the women who set up the individual institutes who were its champions. They set to work with Mrs Hoodless’s words ringing in their ears: ‘What must be done is to develop to the fullest extent the two great social forces, education and organisation, so as to secure for each individual the highest degree of advancement.’3
Women alone were not responsible for the success of the Women’s Institute movement in Canada any more than they would be in England and Wales two decades later. The movement needed the approval of the male-dominated establishment and it had Mr Erland Lee and members of the Farmers’ Institute and the Canadian Ministry of Agriculture firmly behind it. Both bodies could see the value of motivating and empowering rural women in their plan to improve life in rural villages. They threw their support behind institute initiatives, both at a local and national level, so that by the early years of the twentieth century, just a decade or so after the first meeting at Stoney Creek, there was a pool of speakers, a list of topics for discussion and training colleges for teachers as well as short courses for institute members on cookery, home nursing, food values and sewing. One report concluded with satisfaction: ‘We have learned so much now that if we have typhoid fever or scarlet fever, we do not say “This is the Lord’s will”, but examine drains, sinks, cellars, walls and backyards where we know there may be conditions favourable to the development of these germs. We have learned that the best way to get rid of them is to let the sunshine stream in.’4
More than anything else the Women’s Institutes, of which there were 3,000 in Canada by their twenty-first year, gave women who had lived isolated lives the opportunity to meet together regularly, providing a network of friendship as well as expertise and education, which few had ever experienced in their lives. It was enormously empowering.
Why did it take until 1915 for this movement to catch on in Britain? After all, Norway had independently formed the House Mothers Association in 1898, which spread throughout Scandinavia and had a membership, within two decades, of 70,000. Belgium formed Cercles des Fermières (Circles of Farmers’ Wives) in 1906 and the United Irishwomen were formed in Ireland in 1910. To some extent it was the conservative nature of the British that meant that change came only very slowly. Life in the countryside was shaped by tradition and an unwillingness to exchange the familiar, however imperfect, with the new and unknown. A typical village at the beginning of the twentieth century would have a manor house, inhabited by the squire and his family, who might be resident full time or who might only come down for the hunting. Then there would be the farmers, some owning their own farms, others as tenant farmers but many of very long standing. These families, headed by the men, might have been working the land for many decades, if not centuries. Resistance to change, and in particular to book learning, was strong amongst this group. They had learned from their forebears and from experience. There were no short cuts to be had when it came to farming and managing the land. The main body of the village would comprise farm labourers and their families, who again might have been living in the village and serving the big house for generations. Some villages had a doctor and he, as a man of learning with knowledge of science, was viewed with awe and suspicion in equal measure. The vicar or priest was accorded equal respect. A few villages could boast an artist or two but they were generally on the periphery of village life and not part of the hierarchy.
Rural Britain in the early twentieth century was in decline. In the last thirty years of the nineteenth century in excess of 2 million acres of arable land had been allowed to go out of production. An exodus to the cities in search of an easier way of life had left agriculture a bereft and flagging industry. Many farmers had gone bankrupt and unemployment among agricultural labourers was high. This in turn brought great hardship to their wives, children and other family dependents. Many rural communities were under-populated and impoverished, not just financially but also educationally. Most of the poorest children did not have the opportunity to attend school as they were needed for labour. Often the only education available was at Sunday school. A vicar in Kent described how the children of the poorer part of his parish were taught to read and ‘to be instructed in the plain duties of the Christian religion, with a particular view to their good and industrious behaviour in their future character as labourers and servants’.5 Village life was also riven by class and an attitude amongst the gentry that it was not necessarily wise to educate the servant class in the same way that it would not be sensible to teach a cow her value or a horse its power. Abhorrent as it now seems, this attitude prevailed. Yet there were some people who were determined to make a difference to rural communities in spite of the opposition they met.
The government was sufficiently concerned by the situation in the countryside that it set up the Board of Agriculture in 1889 which brought together all government responsibilities for agricultural matters under one department.
Twelve years later, in 1901, the Agricultural Organisation Society (AOS) was formed. It grew from a voluntary body into an organisation to help to stem the decline in agriculture. The AOS had the specific brief to encourage the formation of local societies of farmers, smallholders and growers who could work cooperatively. Initially the cooperatives concentrated on the supply of fertilisers, mixed feed and seeds; the development of trading came later. The forming of these groups created a structure which had political representation at a high level. England, Wales and Scotland each had branches with chairmen and committees. Its secretary was a man of great determination and vision, who would play a role in the setting up of the Women’s Institute. His name was John Nugent Harris, but on the eve of the First World War he was still dealing with the resuscitation of a depressed agro-economy.