Not Just Jam and Jerusalem: Pershore Women’s Institute
Professor Maggie Andrews, University of Worcester
The greatest legacy of the First World War for rural woman was the Women’s Institute Movement in Britain.
The WI was originally founded in 1897 Canada and it was a Canadian Mrs Alfred Watt who promoted the organisation supported by the Board of Agriculture, with the aim of improving the nation’s food supplies. For as it was noted:
Probably there is no woman who leads a more cramped, unattractive life than the countrywoman. In most villages there are no amusements, no interests, nothing outside the little home and the garden. But the countrywoman has become a very valuable asset to the nation. But for her, in many villages throughout the country, there would be no one to care for the gardens and allotments (Coventry Evening Standard 11 August 1917).
During the conflict, the WI endeavored to assist those with cottage gardens, allotments, market gardens and farms to grow more food and in order to prevent waste – to either preserve this food or sell their excess to other housewives through WI stalls. Women were encouraged to work on the land, run pig and rabbit clubs, collect herbs, set-up toy making and other rural industries organise soup kitchens and cookery demonstrations.
Mrs Watt started the first Institutes in Wales and in Sussex in 1915 and the following year visited Worcestershire, where her ideas were favorably received by a number of forceful, confident and often titled women. One of these was Lady Isabel Margesson of Barnt Green, where the first WI in the county was founded. Lady Isabel and her daughter, Catherine, like a number of initial WI enthusiasts, had been suffragettes; indeed, Isabel chaired a meeting in Glasgow in September 1914 at which Mrs Pankhurst had been arrested amidst ‘an outrage’, which bordered on a riot. By 1916, Isabel and Catherine were busy organising women to work on the land or in rural industries and to develop good parenting skills, and correctly saw the WI as aligned to these causes. In November of 1916, Mrs Watt was invited to Pershore to set up what is now the oldest WI in Worcestershire; she spoke enthusiastically to a crowded room of:
the aims and objectives of Women’s Institutes, which she said were to study domestic economy, provide a centre for educational and social intercourse encourage home and local industry, develop co-operative enterprises, and stimulate interest in the agricultural industry (Worcester Herald Saturday, 25 November 1916).
The women who attended the very first meeting of Pershore WI were from a range of social backgrounds. Their ages varied, the majority were married, some widowed and others were single. Mrs Ferris’s husband was a market gardener’s labourer, whilst Mrs Gregory was married to a night watchman; Miss Roberts had retired from a life in domestic service and Mrs Russell was a charwoman. Predictably the role of Honorary President fell to a representative of the landed aristocracy: Virginia, Viscountess Deerhurst, who lived at Pirton Court and was wife to Lord Coventry’s eldest son and heir and chair of the County Agricultural Committee. The first members of the Pershore WI committee came from the more middling, professional classes in the town. They included the wives of two doctors, a vet, the vicar and some of the wealthier fruit farmers. Many were already involved in civic and voluntary organisations in the town. The President, Mrs Rusher, lived with her doctor husband in a substantial house called The Paddocks on Worcester Street, whilst the role of Treasurer was allocated to the vet’s wife, Mrs Jenny Rae Lees, who lived on Bridge Street. Committee member Mrs Phillips was the vicar’s wife and had for many years been a nurse at the Cottage Hospital. Mrs Edith Hooper, Branch Secretary, was married to Geoffrey Hooper a successful market gardener whose business and community connections were numerous, including membership of the Pershore Abbey Restoration Committee prior to the war. Edith was herself involved with a number of charities including the Soldiers, Sailors and Families Association (SSAFA), which looked after the welfare of wives and families of those in the services. There were also women of more modest means on the committee such as Mrs Rosa Janet Edwards, wife of a Post Office clerk, or Miss Gertrude Anne Chick, a 39 year-old spinster, who lived in Wisteria Cottage on Bridge Street and earned her living as a dressmaker.
The drive to increase food production led Pershore WI to form pig and rabbit clubs, grow herbs, procure copies of potato recipes and arrange cookery demonstrations in Pershore and surrounding villages including Wyre, Wick and Defford in 1918. Miss Roberts, a retired domestic servant and WI member, served on the local Food Control Committee and the WI also worked with the Women’s War Agricultural Committee to provide housewives with jars for making jam, seed potatoes and seeds to grow vegetables. Pershore WI also encouraged women to take up rural industries and crafts; organising demonstrations, instruction and competitions in: basket-making, hat trimming, needlework and co-operative boot mending which both instruction and tools and leather being procured for women to use. The money housewives saved mending the family footwear convinced many husbands that much was to be gained by their wives becoming members of the WI. Their craft activities were also used to support men at the front: women sewed and sent keepsakes and the WI obtained wool to knit garments and fabric to make shirts for men in the Worcestershire Regiment.
For many housewives the support, advice and help of the Women’s Institute was very welcome; little wonder that this organisation, not only survived but thrived in the post-war era providing a social hub and activities for women, particularly when the WI’s own hall opened in Priest Lane in October 1921.
Image: Pershore Women’s Institute at the Opening of their Hall in October 1921, by kind permission of Pershore Women’s Institute.