History of the WI in Suffolk

History of Suffolk West Federation 1920-2010

In the final year of the Great War the young Institute Movement brought the spirit of adventure and the stimulus of novelty to the women of rural West Suffolk. Shared sorrow had begun to break down the barriers imposed which in the past had divided villages into rigid groups. Thus the way was partly prepared for the formation of societies in which all members had equal opportunity to govern themselves and to develop their natural abilities. When organisers from the National Federation (formed in 1915) with the help of local enthusiasts explained the aims and ideals of Institutes women were eager to listen. Opposition from those who formerly, had taken the lead in village undertakings only served to encourage membership. By the end of 1918 there were 17 Institutes in West Suffolk. Many people ask how it is that Institutes were formed before the County Federation came into being. In the same way that an Institute has to have twenty-five potential members before it can be formed, so County Federations had to have 25 WI's in their county before they could be formed. By 1920 there were 27 WI's and the West Suffolk Federation was formed. It is thought the formation meeting was held in the Council Room at the Shire Hall, Bury St Edmunds, and the first Council Meeting took place soon after in the Crown Court, the main Officers being Lady Bristol (President), Mrs. Majendie (Chairman) and Mrs. Hitchcock (Hon. Secretary), and two devoted Treasurers-Eva and Jocelyn Dunlop. The office was first located in a member's house near the Angel Hill. In 1927 it was moved to 11 Cornhill and a part-time professional Secretary, Mrs. Shann, was appointed in 1923. In 1925, Miss E. Dunn took over the post and became the valued adviser of every member who sought her aid until she retired in 1955, when she was awarded the M.B.E.

Over the years steady progress had been made. Standards improved in handicraft, drama, music and home skills. At the same time there was continual concern for the preservation of the countryside and for the provision of amenities in rural houses. Two noteworthy events were the Tudor Fair staged in the Abbey Gardens in 1924, when a profit of £300 was made, and the Ickworth Fete in 1938, where Institute Banners were displayed for the first time and a profit of £250 was made. It is interesting to read through reports of Institute meetings in the 'twenties' and apparently, 'Jerusalem' was always sung at the end of a meeting and not at the beginning. Subscriptions were two shillings and in 1928 the 'pooling of fares' scheme was introduced which would help anyone attending the Annual General Meeting. Suggestions were made of either an additional payment of five shillings per Institute or eight shillings if sending a delegate. Alternatively, every member could pay an extra twopence; it was finally decided in favour of the 'five shilling scheme' as the extra twopence would make the annual sub loom so much larger. How times have changed!! But in some respects we do still have this wrangling!!

On 17 March 1926 the first weekly Market Stall of market produce, in connection with the Women's Institutes was introduced in the Butter Market, Bury and this attracted considerable attention. During the thirties the movement grew and consolidated in West Suffolk. Founded in the First World War with the express purpose of increasing food production and preservation, we returned in 1939 to the same work. Lectures and demonstrations were given throughout the county and market stalls were set up to deal with local produce. The scheme for extra rations for Farm Workers was first instigated and carried out by West Suffolk WI, in one season working with the W.V.S. over 100,000 pies were made and distributed. In 1942 the WI Office at 11 Cornhill became the Herb Collecting Centre for West Suffolk and over 15 tons of horse chestnuts and 4 tons of rose hips were dispatched, and perhaps most spectacularly 100 tons of jam and canning of 7,000 tins of fruit and vegetables in 270 Fruit Preservation Centres. Handicrafts gave way to make-do-and mend, and many thousands of pounds of wool was knitted into forces' and refugees' comforts. But always together with this went the morale-boosting of the normal activities, and working towards a better post-war future, and matters affecting women were not forgotten. In 1943, it was a West Suffolk delegate who proposed at the Albert Hall a resolution which was carried: "That women should receive equal pay for equal work."

Through the outstanding generosity of Mrs. Hyde-Smith, Mrs. Bond and many others, the County Federation was able in 1947 to buy 19 Whiting Street, Bury St Edmunds, which, after restoration was opened by Lady Albemarle (Chairman of the National Federation) in July 1948. After the war we saw a large increase in membership and many new Institutes were formed. In 1950 there was a Rally in Ickworth Park with hundreds of visitors. 1951 was Festival of Britain Year, marked by a three-day exhibition at the Athenaeum, and in 1953 a Festival of Pageant, Plays and Flowers in the Abbey Gardens for Queen Elizabeth II's Coronation, with over 5,000 people attending. Over 50 large cartons of preserves and tinned food were packed at 19 Whiting Street and sent to the East Coast areas stricken by floods in that year also. Other interests were emerging too, folks were taking part in plays, art exhibitions, singing and an interest in sport was beginning to come to the fore. But coupled with all of this our members were very conscious of their duties as citizens and always energetically working for improvements of rural conditions. Many members were taking part in local government issues and in 1967 a Public Questions sub-committee was formed, the fore-runner of the present Public Affairs Sub-committee. 1970, Golden Jubilee Year, was a year packed with 'Occasions' from dinners to suppers, dramatic and musical events to producing exhibits in two competitions.

With a load of increasing work in the office it was decided to appoint an Assistant Secretary in 1973, and in 1974 we ceased to be the West Suffolk Federation and became Suffolk West when the new Suffolk County Council came into being. This year too saw the first of our WI calendars which have proved so popular with both members and non-members. 1976 saw the launching of our WI Newspaper which has proved such a valuable means of communication to all our members. As each milestone in our Federation history is reached we add something to reflect our current concerns and achievements and thus at our 85th Anniversary we looked back five or ten years to examine the direction the WI movement has taken.

In the last few years we have both nationally and in Suffolk West given serious thought to the aims and objectives we espouse. Our constitution was reviewed and re-vitalised to fit a modern world while losing none of the core values we uphold. This was done in a characteristically democratic way involving the membership at grass roots level throughout the process. We have worked also on, what it became clear, was a largely out of date image in the public perception of our organisation, the well-publicised 'Jam and Jerusalem' label. Just as this was underway, 'The Calendar Girls' real-life story, revealed to the world at large just what energy and enterprise, practical talent and loving friendship, flowed through the WI. It was a unique opportunity and spirited members of Suffolk West were quick to fill the Odeon Cinema in Bury St Edmunds at the film's first showing. Promotion at the release of the subsequent video found us with a real live naked calendar girl, though not a WI Member, in the window of a town centre store! Events and outings now leave a previously rather staid image far behind, as we have taken to the skies in gliders fired crossbows at targets and generally striven to extend the scope of women's lives in our area. Travel to far flung places has become of great interest and WI members have explored metropolitan New York, marvelled at Niagara Falls and watched whales off the Alaskan coast. All new and memorable experiences enhancing the lives of our members.  So much so that having spread their wings with confidence it has actually become harder to fill places on what were once over subscribed trips!

Educationally we have not been complacent and were quick to take up the challenges of the computer age.  Embracing the I.T. revolution in the training field recently, we have tackled the modular support offered by NFWI in the form of the 'Moodle'.  Our power point projector, secured thanks to The Cooperative Bank, has been active at officer training sessions and Suffolk West pioneered a 'WI Adviser in training day' that may well become standard practice nationally.  This follows our pioneering WI modular degree in Individual Studies in partnership with Suffolk East and Suffolk College Ipswich.  Seven Suffolk West members graduated in 2006 following two previous path finders and some excellent pieces of their work have already been reproduced in academic journals, without a doubt a wonderful achievement for all concerned. We have enjoyed two tastes of the study of Forensic Science at the University of East Anglia and contributed to a European study collated through Newnham College, Cambridge.  Our proximity to Cambridge University has recently secured us two excellent speakers, one on 'Women in Islam' and one on 'Darwin', whose calibre raised the spirits of all who attended and quickly inspired a memorable visit to the East London Mosque and the enormous Hindu 'Mandir' at Neasden.

In recent years the sophistication of campaign lobbying has significantly increased and Suffolk West has played a part in exerting influence at Westminster and in Europe, guided by the NFWI Public Affairs team.  We formed a focus group for the 90@90 Defra funded report published nationally, helped run an all-night cafe at the 'Make Poverty History' vigil and highlighted climate change at a rally in Trafalgar Square.  Our then Chairman featured proudly that day on the front page of 'The Independent' alongside a pop-group icon.  We have demonstrated on excess packaging, staged 'Compost Workshops', helped tutor cookery sessions at a local Primary school and attended several NFWI conferences stimulating us to reduce our carbon footprints.  Three of our most active members were rewarded for their efforts with a trip to Paris on the first carbon neutral Eurostar from St Pancras.  Now we are facing up to climate change issues again in the first year of the WI/Oxfam/Everyone Foundation three year programme 'Women Reaching Women'.  We have been represented on 'The Wave' march through London prior to the Copenhagen Global Warming Summit and intend to join the 'Million Women Rise' due to take place in March of this year.  Though concern about the environment is high on the agenda, this is not new, having a strong interest from the earliest days of the Federation.  Suffolk West has added several resolutions to the national mandates over the years, on domestic violence and the law of provocation and on Antarctica to name but two.  Our contribution to the 'Great Milk Debate' with a guest appearance from Shula the calf, brought grateful thanks from local dairy farmers who benefitted from the publicity.  We also involved a seminar and a frisky publicity shoot on Dunwich beach with a towel only just large enough!  The resultant feedback confirmed that a number of people discovered treatable conditions thanks to this raising of awareness.  These experiences have had practical results in shaping both Government policy and the pattern of people's lives.  The exchange of information on such topics through WI channels is valued by all our members through the Federation as it always has been.  We have used our local media, including BBC Radio Suffolk broadcasts to explain many of our Federation activities, that in itself being a relatively new departure for our representatives.

Concern about the environment is high on the agenda, though this is not new, having been a strong interest from the earliest days of the Federation.  Suffolk West has added several resolutions to the national mandates over the years, on domestic violence and the law of provocation and on Antarctica to name but two.

In recent years the Landscape Recording Project begun to celebrate the Millennium, has drawn much praise and as re-surveys build up we hope for a lasting record of our county of which we can be proud.  Recently we have revisited the issue of domestic violence working on the 'End Violence Against Women' coalition campaign.  We secured meetings with all three MPs in our area and continue to contribute to the current joint Home Office/National Commission for Women consultations.  One Federation member with experience of the issues has bravely undertaken some high profile interviews and been the subject of an article in the 'Guardian'.

Culturally we have endeavoured to nourish talents in music, drama and arts and seen increasing enthusiasm for craft workshops.  Competitions have brought ingenuity and creativity that is admirable and lately something of a surge in the number of entries.

Under the auspices of ACWW we have completed the funding of several projects.  A kitchen/craft training in St Lucia and the Grenadines, a piggery project in Zambia and a water project in Uganda and in Cameroon and in India funding for an income generating project involving the women from the poorest untouchable caste, who were supplied with buffaloes and goats.  This has been followed by a large and similar scheme in the province of Tamil Nadu involving cows.  Throughout the generosity of our membership has been quite remarkable.  For two years there has also been an overwhelming response to an appeal for 'Comforts for the Troops' and the recent appreciative feedback from soldiers in Afghanistan has been very touching.

We are now established at our headquarters at Fornham St Genevieve, enjoying ample parking and relishing the peaceful surroundings without the worry of maintaining a listed building in the age of the credit crunch, though the reduced investment income is, of course, a strain for all charities.  We must, however, adapt and change to meet essential needs.  We are proud to have maintained our membership figures and received a prize from NFWI for opening new Institutes.  It has been gratifying of late to be approached to open in new districts and to forge links with other groups of young people.  We have begun to see some younger members volunteering to take on roles in their committees.

We hope to develop the vision and strategy necessary to meet future needs and live up to our honourable WI heritage.  A heritage of which we the current members can be justly proud in this 90th year of the Suffolk West Federation.