Women's Institutes

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The Women's Institute (WI), a community-based organisation for women, was founded in Stoney Creek, Ontario, Canada, by Adelaide Hoodless in 1897. It was based on the British concept of Women's Guilds, created by Rev Archibald Charteris in 1887 and originally confined to the Church of Scotland.[1] It later spread to other countries. Many WIs belong to the Associated Country Women of the World organization.


Women's Institute building in Llanfairpwll. Dating from 1915, this is the oldest WI in Britain

The WI movement began at Stoney Creek, Ontario in Canada in 1897 when Adelaide Hoodless addressed a meeting for the wives of members of the Farmers' Institute. WIs quickly spread throughout Ontario and Canada, with 130 branches launched by 1905 in Ontario alone, and the groups flourish in their home province today. As of 2013, the Federated Women's Institutes of Ontario (FWIO) had more than 300 branches with more than 4,500 members.[2]

Madge Watt, a founder member of the first WI in British Colombia, organised the first WI meeting in Great Britain, which took place on 16 September 1915 at Llanfairpwll on Anglesey in Wales.[3] It had two clear aims: to revitalise rural communities and to encourage women to become more involved in producing food during the First World War. Since then the organisation's aims have broadened and it is now the largest women's voluntary organisation in the UK.[citation needed] The organisation celebrated its 100th anniversary in 2015 and currently has approximately 220,000 members in 6,300 WIs.[4] Today it plays a unique role in enabling women to gain new skills, take part in wide-ranging activities, and campaign on issues that matter to them and their communities. The WI is a diverse organisation open to all women, and there are now WIs in towns and cities as well as villages.

Former Buttonville Women's Institute Hall in Markham, Ontario, Canada. The WI closed in the 1980s, and the hall is now used as a daycare and a community centre.

Women's Institutes were formed in Scotland and Northern Ireland independently of those in England and Wales. The first Women's Rural Institute started in Scotland on 26 June 1917, and Madge Watt travelled up from London to speak to a meeting at Longniddry.[citation needed] After the end of the Great War, Watt returned to Canada where she continued as an activist for the interests of rural women. In 1930 she founded the Associated Country Women of the World (ACWW).[5]

After the end of the First World War, the Board of Agriculture withdrew its sponsorship, although the Development Commission financially supported the work of the forming of new WIs and gave core funding to the NFWI until it could become financially independent. By 1926 the Women's Institutes were fully independent and rapidly became an essential part of rural life.

One of their features was an independence from political parties or institutions, or church or chapel, which encouraged activism by non-establishment women, which helps to explain why the WI has been extremely reluctant to support anything that can be construed as war work, despite their wartime formation. During the Second World War, they limited their contribution to such activities as looking after evacuees, and running the Government-sponsored Preservation Centres where volunteers canned or made jam of excess produce. All this produce was sent to depots to be added to the rations.

The WI aims to provide women with educational opportunities and the chance to build new skills, enabling them to take part in a wide variety of activities, campaigning on issues that matter to them and their communities.

Women's Institutes in England, Wales, Jersey, Guernsey and the Isle of Man are affiliated with the National Federation of Women's Institutes. In Scotland and Northern Ireland there are similar organisations tied to the WI through the Associated Country Women of the World: the Scottish Women's Rural Institutes and the Women's Institutes of Northern Ireland.

United Kingdom[edit]

Structure and membership[edit]

The national headquarters of the WI in England, Wales, the Channel Islands and the Isle of Man – the National Federation of Women's Institutes (NFWI) – is in London. There is also an office in Cardiff, NFWI-Wales, and a residential college in Oxfordshire, Denman College. WI Enterprises is the trading arm of the organisation and exists to raise funds and provide benefits for members. In 2010, there were approximately 205,000 members of 6,500 Women's Institutes in England, Wales and the islands, linked through the Associated Country Women of the World to other WIs worldwide (in almost a century, Colonel Richard Stapleton-Cotton and his dog Tinker are the only two males ever to be accepted as fully paid-up WI members).[6]


In 1948, NFWI bought Marcham Park in Berkshire and converted it into a short-stay residential adult education college, named Denman College[7] in honour of Lady Gertrude Denman. Now referred to as Denman, it has grown and developed over the years and is a well-appointed adult education centre attended by approximately 6,000 students each year. It is open to non-members as well as members.

The WI Cookery School at Denman offers a range of over 100 day schools, residential courses and family courses. The courses are tutored by specialists.

WI Life[edit]

Women's Institute serving refreshments at a Saint George's Day event in Rochester, Kent

The NFWI produces a membership magazine, WI Life. Published eight times a year, WI Life is delivered (as of 2017) to more than 220,000 WI members.[8]

In 2007, Neal Maidment became the first male editor in the history of WI magazines, which dates back to 1919.


During the 1920s, many WIs started choirs and NFWI set up a music committee. W.H. Leslie, an amateur musician from Llansantffraid, Shropshire, acted as an advisor,[9] and held a one-day school for village conductors in London in early 1924. He asked his friend Sir Walford Davies to write an arrangement of Hubert Parry's setting of "Jerusalem", for WI choirs. This hymn, with its association with the fight for women's suffrage, was considered appropriate for the emerging WI movement which was encouraging women to take their part in public life, and to improve the conditions of rural life. Leslie suggested that Walford Davies' special arrangement for choir and string orchestra should be performed at the Annual General Meeting of NFWI held in the Queen's Hall, London in 1924. He conducted the singing, bringing a choir from local WIs with him to lead.

This was so successful that it continues to be sung at the opening of NFWI AGMs, and many WIs open meetings by singing "Jerusalem", although it has never been adopted as the WI's official anthem.

As part of the 95th anniversary celebration, a "modern" version of "Jerusalem" was recorded by The Harmonies, selected from entrants from the "WI Search for a Star" competition. It was released in 2010 as part of the album Voices of the W.I.


1941: Members of Meifod WI busy "jamming" under the Ministry of Food fruit preserving scheme, including Miss A. Roberts, Mrs E. Morgan (Secretary), Mrs G. Jones (Treasurer), Mrs G. Pickstock, Mrs Dupuis, Miss D. Jones, Mrs Smith, Mrs Gittings, and Mrs J. Pickstock.

Home-prepared foods continue to be a staple for the institute. Country Markets Limited is now independent of the WI but its markets were formerly known as "WI Markets" and it was previously part of the NFWI.[citation needed]


The archives of the National Federation of Women's Institutes are held at The Women's Library at the Library of the London School of Economics.[10] The WI's archives are open to the public.


A WI produce stall in Cirencester

Every individual WI meets at least once a month and there is usually a speaker, demonstration or activity at every meeting for members to learn and develop a range of different skills.

Craft has always played an important role in the WI and thousands of members are involved in a range of different crafts.

The Women's Institute is often associated with food, cooking and healthy eating, and food and cooking form an important part of the WI's history.

See also[edit]

  • Calendar Girls – 2003 film based on a nude calendar produced by the Rylstone WI
  • The Girls – 2015 musical based on the above film
  • Jam & Jerusalem – a 2006 British television sitcom centred around a local WI, though referenced as a Women's Guild. It is known as Clatterford in the US after the fictional West Country town where it takes place.
  • Home Fires – a 2015 British television series about a Cheshire WI during World War II
  • National Memorial Arboretum – home to a drystone wall, incorporating two seating areas, dedicated to the WI
  • The Associated Country Women of the World (ACWW) – the largest international organization for both rural and urban women, of which the English and Welsh WIs are part
  • Scottish Women's Institutes, formerly Scottish Women's Rural Institutes, the Scottish equivalent


As of 28 February 2011, this article is derived in whole or in part from thewi.org.uk. The copyright holder has licensed the content in a manner that permits reuse under CC BY-SA 3.0 and GFDL. All relevant terms must be followed. The original text was at "History".

  1. ^ "Guild". Skene Parish Church of Scotland. Retrieved 19 October 2017.
  2. ^ "Archived copy". Archived from the original on 2014-07-01. Retrieved 2015-04-13.
  3. ^ [1] www.thewi.org.uk, retrieved 12 March 2014
  4. ^ [2] www.thewi.org.uk, retrieved 13 December 2018
  5. ^ "A Great Rural Sisterhood: Madge Robertson Watt and the ACWW" https://utorontopress.com/us/a-great-rural-sisterhood-4, Retrieved 13 December 2018
  6. ^ Prior, Neil (24 February 2014). "WI started in Wales during Great War". Retrieved 19 October 2017 – via www.bbc.com.
  7. ^ "Welcome to Denman". www.denman.org.uk. Retrieved 19 October 2017.
  8. ^ "Reports and Analysis – ABC – Audit Bureau of Circulations". www.abc.org.uk. Retrieved 19 October 2017.
  9. ^ [3] www.thewi.org.uk, retrieved 1 September 2014
  10. ^ "CalmView: Overview". twl-calm.library.lse.ac.uk. Retrieved 19 October 2017.


  • Andrews, Maggie – The Acceptable Face of Feminism, the Women's Institute as a social movement – Lawrence and Wishart 1997
  • Connell, Linda and Stamper, Anne – Textile Treasures of the WI – NNA 2007
  • Davies Constance – A Grain of Mustard Seed – Gee and Son Denbigh, 2nd Ed. 1989
  • Dudgeon, Piers – Village Voices, a portrait of change in England's Green and Pleasant Land Sidgwick and Jackson 1989
  • Garner, Gwen – Extra Ordinary Women – WI Books 1995
  • Goodenough, Simon – Jam and Jerusalem – Collins 1977 (ISBN 0 00 411807 3)
  • Huxley, Gervas – Lady Denman G.B.E. – Chatto and Windus 1961
  • Jenkins, Inez – The History of the Women's Institute Movement of England and Wales – OUP 1953
  • McCall, Cicely – Women's Institutes – the Britain in Pictures series – Collins 1943
  • Robertson Scott, J. W. – The Story of the Women's Institute Movement in England and Wales and Scotland – The Village Press – 1925
  • Robinson, JaneA Force to be Reckoned With: A History of the Women's Institute – Virago 2011 (ISBN 9781844086597)
  • Stamper, Anne – Rooms off the Corridor, Education in the WI and 50 years of Denman College – WI Books 1998

External links[edit]