Monday, 7 September 2015

From WW1 to WI

To lighten the gloom of all my sad centenary blogging about battles come the celebrations this month marking 100 years of Women’s Institutes. No surprise to learn that the WI movement had its origins – in Britain at least – in the aim of encouraging women to become more involved in producing food during the First World War, as suggested by the above wartime poster.

So those grim years of the 1914-18 conflict saw a remarkable growth of the movement. The end of 1916 saw 40 WIs across the UK; by December 1919  there were a total of 1,405 branches.

Today, the WI nationally has over 212,000 members in just over 6,600 branches.  It is the largest voluntary women’s organisation in the UK.  

I hadn’t realised that the WI actually started in Canada as early as 1897, so this seems the right place for a second wartime poster published by the Canada Food Board

There’s a lot more that I hadn’t realised about Women’s Institutes. Betty Hebditch, secretary of East Budleigh with Bicton WI, is keen to tell us about the history of her branch, one of the oldest in Devon having started in 1919. It’s putting on an exhibition at the Salem Chapel in East Budleigh, from Friday 11 to Sunday 13 September.

A 1965 Group of the Clinton (Budleigh Salterton) Women's Institute taken in the back garden of Cramalt Lodge, the home of Fairlynch Museum President Joy Gawne

Betty just happens to be a volunteer at Fairlynch, so she’s been ideally placed to rummage through the museum archives and gather memorabilia and artefacts, including rarely seen photos.  The East Budleigh with Bicton WI branch is one of the last locally, the Clinton (Budleigh Salterton) branch having disbanded in 2005.

The first Budleigh Salterton WI met in the afternoon, the second  – Clinton WI – met in the evenings.  The afternoon one closed first and some members moved to Clinton WI.  When that closed in 2005 some members moved to East Budleigh with Bicton.

Budleigh Salterton WI Christmas Sale craft table, circa 1956.  Left to right: Betty Daniel, Elsie Webber, Ruth Roots, Cecil ‘Moppy’ Elgee.

Betty tells me that at least half the members of her branch live in Budleigh Salterton. Notable past members include thespian Vivienne Furze and former Otterton resident Clare Milne, daughter of Christopher Robin Milne and granddaughter of the author A.A. Milne. 

Among other good causes, Betty’s branch supports the Clare Milne charitable trust, set up in 2002 to use the funds from Clare's grandfather's books: grants of between £1,000 and £25,000 are available for disability projects in the South West. For details see

The Salem Chapel will be open during the three-day exhibition from noon until 4.00 pm. Entry by donation.


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