Wiltshire Women's Institutes

on Thursday, 24 March 2016. Posted in Archives, Wiltshire People

"We leave the theoretical Utopias to others and concentrate on the down-to-earth ways in which ordinary lives can be improved" Pat Jacob, National Chairman in ‘Jam and Jerusalem’ by Simon Goodenough, 1977.

The Women’s Institute is probably the largest and most widely known women’s organisation. Over the years it has not only survived, but thrived. 

The first WI was formed in 1897 at Stoney Creek, Ontario, Canada by Mrs Adelaide Hoodless. A suggestion that women could form their own group was put forward at a Young Farmer’s Institute and the following week over 100 women attended. Adelaide Hoodless had suffered the loss of a baby from contaminated milk, and, recognising this, she was determined to prevent others suffering similar losses through a lack of education. She went on to be involved with founding Domestic Science courses for girls, as well as holding positions of president of the national YWCA and treasurer of the National Council of Women of Canada.

It wasn’t until 1915 that the WI came to Britain when the first group was formed at Llanfair in Wales by Mrs Watt. Mrs Watt had been a member of the Canadian WI, one of only four women on a committee to advise the Department of Agriculture in British Columbia and promoted the Women’s Institute movement following its official recognition in 1911. Upon the death of her husband in 1913 she moved to Britain and set about encouraging the movement here.

The Wiltshire federation came into being in 1919 following the establishment of six WI’s. Founded in September 1916, Redlynch and District WI is the oldest in Wiltshire and probably the second oldest in the country. There are currently over 4000 members in 125 WIs across the county and here at the History Centre we hold an array of archive material from many of them.

One of the most interesting aspects of many of the WI collections are the scrap books, which showcase local life, are often a work of art in their own right. Bradenstoke WI scrapbook highlights some of their achievements as well as hiding unexpected gems such as the beautiful examples of a 19th century lace collar and lace neck tie below.


WI scrapbook of the history of Bradenstoke with Clack, ref 2626/1

Example of 19th century lace work ref 2626/1
Example of 19th century lace neck tie, ref 2626/1

Winterslow WI scrapbook won first prize in the county competition of 1957, and as the article in the Salisbury Times in May 1958 reveals, the book was also displayed as part of an exhibition of Women’s Institute’s scrapbooks at Salisbury Guildhall.


Winterslow WI scrapbook, ref 4276/1BW
Salisbury Times, May 30th 1958
The Edington scrapbook features an embroidered cover and includes notable local events such as the filming of a whooper swan by television naturalist, Oliver Kite.
Edington WI scrapbook, ref 4074/3
Filming swans, Edington scrapbook, ref 4074/3
This West Lavington scrap book features another embroidered cover and includes the invitation to Buckingham Palace for Miss Florence Holliday as representative of the Women's Institute for the Golden Jubilee.
Another major component of the collections are the various minute and record books. The first record and committee minute book for Redlynch WI includes notes on a lecture on poultry keeping and egg production. It names all the committee members and of course, most importantly, established the provision of tea for meetings (ref 3894/1/1).

It is through sources like these record books that we know that between 1941 and 1945 the Redlynch WI made 2,492 Ibs of jam and chutney. We also know that local school children collected fruit for this purpose – in the Redlynch school log book entry for October 15th 1941 the head-teacher tell us that ‘we have all been out collecting hips to be taken to the Women’s Institute. 27 pounds have been picked.’ And on October 17th ‘the children took forty pounds of hips to the Women’s Institute’.

There are plenty of other interesting sources within the WI collections including a published survey into the amenities and public services in rural areas, criteria for show competition judging, and a booklet of ideas for the ‘social half hour’ including games such as jumbled vegetable names, guessing herbs by their smell and guessing white powders (!)

Finally - two very different recruitment adverts!

Redlynch WI recruitment 1915-1924, ref 3894/2/2
Avebury WI, currently uncatalogued within collection ref 2510A
Naomi Sackett, Community History Advisor


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