The Women’s Institute’s first role was to increase food production for a war-torn nation but it soon found its voice on substantial issues. Helen Morgan from Abergavenny Local History Society reports
When the first WI meeting in the UK was held in Llanfairpwll on Anglesey, on 16 September 1915, the aim was to revitalise this rural community and encourage women to socialise while learning to make jam and pickles. At that time nowhere existed for women to meet other women, especially in villages where life was dictated by the chapel, church or politics — all dominated by men. Since then the WI’s aims have broadened but its focus on sharing skills and uniting women from isolated areas remains.
Originally founded in Canada in 1897, it offered training in home economics, childcare and farmwork such as keeping bees and poultry. Having landed in Wales in 1915 it spread across Britain. But women in Monmouthshire were already giving their all to the war effort so it did not take off here until after the Armistice. Llantilio Crossenny was the first in the county to found a WI, followed swiftly by Llantilio Pertholey in 1919. On March 27, a meeting took place at 2.30pm at Tŷ Gwyn Hall, Mardy, which was then a Women’s Land Army Hostel. Twenty-seven war-weary women enrolled and a committee was elected. By this time, anything offering relaxation was welcome. More poignantly, women who had taken on serious responsibilities during the war were reluctant to revert to being seen and not heard. Women of property over the age of 30 now had the right to vote. They meant to make their voices heard, to promote education for women and use the WI as their soap box.
So far it was plenty of Jam but still no Jerusalem. William Blake’s poem, set to music by Sir Hubert Parry, did not become the WI song until 1924. A competition for an ‘Institute Song’, had been held and many poems were sent in but nothing suitable was found. Then Grace Hadow, the Vice-President, recalled that Jerusalem had been used by the National Union of Suffrage Societies in the 1918 celebrations of women’s enfranchisement. Hence the Jam and Jerusalem epithet that we know today.
Women and the Great War is the subject of Deirdre Beddoe’s talk in the Borough Theatre on September 10. Doors open at 7pm.