IT’S A good quiz question: where was the first Women’s Institute? Answer: in Canada at Stoney Creek, Ontario, in 1897. It took some while to come to Britain, but eventually a branch was opened, at Llanfairpwllgwyngyll on the Isle of Anglesey, in 1915. Two years later Hampshire got its first institute, at Sparsholt, near Winchester.

The movement took off locally and by 1918, there was a Hampshire Federation with15 institutes throughout the county. Now headquartered at Eastleigh, it has more than 200 institutes, with over 8,000 members.

From the beginning, the aim was to improve the lives of women in rural communities, but more than that, within a couple of years the movement was seized upon by the Board of Agriculture to increase food production during WWI. In fruit-growing areas special supplies of sugar were provided to make jam for the whole country. Surplus fruit and vegetables were canned and bottled.

At Sparsholt at the time, local landowner Samuel Bostock, who owned nearby Lainston House, let 20 rods (about 600 square yards) of land for a peppercorn rent to the WI - it became known as the “Patriotic Potato Patch.”

Meat pies were made to feed the country and clothing was knitted for the armed forces and the Land Girls of the Women’s Land Army. During the WWII similar schemes were run and WIs also managed evacuees from towns and cities. The full story is told by Julie Summers in Jambusters, the book that spawned two successful TV series.

In Liss during the last war the WI arranged social meetings for soldiers in nearby camps at Longmoor and Bordon and gathered rose hips for extra vitamins. In one year alone, 1942, it made 1,112 lbs of jam.

The WI is, of course, about much more than jam and food production. Its Hampshire archivist, Marilyn Roberts, comments: “For many of the WI’s founders and earliest members, the suffrage campaign was truly the beginning. Many of the founding members of the WI were also the leading lights of the suffrage movement. The WI took a democratic and co-ordinated approach to organizing and mobilising women.

“The WI founders understood that if women learnt how to chair meetings, work on committees, and build their confidence by speaking in public, these skills would equip them for a changing world and stand them in good stead for participating in other areas of public life.”

Amongst major issues, the WI’s Water and Sanitation Survey of 1944 challenged authorities by showing how poor basic facilities were in villages, where 75 per cent of households had no piped water and almost all no mains drainage. Evacuees often noticed how primitive conditions were compared to towns!

In 1954 it was ahead of the National Keep Britain Tidy with a variety of schemes for protecting the environment. And it has not shirked difficult issues such as the provision of help for drug addicts, safe working spaces for street prostitutes and provision of disabled public toilets.

For more than a century the WI has accumulated a valuable source of information for social historians. Its correspondence, photographs, village books, scrapbooks, and the like document the changing lives of women from a time when they lacked a vote, or much of a say in society, to the important role they played in wartime and their present position in society.

Aided by a grant from Hampshire Archives Trust, the Hampshire Records Office has recently catalogued the records of 103 institutes that have closed or are suspended. They are a goldmine for local historians. The first president of a WI was often a notable local woman, such as the Duchess of Wellington for Mattingley, the Countess of Portsmouth for Hurstbourne Priors, and in Emery Down and Bank, Alice Hargreaves of Cuffnells Park, who gave Lewis Carroll the idea for “Alice in Wonderland”.

Letters from 1936 reveal that Mattingley WI was once involved in a gambling scandal involving their whist drive. The matter was taken so seriously that local dignitary Lord Wolmer (later Earl of Selborne) sought advice from the Home Office. It obviously had more pressing matters in hand and ruled that such activity “would not usually come within the mischiefs aimed at by the law.”

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