Authors: Julie Summers
‘I thought I was fairly well up on the WI contribution to the World War II effort until I read Julie Summers’ book,
I was wrong – every chapter was a revelation – full of information, reminiscences, humour and social history. It is also well written, well researched and easy to read. Reading it not only gave me great pleasure but also made me proud to be a member of such a long lasting, valuable and vital organisation – an organisation which is still working actively to “improve the quality of life of communities” both urban and rural.’ Helen Carey OBE, former chairman of the National Federation of Women’s Institutes (1999–2003)
‘That image of defiant jam making sums up the way many see the wartime contribution of the Woman’s Institute. But Julie Summers . . . shows its much wider contribution.’
‘Julie Summers recounts how thousands of women rallied round during the dark days of Hitler, baking cakes and knitting jumpers as if their lives depended on it’
Mail on Sunday
‘Superb . . . Overall, this book tells a wonderful story – highly recommended’
Who Do You Think You Are?
ALSO BY JULIE SUMMERS
Henry Moore and the Sea
The Caros: A Creative Partnership
Fearless on Everest: The Quest for Sandy Irvine
The Colonel of Tamarkan: Philip Toosey and the Bridge on the River Kwai
Remembered: A History of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission
Stranger in the House: Women’s Stories of Men Returning from the Second World War
British and Commonwealth War Cemeteries
When the Children Came Home: Stories of Wartime Evacuees
Rowing in Britain
First published in Great Britain by Simon & Schuster UK Ltd, 2013
This paperback edition published by Simon & Schuster UK Ltd, 2014
A CBS COMPANY
Copyright © 2013 by Julie Summers
This book is copyright under the Berne Convention.
No reproduction without permission.
All rights reserved.
The right of Julie Summers to be identified as the author of this work has been asserted by her in accordance with sections 77 and 78 of the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act, 1988.
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A CIP catalogue record for this book is available from the British Library.
EBOOK ISBN: 978-0-85720-047-1
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In affectionate memory of Ga
and to all the unnamed WI members
who made the countryside tick
during six long years of war
In June 1939 the Women’s Institute held its annual general meeting in London. The weather was glorious. Many of the delegates who came to London from all over the country had never been to the capital before. Cicely McCall, who was responsible for the WI’s national education programme, observed the scene with fascination. She met one excited seventeen-year-old from Cumberland who had slept with her train ticket under her pillow for a month before the meeting, so thrilled was she to have been asked to represent her institute. Dressed in their best suits and dresses, wearing hats, gloves and sensible shoes, more than 8,000 women, many fanning themselves in the heat, crowded into the magnificent Empress Hall in Earls Court. The seating was arranged in alphabetical order by county beginning with Berkshire, Buckinghamshire, Cambridgeshire, Cheshire and so on. Stewards dressed in cream overalls with broad green and red ribbons over one shoulder showed people to their seats. There was a buzz of conversation and an air of eager anticipation.
The national committee members walked up onto the stage. Everybody stood up. Miss Nancy Tennant from Headington
raised her right hand to conduct. The organist played the opening bars of ‘Jerusalem’ and 8,000 women lifted the roof with the well-known anthem. The great theatre reverberated to Parry’s beautiful tune and the voices rose and rose. As the music faded, the delegates took their seats.
Lady Denman, dressed formally and wearing a green hat, stood up and welcomed her delegates. She then asked Miss Hadow to greet their honoured guests from the Associated Countrywomen of the World, who had gathered in London for a mass rally. Twenty-three countries were each represented in the Empress Hall by a woman delegate, many in national dress. Miss Hadow stood up. Tall, thin, every bit the vision of a blue-stocking academic, she addressed the meeting: ‘Lady Denman and Fellow Countrywomen, we are met here today in our great parliament to welcome our sisters from other lands. In the first place, we are country women; we live on the land and serve the land. And in the last resort, it is not by armed force, or even by industrial prosperity, but it is by the land itself that men live.’
There was loud applause and appreciative murmuring from the delegates. She went on:
In the second place, we are women, we belong to the constructive sex, whose whole instinct is to reserve and to foster life, to build homes in every land. In the hands of women, of wives and mothers, and I will even dare to say of sisters, daughters and spinster aunts, the health and happiness of mankind very largely is laid. Those two things, the unity of the land, the unity of our common womanhood, speak a universal language. It is in that tongue that in the name of 328,000 English and Welsh women I do indeed say to our guests from other countries – You are Welcome!
The applause swelled. As she sat down the foreign delegates stepped up onto the stage one by one. Some neither spoke nor understood English but all of them understood the applause and the smiles that greeted each fresh announcement. America, Sweden, India . . . One by one by they came forward, made their bow, and sometimes said a few words. Latvia, Norway . . . Germany. Miss McCall was in the hall and watched as the German delegate walked onto the stage.
She was a tall woman. Her shoulders were flung back, her face set as she stepped on to the platform. There was a second’s tense silence, as though suddenly eight thousand pairs of lungs had contracted, and their hearts too. Then came deafening applause. It rang round the hall tumultuously. It fell, then grew again increasing in volume as though each perspiring delegate on that very hot June morning could not enough say: ‘Welcome! We are all country women here today. We are non-party, non-sectarian. We wish for peace, goodwill and cooperation among nations. You have had the courage to come here in spite of rumours of wars. We bid you welcome!’
Countess Margarete Keyserlingk was overwhelmed. The look of strain on her face disappeared and pleasure and amazement replaced it. She spoke in German: ‘It is with great pleasure and thanks to you all and to my delegation that I am able to be here today to bring you greetings from my country, in the hope that this meeting will lead us all to a greater understanding of one another.’ As she stepped off the platform she hesitated and almost stumbled. We shall never know what message she took back to Germany because within three months Poland had been invaded and Britain had declared war on her country.
When I set out to write a history of the Women’s Institute in wartime I had in mind an historical overview with anecdotes from village institutes about jam-making, vegetable-growing, salvage-collecting, knitting and other activities we associate with the Second World War. As I have gone along I have realised that this is not what lies at the heart of this book. There are many top-down biographies of the Women’s Institute but what I was interested in was the bottom-up story, the ordinary countrywomen who were at the heart of the village institutes. What has grown out of my research is a picture of the remarkable role played by ordinary women in rural Britain during the war. Unpaid, unsung, to a large extent uncomplaining, these women quietly and often with humour, made the countryside tick. The role of the WI was crucial in two ways: on the one hand, the government relied on its links with the National Federation of Women’s Institutes to make direct requests of countrywomen to look after evacuees, collect everything from National Savings to bones for the munitions industry and to care for the nation’s larder; on the other hand, the WI at institute level offered women a safety valve. At their monthly meetings, after they had completed their business and agreed on the many requests for their help towards the war effort, they could let their hair down. And they did. Singing, dancing, sketches and readings, beetle drives, musical bumps, and ‘identify the ankle’ competitions all helped to lighten the mood and send them on their way to take up the tasks set for them.
This book is a tribute to these women. Some were grand county ladies, others were farm labourers’ wives and daughters. The majority were somewhere in between. In the institute there was no differentiation between their backgrounds. Though it would be foolish to suggest that all social boundaries were broken, they were, however, porous. The story of how they all buckled to
and helped out is of more interest to me than who was the president or secretary on any given committee. The WI bound them together. Sybil Norcott, a WI member for nearly seventy years, summed it up: ‘The WI is in my heart. It is in all our hearts. It is a way of life.’
I have been fortunate enough to interview a number of women who joined the WI during the war, albeit as very young members, or whose mothers, aunts or other family members were involved. Their personal perspectives give the historical material its colour and they are the only ladies in the book who are referred to by their Christian names. Peggy Sumner joined her WI before the war and is still a member. Her county, Cheshire, honoured its nonagenarian members in 2011 with a service in Chester Cathedral. Sybil Norcott, also a Cheshire member, was a child during the war but her mother belonged to her local institute and Sybil used to go to meetings as her mother was afraid to walk through the woods to the hall on her own.
Ann Tetlow and Dorcas Ward have known each other since they were a few months old. Dorcas’s mother and grandmother were founder members of Bradfield WI in Berkshire. Her mother was secretary throughout the war and her minute books are amongst the most colourful and descriptive I have read. Ann’s mother was also a very active member of the institute and used to allow Ann and her brother to attend the social half-hour of their afternoon meetings.
Caroline Dickinson’s mother, Ruth Toosey, was my great aunt. She was on the committee of her WI in Barrow for several years during the war and she also held an ambulance licence with the Women’s Voluntary Service, as well as being responsible for the girls of the Women’s Land Army in her village. Dr Gwen Bark was a doctor who ran baby clinics in Tarporley, while bringing up her own young family and being an active member of her WI. She
was outspoken on matters to do with child health, milk and the Beveridge Report but was also keen to encourage young mothers to find something of interest beyond the home in order to keep them mentally alert.
And Edith Jones, the wife of a farmer from Smethcote in Shropshire, whose great niece, Chris Downes, has given me access to Edith’s wartime diaries. These offer a view of the war as well as the activities of her village and her farm-life during those years. In 1938 she wrote on the first page of her diary: ‘It is interesting to keep a diary. To look back on past events. Things often work out for our good. Ups and downs have been worthwhile. With God’s help let us make this year worthwhile for each other in our family life.’ The great beauty of her diaries is that they were written without a view to being seen by anyone else and are at once personal but objective. She recorded everyday life: ‘The weather is spring like, so I prune “my” apple trees. 6 of them. I like being out on these bright days but feel stiff after being on the steps and reaching! We move the pullets from the cabin to the big house. They look healthy and red. Geoff and Jim are ferreting.’ But she also noted events out of the ordinary: ‘Jack saw the “Northern Lights” last night. He said there was a very red sky like a fire, but it had faded when I looked out. He was pleased when I heard on the wireless that it had been seen all over England and that he too had seen it.’ Edith was secretary of her WI from the day it was set up in 1931 and in addition to her monthly and annual minutes, she wrote an article about life in rural Britain in the early twentieth century that helps to cast a contemporary light on the benefit the WI brought to rural communities such as hers. I will introduce each of these women at an appropriate point in the narrative and some, notably Edith, will appear in more than one chapter.