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A brief history of the Women's Institute


The WI movement began at Stoney Creek in Canada in 1895 at a meeting for the wives of members of the Farmers’ Institute. The first British WI meeting took place on the 16 September 1915 in North Wales. The WI was originally set up in the UK to revitalise rural communities and to encourage women to become more involved in producing food during the First World War.

One of its features was an independence from political parties or institutions, or church or chapel, which encouraged activism by non-establishment women, which helps to explain why the WI has been reluctant to support anything that can be construed as war work, despite their wartime formation.


In World War II, they limited their contribution to such activities as looking after evacuees, and running the Government sponsored Preservation Centres where volunteers canned or made jam of excess produce. All this produce was sent to depots to be added to the rations.

The Women’s Land Army (WLA) was set up in World War I and was responsible for averting famine after Germany successfully blockaded food imports to Britain. Lady Trudie Denman (of the fledgling Women’s Institute) was appointed to organise the WLA and by 1916 there were 23,000 Land Girls at work milking, ploughing, herding and even thatching. The WLA was disbanded in 1919, but re-formed when it was recognised that Britain needed to grow more of its own food to avoid the near disaster of 1917.


Lady Denman continued to champion the Land Girls of the Second Women’s Land Army, bringing about such innovations as a minimum wage and improved living conditions for them; although, even she was unable to secure adequate work for them once their wartime activities ceased and she resigned as Director of the WLA in protest in 1945.

In 1905, Lady Denman’s father bought his daughter her own country estate, Balcombe in Sussex. Balcombe Place (now a residential home for the elderly) was her home for the rest of her life.

The WI celebrated its 100th anniversary in 2015 and today plays a unique role in providing women with educational opportunities and the chance to build new skills, to take part in a wide variety of activities and to campaign on issues that matter to them and their communities. The WI is a diverse organisation open to all women, and currently has approximately 205,000 members in 6,500 WIs.

There are now WIs in towns and cities as well as villages. Fairwarp WI is one of the oldest WIs and celebrated its 100th birthday in 2021.

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