Book review: A vivid portrait of a very British charity

Val Horsler and Ian Denning give a vivid account of a very British Institution in Women's Century, writes Stephen Cook

At one of its meetings in the 1920s, the Women's Institute at Orford in Suffolk heard a lecture on the duties of women as citizens, followed by a demonstration of how to bandage varicose veins.

women's century

This snippet seems to encapsulate the twin purposes of the WI since its foundation in 1915 - one of education and civic participation, and another of practical skills, including the famous jam-making.

The first strand has often melded with campaigns ranging from equal pay to prison reform and a range of environmental causes such as Keep Britain Tidy and protecting the honey bee.

And the second helped to see the country through the two world wars of the 20th century by increasing agricultural production and bottling and preserving fruit that normally went to waste.

This book gives a succinct description of the WI's activities and achievements in its first 100 years - its campaigning, its participation in public affairs and its educational activities, including the foundation of its own college.

But most of it is a wealth of photographs that convey how deeply this charity is woven into the country's social history. Images include amateur dramatics from the 1930s, a petition to Downing Street in the 1950s and even a village hall competition to eat jelly with knitting needles.

By the 1990s the WI was losing members, but it has recently regained momentum and spread to more urban areas: the slow-handclapping of Tony Blair's overly political address to its AGM in 2000 and the famous Calendar Girls episode are thought to have helped the revival.

The WI seems a paradox - conventional but spirited, deferential but democratic. You can poke fun at it, but you can't dismiss it. Above all it's very British, and that is vividly conveyed by this book.

Women's Century: an illustrated history of the Women's Institute by Val Horsler and Ian Denning is published by Third Millennium, £14.99 hardback.

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