Chosen by West Sussex Federation of Women’s Institutes (text by Holly Wright)
This sugar thermometer, deposited by Singleton WI, is certainly an object which embodies the traditional (and stereotypical) ‘Jam and Jerusalem’ image of the Women’s Institute. However, current members of the WI would no doubt be quick to emphasise that it is so much more than that: an organisation which inspires women and helps them gain confidence in learning new skills, making new friends, taking part in a variety of educational and physical activities and campaigning on a wide range of current health, social, environmental and economic issues. Jam-making still appears on the events calendar though!
The Singleton WI, the first branch in England, has recently celebrated their centenary. Their first meeting took place at a pub known as ‘The Fox’ in Charlton, nearby to Singleton which is just outside Chichester. The pub still exists and is now known as ‘The Fox Goes Free’. The first WI meeting in Britain took place in 1915 in the village of Llanfairpwll in North Wales as a result of Mrs Madge Watt seeing the benefits the W.I. in Canada had provided for women living in rural communities (of which the first had been set up in Stoney Creek, Ontario by Mrs Adelaide Hoodless in 1897). In September 1917, the sixteen branches in East and West Sussex amalgamated to form the Sussex Women’s Institute Conference, the first county Federation.
Most organisations having reached their centenary have an archive and the WI is no exception. The Federation’s team of amateur archivists work to persuade members that their records need to be stored securely as an important part of the county archive. Today the Record Office holds over 100 individual WI collections and our predecessors took great care to record their WI activities, thereby leaving an irreplaceable legacy which we have a duty to preserve. This thermometer also serves as a reminder that there are not just documents held in the Record Office archives, but objects such as flags, medals and even large sculptures.
The WI in Britain now has a membership of over 200,000 women in over 6,000 local branches. The archives for Denman College and the National Federation of Women’s Institutes are held at the Women’s Library at the London School of Economics.
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