Looking back at the Women’s Institute in West Sussex

By Alison Merriman, Archivist to the West Sussex Federation of Women’s Institutes

To celebrate the 100th anniversary of the West Sussex Federation of Women’s Institutes, Alison delves deeper into the origins of the WI – an organisation that has been present in West Sussex ever since its arrival in England in 1914. To illustrate her words, we have added images from just a few of the many local WI collections held here at the Record Office.

Group of women sitting outside at a Petworth WI meeting.
Photograph of the Petworth WI, taken from a scrapbook entitled ‘Petworth Through The Ages’ by Miss G B Mayne, c1935. (AM 44-3-3)

Women’s Institutes had their origins in Canada and a lady called Adelaide Hoodless. Their creation was prompted by a very sad event –  her son died of gastroenteritis, probably caused by contaminated milk.

The movement came to England and more particularly Sussex with another indomitable lady and another tragic event. Madge Watt was active in the WI movement in Canada. Her husband was the subject of a Royal Commission investigation into a complaint. The stress of the enquiry affected his mental state and he committed suicide, just before the commission cleared him of all charges.

As you can imagine, Madge was devastated and wanted to get away with her two young boys. She was invited to take refuge in England by a lady called Josephine Godman who lived in Little Ote Hall near Wivelsfield. She and Madge had become friends when they were both living in Canada.  So that is how two ladies who both knew about the WI in Canada came to be living in Sussex.

Cross-stitched scrapbook by Lavant WI. Making scrapbooks was a popular activity for the WI.
Lavant WI Jubilee Year scrapbook, 1965 (AM 872-3-1)

When war broke out in 1914 Madge saw that the WI could be a very powerful way to mobilise women to help in the war effort. She spoke at a number of meetings and eventually came to the notice of John Nugent Harris, Secretary of the Agricultural Organisation Society. He could see the potential and convinced his fellow members to employ Madge on a six month contract to set up WIs in England and Wales and the rest, as they say, is history.

The first WI in Britain was formed in Wales, on Anglesey and is affectionately known as Llanfair PG as no one can pronounce the full Welsh name. Two WIs lay claim to the title of the first WI in England but most agree it is Singleton and East Dean which is most appropriate given the founders lived in Sussex at the time.

Madge did a great job starting WIs (only in small rural communities of less than 4,000 at that time) and soon ladies from WIs wanted to meet ladies from other WIs. The first Sussex meeting was held in Little Ote Hall to “confer with a view to comparing experience and to see whether there were any points on which they could usefully combine”. Out of this meeting came The Sussex Conference of Women’s Institutes. It was the first such conference in the country and was the forerunner of all the county federations, even predating the National Federation itself. 

Log book created by Camelsdale WI to record the making and collecting of produce.
Camelsdale WI Log Book of ‘Operation Produce’, 1948 (Add Mss 52493)

It remained the Sussex Conference covering East Sussex and West Sussex until December 1919 when a resolution was debated “That it is the opinion of this meeting that the time has arrived when it is desirable to form two separate Federations for East Sussex and West Sussex”.  So the West Sussex Federation of WIs (WSFWI) came into being and it is its creation a century ago that we are celebrating this year.

To help to celebrate the centenary of WSFWI, West Sussex Record Office is inviting WI members in for a special behind the scenes tour of the Record Office, where the WSFWI and other local WI records are held.

This will take place on Monday 21st October starting at 2.00pm and finishing at 3.30pm. Tickets are £3.50 and can be booked by calling reception on 01243 753602.

WSRO also has a display up showcasing some of the wonderful items from the WI archives which can be seen at any time when the Record Office is open.

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