On the 19th February 1897 the first Women’s Institute in the World was formed in the Province of Ontario, Canada and in 1915 the first in the United Kingdom at Llanfair PG (full name – Llanfairpwllgwyngyllgogerychwyrndrobwllllantysiliogogogoch) in North Wales. The WI was established in Northern Ireland in 1932. The history of that development makes a fascinating story.
THE FIRST INSTITUTE
The Federation of Women’s Institutes was first formed in Northern Ireland in 1932 when Miss Dorothea Macausland opened the first Institute in Garvagh, with a second shortly after in Newcastle. Having experience of the WI in England she knew that this organisation would greatly benefit the rural women of the Province for whom, at that time, there was very little in the way of fellowship or training. She gave her services as a voluntary organiser, travelling to all parts of the Province encouraging and assisting the formation of Institutes.
Her hard work and perseverance paid off and a significant number of institutes came into being in the 1930’s.
While the outbreak of the Second World War slowed the formation of new institutes, those already in existence had a ready-made structure to help with the war effort, so much so that the Ministry of Food put its scheme for the Preservation of Fruit into the hands of the Women’s Institute. There are many stories of WI work for the War effort. Collecting waste paper, bottle tops, knitting and mending for the troops and so on. At the end of the war the sense of community that it had engendered was well developed to ensure that the organisation grew stronger than ever. Gradually the number of Institutes grew and Miss Macausland was one of the Committee who could see that the WI was being embraced by the rural women of the Province and was clearly here to stay. Plans for a Federation were drawn up to ensure that the individual Institutes springing up would form part of a single body. In 1942 the constitution was drawn up and remains virtually unchanged to this day. The strong foundations laid down then, with great emphasis on the strictly non-political, non-sectarian aspect of the movement, provided a sound base on which to build. It took some years before a Rule Book was produced, however in 1978 a Handbook containing the Constitution and Rules was finally produced. The Handbook has been updated over the years in keeping with changing times.
As interest grew, a paid organiser was appointed in 1936. Mrs Heenan, from Dorset, brought with her a background of experience of WI work in England, as well as great skill in many crafts. A talented speaker and demonstrator she laid the foundation of training in craftwork. Many of our traditional skills have subsequently been kept alive through training and competition in the WI.
THE FIRST ANNUAL GENERAL MEETING
With all this united effort it was a logical step to form a Federation of Institutes. The first Annual General Meeting of the Federation was held on 24 April 1942 with Her Grace the Duchess of Abercorn presiding. At this meeting delegates from the Institutes voted for their first elected Executive Committee. Lady Brooke, Chairman of the first organising Committee became Chairman of the elected Executive and held this post until 1965. The Chairman is now elected for a single three year period in office.
Until 1942 the main income of the WI came from the Carnegie Trust and the Ministry of Agriculture in the form of grants. As these grants were discontinued, a General Purposes Committee to deal with finance was set up in 1944 and so began the struggle for financial survival. Over the years contributions from the Institutes have formed a large part of Federation income, and those, combined with our fund raising efforts each year ensure that we remain on a sound financial footing.
Membership fees in 1942 was set at 6d (= 2½ pence following decimalisation).
PURCHASE OF FEDERATION HOUSE
From its inception the Federation did not have a settled headquarters and in 1978 the decision to purchase the property we now know as Federation House was taken. This decision received the wholehearted support of all the members and so, on 18 September 1978, office staff moved into Federation House.
The work of repairing, redecorating and furnishing Federation House then began and the official opening ceremony was performed by Her Grace the Dowager Duchess of Abercorn DCVO on 2nd November 1978.
Over the years Federation Sub-Committees worked to further the aims of WI. Drama and Homecraft were two of the very earliest activities and as early as 1935 a Newsheet at a cost of one penny was printed. This later developed into the Ulster Countrywoman, which has always been recognised as a very valuable means of communication throughout the Federation.
The Arts Sub-Committee has not only been responsible for drama but also music, public speaking, calligraphy, good handwriting and painting. Through one-day painting schools, many members have discovered hidden talents. Major exhibitions of members’ paintings were staged in Anderson and McAuley’s in 1965 and in the New University of Ulster, Coleraine in 1979, although these exhibitions are now held in Federation House.
Among many outstanding events in the history of the Homecraft Sub-Committee was a huge display of craftwork which toured the Province as part of the 30th birthday celebrations.
Home and Garden Sub-Committee was formed in 1961. Since then it has stimulated the interest of members in cooking, gardening and floral art.
ASSOCIATED COUNTRY WOMEN OF THE WORLD (ACWW)
The International aspect of WI dates back almost to its formation. As a constituent society of ACWW, Northern Ireland delegates have attended many Triennial Conferences and served on Central Office Committees. At Institute level members contribute to Pennies for Friendship and support the various projects most generously. The first recorded International effort was buying a sewing machine at a cost of £87 for Cameroon. Northern Ireland WI can boast that one of its members, Mrs Hilda Stewart OBE is a Past World President of ACWW.
The Balmoral Show has always been looked upon as the shop-window of the WI. Initially it was a shop where members could send their handicrafts for sale with the Federation gaining a small commission. This role continues although the WI now has a central role in the Balmoral Show where we cater to visitors throughout the three days of the show. The justly famous baking of WI members is incredibly popular and the Harberton Rooms provide a haven of rest for the weary and parched. Balmoral has now become our premier fund raising event each year.
In 1954 Baronscourt WI was preparing a scrapbook for an exchange programme with a women’s club in Texas. The symbol used on the cover of the book was the traditional white pillars of the Ulster countryside. It is recorded that the scrapbook was brought to Headquarters and Lady Brookeborough suggested that the pillars and gate should be used as a symbol for a new WI badge.
The Countrywoman’s song came about almost by accident. Mrs Mercer, on her travels, found herself reciting Derry and Antrim and Down in rhythm with the wheels of the train. She asked Mrs Frizzell, who was an assistant organiser, if she would compose a tune in that rhythm. It is recorded that two afternoons produced the words and the music, the accompaniment of which was checked by the late Mr John Vine.
WI CHAIRMAN’S CHAIN OF OFFICE
The Chairman’s Chain of Office was a gift to the Federation from The Allied Irish Bank. It was first worn by Mrs Nan Douglas at the AGM in 1976. The chain was designed and worked by Mr Michael McCrory, son of a WI member, with emblems to symbolise the sub-committees. The shape of the medallion represents an oyster shell with the sun arising and spreading from our symbol – the gate.
In this short history, it is impossible to include all the work, community service and valuable contribution to community relations made by each Institute in its own area.