From traditional to trendy: How Yorkshire branches of the WI are thriving in 2019

The Women's Institute is supposed to be a bastion of tradition.
Members of Appleton-le-Moors WI in RyedaleMembers of Appleton-le-Moors WI in Ryedale
Members of Appleton-le-Moors WI in Ryedale

Established in Britain in 1914 to enable wives, mothers and daughters to contribute to the war effort, for decades the organisation embodied 'make do and mend' attitudes and rural community spirit.

Its members were satirised as elderly women who loved nothing more than manning the jam stall at the village fete and lustily singing their favourite hymn, Jerusalem.

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However, as post-war society changed and women moved from the domestic sphere into the workplace, its original activities and ethos felt less relevant to a younger generation.

The Harrogate Spa Sweethearts WIThe Harrogate Spa Sweethearts WI
The Harrogate Spa Sweethearts WI

Just when it seemed as if the WI's influence was wavering, it experienced a revival as women of working age realised its potential as a supportive female network and a space in which to learn new skills.

100 years of jam and Jerusalem: Appleton-le-Moors WI celebrate their centenaryIn the past decade, new branches of the WI have been set up in cities with the deliberate aim of attracting younger women. The influence of the 'Calendar Girls' - the members of Rylstone WI in the Yorkshire Dales whose racy charity photo shoot inspired a blockbuster film - has also helped rural groups to shed their fusty image.

Cocktails, cooking and climbing waterfalls

When 50-year-old teacher Felicity Jennings joined the Spa Sweethearts in Harrogate five years ago, she was astonished to find that the president was just 25 years old.

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She's since assumed the presidency herself, and the group now has nearly 80 members of all ages.

Although Harrogate, a town with a considerable retired population, had always had WIs, the founders of the Spa Sweethearts were frustrated at what they saw as a lack of evening meetings, with most of the established branches only active in the daytime.

Eight years ago, founder Bex Hartley, from Knaresborough, visited an information stand at the Yorkshire Show and realised that the national organisation was keen to support new groups.

She formed the Spa Sweethearts, and the group soon had 100 women involved in their activities, with a further 80 on the waiting list.

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Far from wanting to hone their preserve-making skills, most of the newcomers to the Sweethearts just hope to make new friends.

"There were traditional WIs, such as the Stray Ladies, but they tended to meet in the daytime and had an older membership. We are generally younger - although we have people in their 70s - and of working age, so we have to meet in the evenings," said Felicity.

"There is a really good spread of ages, and we want to be inclusive for everybody. Our older members are young in their outlook and are happy with us using email and social media to send information out.

Calendar Girls revisited: How Rylstone WI took on the world"We pride ourselves on our varied programme of activities and talks, and we go out and about. We still do traditional crafts, and baking is really popular."

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Members have learned patchwork quilting, eaten bugs at a bushcraft session and tried pilates. There are 'sub-groups' for crafting, playing board games and cocktail-making, and they even hold poker nights.

Recently, 17 of the more intrepid members took part in an adventure weekend in the Dales which saw them build shelters, camp, cook over an open fire and climb the Gordale Scar waterfall.

"Most people join because they are seeking female companionship and want to learn new things while meeting other women. It's easy to get sucked into work if you have an all-encompassing job. They are still the same core values the WI has had since its inception.

"We had an older lady join to make new friends after her husband died, and many middle-aged women come to us after a divorce. The younger members have often moved to the area for a job and need that new friendship base."

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Although the Spa Sweethearts do align themselves with national WI campaigns and causes - currently they are trying to reduce their plastic use - their primary aim is to provide a social outlet and challenge stereotypes.

"We get stereotyped a lot. People still assume we are old - we often get emails advertising stairlifts and nursing homes! I think each WI has its own identity.

"Recently our book group went on a trip to the theatre on Halloween and dressed up - when they met the cast afterwards they were amazed, as they'd expected us to all be in our 60s and 70s. We are defying stereotypes!

"Craft is still the most popular activity. The challenges we face are probably the same as many WIs face; encouraging enough people to join the committee, especially with a younger membership where many women are working or busy with young children. I am close to the end of my first year as president but will be standing next year as it is so much fun.

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"We only occasionally sing Jerusalem, and it's mainly for a laugh really, and we have made jam before - but we've never got naked for a calendar!"

"Young women want to bake and sew too"

In 2009, a group of young York women founded the New York Sisterhood WI under a 23-year-old president. Their youngest member was 17 at the time.

Formed out of a need for female companionship in a city environment, they were keen to promote the popularity of traditional crafts and pastimes for all ages.

Branch secretary Jo Bell said:

“One of the reasons for setting up the new branch is to ensure that it is socially acceptable for young, modern women to take part in traditional arts and crafts like knitting, jam making and cake baking.

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“You can be young and modern and still enjoy those traditional homemaking skills. In fact, there are a lot of young women who haven’t been taught how to knit, sew and cook and really want to learn.”

“We want to our WI to be somewhere enthusiastic and community-spirited young women can meet and socialise, learn new and traditional skills, champion local issues and support national Women’s Institute campaigns like saving the honey bee and women against violence.”

At the time, the WI's national head office said there was a growing interest in traditional activities among urban WIs, while older women who belonged to rural branches were broadening their horizons and trying more adventurous pursuits.

A lifeline in the Moors and 'the original social network'

Appleton-le-Moors WI in Ryedale is an established WI set up in 1927 and in 2015, when they spoke to the Yorkshire Post, the branch still had members who recalled the group's contribution to the village's wartime food production efforts.

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Despite having an elderly membership and a rural catchment area, the women pride themselves on their awareness of hard-hitting social issues, including domestic violence and child grooming.

“Just because we live in a nice rural area does not mean things like that can’t happen here,” said Carolyn Frank, then serving as president.

“You never know what’s going on behind closed doors and one of the WI’s mandates is to protect against that. The Federation held a day about domestic violence and some of the stories from around our area were both shocking and unbelievable.”

“The WI is the original social network and I feel it’s as relevant today as it was 100 years ago. I think it has adapted to modern women yet at the same time when we look back in our archives some of the things our predecessors did are the same as what we are doing now. The core ethos is still about friendship and the education of women.

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“We have the minutes from that very first meeting held in the library of Appleton Hall in 1927, when our president was then Miss Shepherd. It felt like those ladies who had been there at the beginning of our institute were there with us in the room.”

Veteran member Heather Fox joined the WI when she was 16. She recalls Miss Shepherd and Appleton-le-Moors WI’s wartime activities.

“Miss Shepherd was president when I joined and eventually I became secretary. Throughout the war we used to get a delivery of Vale of Mowbray sausages and pork pies and I used to deliver them in twos and threes to houses in the village. Food was rationed then but we got this as extra for farm workers.”

They also enjoy competing with other local WIs at country shows.

“We are tremendously competitive,” said member Christine Field.

“The Ryedale Show brings out the best and worst in all of us. We enter all the classes and we stand there defying anybody to beat us!"