The Women’s Institute celebrates its centenary in June and a variety of events are planned to mark this milestone in the WI’s history. Nicky Solloway talks to some of the women involved.
Up until a few weeks ago, the president of a Huddersfield Women’s Institute had never picked up a cornet. Yet in less than two months, Rebecca Cobb-Kilner along with 24 other women will play the brass instrument at the Royal Albert Hall.
The group who call themselves the “Brassy Tarts” set themselves a challenge to learn to play the cornet, euphonium, tenor horn, bass horn and trombone from scratch in just 17 weeks as part of the celebrations to mark the WI’s centenary this year.
“We’ll be giving a lunchtime performance of Jerusalem to the 6,000-plus ladies who will be in attendance at the Centenary AGM on June 4,” explains Rebecca. “We won’t actually be on the stage. We’ll be outside the hall as they all come out in the break.”
The women who are all members of Huddersfield Tea and Tarts are proving once again that there’s more to the WI than sewing and baking.
The Women’s Institute, which originated in Canada, was established in Britain in 1915 as an education resource with the first institutes set up to encourage women to grow more food during the First World War. Since then it has evolved into the largest voluntary women’s organisation in the UK with 212,000 members and around 6,600 institutes. Many of the new groups springing up are breaking away from the traditional “Jam and Jerusalem” stereotype.
Rebecca says: “At our WI we never sing Jerusalem but we thought for this one occasion it made most sense.” She says the group, which was started in 2010 and has 80 members, is not a “traditional WI”.
“We’re not deliberately trying to be different, we’re just doing the things that we’re interested in. We take part in activities such as axe-throwing. We’ve had a dominatrix come and talk to us and we do other things like guerilla crafting.”
They are a brazen bunch who are not afraid to stick their necks out. The idea to form a brass band came from a music student at Huddersfield University who approached the group to ask them if they would be interested in learning an instrument. Kyle Blake is now giving weekly lessons to the group and they also meet at the university every Sunday afternoon for band practice.
The instruments are on loan from Kirklees Music School.
“The way we decided who could play which instrument was who could make a noise out of it on the first night,” laughs Rebecca who is hoping to get a cornet for her 40th birthday in October.
The spirit of adventure, challenges and warm friendships enjoyed by members of the WI is what inspired playwright Maeve Larkin to write her new show to celebrate 100 years of the WI. Raising Agents, the new play from Marsden-based theatre company, Mikron, opened at the end of March at Huddersfield’s Lawrence Batley Theatre.
Playwright Maeve spent a long time researching WI records and speaking to members around the region before writing her play.
“Everyone I told that I was writing a play about the WI would raise their eyebrows and say ‘ooh you’ll have fun with that’ and I knew what they meant because there’s this notion about the WI. There’s an element of wryness like that’s bound to be something funny because it’s a load of women doing something on their own. But once I started delving into their history and saw how much social reform they’ve instigated, I realized that they have this really weighty side to them.”
Over the last 100 years, the WI has campaigned on a wide range of social issues. Many political campaigns have been quite hard hitting, such as the 2004 West Yorkshire Federation mandate to combat human trafficking.
One of the most important WI mandates was born out of the experience of child evacuees sent to the countryside in the Second World War. Members were so horrified by the conditions the children lived in that they campaigned for the introduction of the first Family Allowance, which in the 1970s was re-named Child Benefit. It has also lobbied on subjects such as mental health, safe sex and nursery places. The WI brought about the introduction of free school milk and the Keep Britain Tidy campaign.
“What I find really refreshing about them,” says Maeve “is that they don’t take themselves too seriously. They have these radical beginnings and weighty campaigning side to them and the flip side to that is I went to a meeting at a Yorkshire branch and we just did balloon modeling.”
Following various Yorkshire venues, the cast of Mikron will board the Tyseley, the company’s 78-year-old vintage narrow boat and will tour the country by canal to reach audiences in waterside theatres and pubs.
“We are the only theatre group that tours by narrow boat,” says Marianne. “And we are the most prolific theatre company in that we do the most one-night stands. We are doing 150 shows this year at about 135 venues. Everything we have has to fit into the back of a van or into the narrow boat.”
Members of the Tea and Tarts Huddersfield branch helped to host the opening night by transforming the theatre’s foyer into a WI extravaganza, in their own unique style.
It’s this sense of fun and willingness to try new things that has kept the WI as fresh today as it was 100 years ago.
“If you say I’m in the WI people think that sounds boring because they have pre-existing ideas of what it is but I think that’s really changing, particularly here,” says Rebecca.
“Yorkshire seems to be a hot bed for more contemporary, forward-thinking WI’s. There are loads of us now.”
Two Trustees from the National Federation of Women’s Institutes’ (NFWI) have been busy baking 5,000 pieces of fruit cake from a winning Yorkshire recipe to help the centenary celebrations of the WI.
The recipe, written by Julie Clark of North Yorkshire West Federation, was chosen after the NFWI launched a competition amongst members.
After a lot of baking and tasting, Leyburn-based Anne Harrison, Chair of the WI’s Denman educational college and Patricia Tulip, Chair of the Cookery Committee are using Julie’s recipe to bake all 5,000 portions in their homes ahead of the NFWI Annual Meeting in June.
A serving of cake will be given to each of the 5,000 WI members who attend the organisation’s annual meeting at the Royal Albert Hall in June.
For information about where to see Raising Agents, visit mikron.org.uk