Getting ready for the next set of young members

It is 30 years since the Yorkshire Federation of the Women’s Institute was controversially split into six. Vicky Carr catches up with members of the North Yorkshire West Federation.

Julie Clarke, Chairman of the North Yorkshire West Federation of the Womens Institute
Julie Clarke, Chairman of the North Yorkshire West Federation of the Womens Institute

“Thirty years ago it was the Green Goddess. It was the introduction of Breakfast Television. There was something else quite significant – the introduction of the pound coin.”

Julie Clarke, chairman of the North Yorkshire West Federation of the Women’s Institute, reminds the 270 women in front of her of the significant events of 1983.

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“Not only was our Federation formed but those other things followed suit,” the Federation’s Spring Council erupts with laughter.

North Yorkshire West was formed out of what had been the Yorkshire Federation, responsible for looking after WI groups across the entire region. Its size had prompted the WI’s national body to suggest it should be broken down into smaller sections – but the result caused more upset than many might have predicted.

Julie acknowledges that in her address to members on the 30th anniversary, pointing out the olive branch which was incorporated into the new North Yorkshire West Federation badge designed by Jean Blackburn, a member of Grantley and Whixley WI. In the federation’s archives, held at its Alma House headquarters in Ripon, newspaper cuttings from the time indicate the fractious atmosphere. One Yorkshire Post report referred to the final meeting of 1,200 Yorkshire federation members as “emotional”, saying legal advice had put paid to ideas of Yorkshire “going it alone”.

The minutes from the first meeting of the federation in 1983 also show there had been teething problems in splitting the old federation to create six new organisations. Several WIs asked for clarity over the boundaries, which saw 116 groups brought into North Yorkshire West, while the new chairman, Valerie Fell, read a poem about the peace of new starts in her opening speech.

Now, though, Mrs Fell does not remember anything of the conflict of the time, other than some disagreement over who should take on the new roles.

“Elsie Charlton was the chairman of Yorkshire before the split,” she recalls.

“To come and be nothing was difficult. I think I felt it would be quite nice to make her a president; she had done so much for Yorkshire.

“But it was too big to keep going. We were enormous. It was quite right (to split it up).”

Setting up six new federations when previously there had only been one meant a lot of work. A committee was set up to find a secretary and a head office for the new North Yorkshire West Federation, which chose a site in Harrogate – reasonably accessible for members who would be travelling from as far afield as Grassington in the west and just below Darlington in the north.

Mrs Fell was 48 when she became chairman, and spent just three years at the helm before stepping down. However, she has been a WI member for almost 60 years and is still part of her local group in Addingham.

When she talks about her many years with the organisation, the word which keeps cropping up is “fun”.

“I was young when I first joined,” she says. “I learned so much. I was always a sewer but I never did half the things I did when I joined the WI.

“I joined because my mother -in-law was a member of everything except the WI. I had to join something in the community so I went for that and I thoroughly enjoyed it.”

The majority of the 270 women at this year’s Spring Council would fit quite comfortably with the traditional image of the Women’s Institute, and some groups were congratulated on achieving their 85th or 90th anniversaries, several newer groups were represented by much younger women, including the Ripon Belles and Harrogate’s Spa Sweethearts.

Both groups have formed in the last few years as the WI has begun to attract a new generation of members. Although the number of WIs in the federation is now lower than in 1983, at 98, the newer groups have high membership numbers and an enthusiastic outlook which look set to secure the organisation’s future long beyond its 100th anniversary in 2015.

Television programmes like Channel 4’s Kirstie’s Home Made Home, and the BBC’s Great British Bake-Off and Great British Sewing Bee, point to a growing enthusiasm for crafting among younger generations. The North Yorkshire West Federation has its own television star: trustee Anne Harrison (pictured right) was one of the four judges on ITV’s Food Glorious Food.

Despite growing membership numbers, the North Yorkshire West Federation had a difficult year in 2012 when, like so many other businesses and organisations, it was hit hard by the cancellation of the Great Yorkshire Show after just one day.

For decades, the WI has had a marquee at the show, selling light lunches and afternoon teas – and telling people a bit more about what it means to be a member.

“The first day’s income from the Great Yorkshire Show doesn’t even cover our expenditure,” Mrs Clarke says. “We have to be there for all three days to generate a surplus, which helps us for the rest of the year.”

Last summer’s wash-out meant much of the produce had to be given away, although some unused stock has been kept for this year to help keep costs down.

Like the show organisers and other exhibitors and traders, the federation has everything crossed for good weather and a bumper show this July to help it make up the shortfall.

And as Mrs Fell recalls: “It was a good time: the weather was always good. The Great Yorkshire Show was always sunny!”

Ambitions for an anniversary

THE Women’s Institute was formed with a serious purpose in 1915.

With many men away in the armed forces, women were being encouraged to become more involved in food production to help the nation survive the First World War.

Today it is divided into 69 federations across England, Wales, Jersey, Guernsey and the Isle of Man.

Each federation looks after the individual institutes in its area and offers training courses, workshops and social events. The national organisation also runs Denman College, near Oxford, which offers residential courses for members and non-members.

Having been established in the UK in 1915, the WI is marking its 100th anniversary in two years’ time and is aiming to increase the number of members – currently at 210,000 – before then.

More information is online – at www.thewi.org.uk or, to find out about the North Yorkshire West Federation, visit www.thewi.org.uk/northyorkshirewest.