100 years of the WI and its impact on Surrey

PUBLISHED: 11:38 25 May 2015 | UPDATED: 08:50 26 May 2015

WI members help out with the 1954 Keep Britain Tidy campaign

WI members help out with the 1954 Keep Britain Tidy campaign


On the eve of the WI’s centenary celebrations, Aly Warner catches up with national and local leaders to find out what it means to be a member today – and why there is special cause for celebration here in Surrey...

WI members prepare for one of their popular fetes (Photo Camilla Blackie)WI members prepare for one of their popular fetes (Photo Camilla Blackie)

Originally published in Surrey Life magazine May 2015


With its centenary festivities about to get into full flow across its thousands of branches in the UK, the Women’s Institute (WI) certainly has plenty to celebrate in 2015.

But it is the Surrey Federation of WIs that has been given the honour this month of hosting the final leg of the WI Centenary Baton Relay, before the baton (which contains a memory stick with members’ photos) is taken to the national AGM in June at London’s Royal Albert Hall.

It’s a fitting tribute to the pioneering women who started the first Surrey branch – principal among whom was influential WI member Helena Auerbach, a leading light in the suffrage movement.

According to the WI’s current National Federation chairman, Janice Langley, Helena would still recognise much about the organisation she helped to build in the last century.

“The WI has always been about inspiring women,” says Janice, “and although the issues that members face have changed dramatically over the past century, the WI is as relevant today as it has always been, because of its continuing aims to inspire and educate women of all ages.”

Changing times

Jam-making and Jerusalem may still be activities recognisable to the founders; however, 21st century members can now also be found learning belly dancing, congregating in the local pub and campaigning on issues from prostitution to climate change – as well as baking cakes, and even hiding behind them.

The Rylstone and District WI’s celebrated decision in 2000 to strip for a calendar, with strategically positioned sunflowers, buns and other props, was inspired by the death of a group member’s husband, from non-Hodgkins lymphoma, in 1999. The calendar went on to raise millions of pounds for Leukaemia Research and the Calendar Girls story was later immortalised on film and on stage.

Keen to show that they, too, are not a stuffy bunch, the president of Merstham WI persuaded 12 Surrey ladies to strip off for a similar calendar in 2003. Wearing little more than hats and boards decorated with fruit and vegetables, they also posed outside the WI tent at that year’s Surrey County Show.

According to Janice, showing the fun side of the WI certainly did the organisation no harm. “The Calendar Girls film went a long way in changing the perceptions of the WI,” she says. “We had 
a huge amount of interest in the organisation when the film was released, and it really provided a platform and voice in the public and media arenas. The main thing the story shows is the friendship and mutual support of the women, which is something the WI offers to all members.”

Campaign trail

There are no plans for alternative calendars this year, but with a growing, active membership of more than 212,000 women of all ages, in around 6,600 WIs, the spirit of the suffrage campaigners, such as Helena, lives on. Instead of votes for women, nowadays it is issues as diverse as honey bees, organ donation, post-natal care and library services that galvanise the WI members, as well as talks and classes on cookery and crafts.

“Since its foundation, the WI has offered members the opportunity to campaign on issues, to learn new and traditional skills, as well as enabling women to be at the heart of their community,” adds Janice.

Indeed, the WI is rightly proud of the fact that members often address issues prior to Government intervention and are not afraid to take on Prime Ministers 
(Tony Blair’s infamous ‘handbagging’ at the 2000 AGM, for example).

“The founders would be very proud of the organisation today,” says Janice. “They would see how well the WI has adapted and developed through the years, whilst remaining true to its origins, offering educational opportunities to women in their communities.”

As in 1915, when the original aim of the WI was to revitalise rural areas and encourage women to become more involved in producing and preserving food during the First World War, she says “the issues that most matter to women today are the most pressing matters to the organisation now; the WI has always been a reflection of the times.”

Local ladies

Here in Surrey, the WI is thriving. The Surrey Federation now boasts 174 WI groups, which includes 16 in London, and there are currently 8,182 members, making it the UK’s fourth largest federation.

According to the Surrey Federation chairman, Beryl Dunham, the WI is “all about inspiring women”, something that has been at the heart of the organisation since the very first meeting in 1915.

“As a naturally diverse organisation, it offers all kinds of opportunities to all kinds of women,” says Beryl. “For some women, we offer an opportunity to catch up with friends, for others it’s a route to learning new skills, and for some the campaigning aspect of the organisation may be the key motivator.”

Surrey members’ talents are as plentiful as events on its busy social calendar; members have received honours from the Queen, scooped awards at the RHS Chelsea Flower Show, served as local councillors, civic dignitaries and deputy mayors and contributed to the Second World War effort by knitting over a ton of wool into “comforts for the troops”.

“When they join the WI, members can expect to be able to achieve their goals; whether it’s a new skill or to be active in a campaign, or just to make new friends and enjoy the fun,” adds Beryl.

One of Surrey’s recent campaigns was on the use of Chinese lanterns, “which are becoming far more prevalent for celebrations on this crowded island,” says Beryl. “We wrote to MPs to raise the issues of fire and damage to crops and buildings.

“We have also passed our own resolutions in the past few years on issues ranging from allergy testing being made available in GP surgeries to banning the use of plastic bags.”

The spirit of Helena Auerbach and her passion for women’s issues lives on, and she would no doubt be proud of the continuing relevance of the organisation she did so much to build.

• For further information about the Surrey WI and how to join them, call 01483 236587 or pay a visit to their website at thewi.org.uk.


Dates for the Diary...

Surrey Federation of the WI centenary celebrations 2015

• Monday May 18: The Centenary Baton is handed over from the Middlesex Federation on a colourful Mississippi-style paddle boat from Walton Bridge

• Tuesday May 19, 10.30am: The Baton goes to Ripley Village Hall, Ripley

• Wednesday May 20, 10.30am: The Baton goes to Old Barn Hall, Bookham

• Thursday May 21, 1.30pm: The Baton goes to Reigate Park Church Hall, Reigate

• Friday May 22, 10.30am: The Baton goes to Normandy Village Hall, Normandy

• Saturday May 23: Celebratory picnic in London’s Hyde Park

• Saturday September 19: Harvest Fayre, Hampton Estate, Seale


Surrey’s suffrage heroine

Born in 1872, Helena Auerbach (née Joshua) was the third of four daughters of wealthy Jewish parents. A bright girl, she was heading for student life at Cambridge when she married Julius Auerbach in 1891.

An early member of the Women’s Suffrage Society, Helena was soon co-opted to the executive committee of the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies (NUWSS), under the leadership of president Millicent Fawcett, a passionate campaigner for women’s education (and later co-founder of Newnham College, Cambridge). Helena became its honorary treasurer, a post she held until 1917.

With the help of her husband, a trained businessman with a gift for figures, Helena worked hard to help build the NUWSS, which boasted more than 50,000 members at its height. Unlike Emmeline Pankhurst’s suffragettes in the Women’s Social and Political Union, the NUWSS members believed they would achieve their aim of votes for property-owning women by using peaceful tactics, such as petitions and non-violent demonstrations.

Helena commuted to London for meetings from Hethersett, the family’s Surrey home and farm in Reigate, which she moved to in 1902; she remained there until her death. On another point of interest, the house is perhaps best known in its role from 1956 to 1992 as a college run by the RNIB.

While still campaigning for women’s voting rights, Helena served on the Surrey Women’s War Agricultural Committee and then helped ‘Madge’ [Margaret] Watt, one of the original founders of the first WI movement in Canada, to open the inaugural Surrey Women’s Institutes in 1916. Helena was also county president for ten years until 1929.

In 1919, Helena was also invited to join the National Federation of Women’s Institutes executive committee as a co-opted member and treasurer, an office she held until 1927. From 1927 to 1930, she was second vice chairman, to assist the WI’s first president, Lady [Gertrude] Denman, a formidable feminist, with her many duties and engagements.

When Helena’s husband died in 1924, she generously set up the Helena Auerbach Trust Fund, the interest from which went to Federation funds. Part of the fund was put towards the purchase in 1953 of 26 Stoke Road, Guildford, the first WI building owned by the Surrey Federation.

The current headquarters, in Railton Road, Guildford, was opened in 2007 by Surrey WI’s most high profile member, HRH The Countess of Wessex.

After a long and active life, Helena died in September 1955.


A WI timeline...

1897: First WIs founded in Canada

1915: First WI started in Britain in Anglesey

1916: First three Surrey WIs formed at Betchworth, Brockham and South Park

1917: The National Federation of Women’s Institutes (NFWI) is formed

1918: First Surrey WI Federation (SFWI) meeting is held on June 18

1919: First WI market in Lewes, East Sussex. ‘Madge’ Watt forms a WI at Sandringham and Queen Mary becomes the president

1920: Helena Auerbach is elected chairman of the SFWI

1921: Lincoln WI member Margaret Winteringham is elected as MP for Louth; the first English-born, female MP and only the second woman elected to Parliament

1924: Jerusalem first sung at national AGM

1934: SFWI Market Fair is held at Albury Park, with an attendance of over 6,000

1937: First SFWI Horticultural Exhibition is held at Gatton Park in Redhill

1939-45: The war years in Surrey see projects such as help with London evacuees, co-operative seed buying, knitting for liberated countries and digging for victory

1947: A rally is held at Clandon Park

1951: Festival of Britain concert at Dorking Halls features WI Choir of 700

1953: The SFWI headquarters moves to 26, Stoke Road, Guildford. The SFWI coronation party is held at Polesden Lacey in Great Bookham

1954: HM The Queen Mother, a WI member, attends the AGM. An anti-litter campaign is launched, which forms Keep Britain Tidy

1958: SFWI’s 40th birthday celebrations

1965: The NFWI Golden Jubilee. Also, Surrey wins both cups at the Dairy Show – never before achieved by any county. Members attend a special Royal Garden Party and Lord Mayor’s reception at the Guildhall

1968: The SFWI ‘s 50th anniversary

1971: Burstow WI’s garden design is shown at Chelsea Flower Show

1973: The SFWI buys new headquarters at 2 Denmark Road, Guildford

1978: SFWI Diamond Jubilee celebrations

1988: The SFWI’s 70th birthday celebrations; a service is held at Guildford Cathedral

1990: HM the Queen addresses the AGM for the NFWI’s 75th anniversary

1993: The SFWI’s 75th birthday

2000: Yorkshire WI publishes the first Alternative WI Calendar, posing semi-naked, to raise funds for Leukaemia & Lymphoma Research; so far, more than £3m raised

2007: Surrey WI member HRH The Countess of Wessex opens new SFWI headquarters in Guildford

2012: Members at the AGM break Guinness World record for the most people knitting simultaneously in a single location

2015: The NFWI centenary celebrations and national baton relay

Latest from the Surrey