A Little History

The WI movement began at Stoney Creek, Ontario in Canada in 1897 when Adelaide Hoodless addressed a meeting for the wives of members of the Farmers' Institute. WIs quickly spread throughout Ontario and Canada, with 130 branches launched by 1905 in Ontario alone, and the groups flourish in their home province today. As of 2013, the Federated Women's Institutes of Ontario (FWIO) had more than 300 branches with more than 4,500 members. 

Margaret Robertson Watt MBE (June 4, 1868 – November 29, 1948) was a Canadian writer, editor and activist. She was a woman of great energy and drive who believed strongly in the power exerted by women working together. She is known to members of Women's Institutes in the United Kingdom for introducing the concepts and practices of the Canadian Women's Institute movement to Britain in 1914. Madge R Watt was born Margaret Rose Robertson in Collingwood Ontario  June 4, 1868. Her father was Henry Robertson Q.C. (1840-1923), son of John and Catherine Robertson of Hamilton. Her mother Bethia (1844-1893) was the daughter of John and Margaret Climie Rose of Bradford. Both parents were Canadian-born children of Scottish emigrants. Madge was a good speaker and able to put her points across clearly. Audience members sometimes said they felt as if she was speaking directly to each individual. Madge continued encouraging women to set up and work within Women's Institutes and helped train workers to carry on the administrative side of the organization. As a superlative organizer, she helped set up the first 100 Institutes and was Chief Organizer under the Board of Agriculture.

The Women’s Institute Movement began at a key time for women. In 1915 the war had begun to break down many of the social barriers that had existed before the war, and women were being forced to take a more active role in the community as the men were away in the armed services. At the same time the women’s suffrage movement had been making people, including women themselves, re-evaluate their position in society.  

John Nugent Harris, General Secretary of the Agricultural Organisations Society, which was instrumental in getting the WI movement established wrote later: ‘The suffragists made the pot to boil…..the Institute movement showed how some things could be got out of the pot’.

Many of the women involved in setting up the NFWI had been active in the women's suffrage movement and they saw in the WIs a way of educating and encouraging women to take an active part in public life

Grace Eleanor Hadow OBE. 9th December 1875 (Cirencester England )  19th January 1940 (Marylebone London England)

Choosing Jerusalem as the WI anthem came as a result of a letter to the former WI membership magazine “Home & Country” prior to the 8th Annual General Meeting in 1924. Grace Eleanor Hadow, Vice-Chair at the time, suggested its use after attending “Exhibitions or Council meetings at which the whole assembly joined in singing Sir Hubert Parry's setting of Blake's Jerusalem.” She pointed out that many WI members “would like to sing the song at the upcoming Annual Meeting.”   After an impressive “performance” of Jerusalem at the AGM, the NFWI ran a competition for an 'Institute song' which ended in Jerusalem being chosen at the official Institute’s song.

Jerusalem had been used by the National Union of Suffrage Societies in the 1918 celebrations of women's enfranchisement, and many of the leaders of the NFWI, including Grace E Hadow, had been part of that struggle to win the vote for women. By singing Jerusalem, the WI is marking its links with the wider women's movement, and its commitment to improving the conditions of rural life.

Dame Frances Farrer, NFWI General Secretary 1929-1959. Frances Farrer was the general secretary of the National Federation of Women’s Institutes, from 1929 to 1959. She was created a Dame (DBE) in 1953 in recognition of the immense contribution she made towards the war effort by acting as a conduit between the government and the membership. She was, as far as I am concerned, the chief Jambuster, in that she bust bureaucratic log jams and hassled ministers to get things done. An early hit on the Ministry of Food three days after war broke out produced 350 tons of sugar which went towards the first ad hoc jam preservation of autumn 1939. This proved to the Minister, Lord Woolton, in 1940 that he had an army of willing volunteers with access to surplus fruit who would help him to stock the nation’s larder. Miss Farrer took up cudgels on behalf of evacuees; she wrote to the Ministry of Health with members’ suggestions which fed into the Beveridge Report and she made sure that there were WI members represented on most post-war reconstruction boards. When the Board of Trade wanted to discuss clothes rationing they brought in two women they needed to get on side: Miss Farrer representing the WI and Lady Reading for the Women’s Voluntary Service. Miss Farrer would phone ministers before breakfast in order to get their attention. The only battle she never won was with a Mr Squance in the Department of Mines. He was responsible for petrol rationing. They locked horns in 1940 and she eventually wrote her last letter to him in April 1946. The WI was not entitled to bulk petrol rations, like the WVS and the Women’s Land Army, as it was not a war organisation, on account of its pacifist stance. Thus the WI was treated as a civilian social organisation, something that enraged Miss Farrer. She needed extra petrol for members to deliver their produce to country markets or to collect and deliver fruit to preservation centres. This was never forthcoming and members had to resort to catching lifts or using unusual sorts of transport. [ Credit: Summers Julie ]

Timeline quoted by NFWI:

    • 1910s

      In 1915, the first WI meeting in Britain is held in Anglesey (Wales). Three years later, members pass the first resolution urging local authorities to take advantage of the government scheme for state-aided housing. By then 137 WIs have opened.

    • 1920s

      1924 marks the year WI members sing "Jerusalem" for the very first time. Little did they know that their "performance" at the Annual General Meeting at Queen's Hall (London) would start a tradition that continues to this day.

    • 1930s

      With funding from the government, the WI sets up a Produce Guild to encourage members to produce more home-grown food and preserve fruit and vegetables.

    • 1940s

      Denman College, the WI's centre for learning, opens its doors to students.

    • 1950s

      After passing a resolution to start a national anti-litter campaign, the WI and 25 other UK organisations form the Keep Britain Tidy group.

    • 1960s

      The WI celebrates its Golden Jubilee, including a Royal Garden Party at the Buckingham Palace.

    • 1970s

      During the Great Jam Debate, the NFWI successfully lobbies for members to be exempt from having to register with the local authority to sell jam to the public.

    • 1980s

      After voting for more information to be made available to the public around HIV and AIDS at the Annual General Meeting in 1986, WI members campaign to raise awareness on the immunodeficiency virus.

    • 1990s

      In the 1990s, the WI not only celebrates its 75th anniversary with Her Majesty The Queen addressing the AGM but also becomes a charitable company limited by guarantee. In 1993, the NFWI becomes a founding member of the Fair Trade Foundation.

    • 2000s

      Tony Blair, British Prime Minister at that time, send the WI off into the new millennium with a buzz-generating speech at the 2000 Annual General Meeting. In 2007, the new membership magazine WI Life launches and becomes part of every member’s subscription. Only two years later, the WI Cookery School opens at Denman College.

    • 2010s

      After breaking the world record for knitting at the AGM in 2012, WI members have even more reason to celebrate in 2015 as the Women's Institute marks its centenary. A year of festivities begins, including the WI Centennial Fair and Her Majesty The Queen addressing over 5,000 members at the Annual General Meeting at the Royal Albert Hall.

Blake’s Jerusalem  (Setting by Sir Hubert Parry)

And did those feet in ancient time 

Walk upon England's mountains green?

And was the holy Lamb of God  

On England's pleasant pastures seen?

And did the countenance divine 

Shine forth upon our clouded hills?

And was Jerusalem builded here

Among those dark Satanic Mills?

Bring me my bow of burning gold!

Bring me my arrows of desire!

Bring me my spear! O clouds, unfold!  

Bring me my chariot of fire!

I will not cease from mental fight 

Nor shall my sword sleep in my hand

Till we have built Jerusalem

In England's green and pleasant Land


Lucy Worsley - Centenary Annual Meeting 2015

Click the picture of Lucy to hear her wonderful talk on the history of the WI. 


The WI Tapestry now preserved at the Imperial War Museum

The embroidery was designed by Miss Sybil Blunt of Winchester in such a way that it could be worked in pieces by members of the Women's Institutes in different parts of the country and joined together later. WI members from every county of England and Wales took part in the work.


They say that a photo says a thousand words, so here goes .....