The Centenary of the first Women’s Institute meeting in England has resulted in new listings and re-listings of buildings associated with this important institution.
Historic England writes:
- Re-listings announced by Historic England on the centenary of the first Women’s Institute meeting in England
- WI movement began in 1915 to encourage women to grow and preserve food in the face of wartime shortages
- WI played an instrumental role in getting village halls built across the country as well as their educational and social role, bringing together women from all walks of life
The Department for Culture, Media and Sport has re-listed four buildings because they are integral to the history of the Women’s Institute (WI) on the advice of Historic England. The re-listings celebrate the story of the WI and are announced today to mark the centenary of the first WI meeting in England.
Due to the WI’s significance for women, for rural life and for British society in general, the place of their first meeting in England; the home of their first Chairman; their training college and one of their earliest institute buildings are of national historic interest. The four buildings were already listed but now their historical connections to the WI have been researched and included in the list description on the National Heritage List for England. The List is managed by Historic England, on behalf of the Government. It affords special protection to the most important parts of England’s physical heritage, so that our history can be enjoyed by present and future generations.
The Women’s Institute began in Britain in response to the need for increased food production during the First World War, by providing the education and organisation through which the skill and labour of women could be made most effective.
On 9 November 1915 the first Women’s Institute meeting in England was held at The Fox Inn, Charlton, West Sussex by the Singleton and East Dean Women’s Institute (the first WI formed in England). The meeting took place in the pub’s back room, now known as the Hat Rack Bar. The inn-keeper of The Fox was a woman and founder-member, Mrs Laishley, which may have helped make the pub a welcoming venue for Women’s Institute meetings. The newly-opened village hall at Singleton, where the WI now meets, was at that time for the use of men only. Now known as The Fox Goes Free, the pub was listed at Grade II in 1986 but has now been re-listed to mark its historic special interest.
Early WI meetings frequently took place in places such as schools, and private or public houses. After the war, the WI was instrumental in setting up village halls, for community activities, whilst many WIs established their own buildings, sometimes re-using existing structures; army surplus huts, for example, or Nonconformist chapels.
In 1947 The WI bought the 18th century Marcham Park in Oxfordshire for use as a training college having made the decision that the organisation ‘should provide a centre for educational and social intercourse and activities’. The house was renamed Denman College, in honour of the first Chairman, Lady Gertrude Denman, who was at that point recently-retired, and it opened in 1948. In the early days of the college, members slept in dormitory style rooms and helped with household chores. Courses included domestic and practical skills, including garage work and butchery.
An avenue of limes was planted in honour of Madge Rose Watt, the Canadian who was instrumental in the formation of Women’s Institutes in Britain. The college (now known as Denman) continues to this day and the building has been re-listed so the history of the WI training college is noted.
In 1948 the Mechanics Institute in Newbrough, Northumberland was gifted to the local Women’s Institute, along with a sum of £100 for decorating and renovation work. Newbrough Women’s Institute was founded in 1923 by over a hundred women from the village, and prior to acquiring the former mechanic’s Institute, they met in the adjacent town hall. The building has panels inscribed with ‘Women’s Institute’ between the ground and first floor windows.
The Women’s Institute’s first Chairman was Lady Gertrude Denman (1884-1954) who held the post from the formation of the Federation of Women’s Institutes in 1917, until 1946.Balcombe Place in Sussex was Lady Denman’s home from 1905 until the end of her life. The building was Grade II* listed for architectural reasons (an 1856 country house by the distinguished architect Henry Clutton) and has now been re-listed to reflect the strong historical association with Lady Denman. During the Second World War, the house also became the administrative headquarters of the Women’s Land Army. Lady Denman was active in many other areas of women’s welfare – in 1930 she helped found and became chairman of the National Birth Control (later Family Planning) Association, and from 1938 she co-ordinated the re-establishment of the Women’s Land Army, lending Balcombe Place for its use.
Culture, Media and Sport Minister, Baroness Neville-Rolfe said: ‘Since their first meeting in England in 1915 the WI has become a much loved British institution. I am very pleased to re-list these special places and preserve the historic significance of this extraordinary social movement. As a farmer’s daughter I am very aware that the WI was formed during the First World War encouraging women to grow and preserve food.’
Esther Godfrey, Listing Adviser at Historic England, said: ‘These four buildings tell the story of the formation and the development of the Women’s Institute in England from a small meeting in the back room of a pub to a thriving national institution. We are delighted to be able to celebrate the history of this significant movement on the National Heritage List for England.’
Janice Langley, Chair of the NFWI, said: ‘We’re delighted that these buildings are being celebrated as they played important roles in the very beginnings of the WI. Since the first meeting on Anglesey on 16 September 1915, the WI has empowered women to become engaged citizens who are fully involved in all aspects of life, and to take an active role influencing communities locally, regionally, and nationally. ‘It’s fantastic that Historic England has joined in the celebrations today – here’s to the next inspirational 100 years!’
To begin with, WIs mainly met in existing buildings such as schools, village halls, private house and pubs. After the war, the WI was instrumental in getting village halls built (in association with the Village Clubs Association), and many WIs met in these, rather than in halls specifically designed for WI use. These are not listed but help to illustrate the experience of WI women across the country. For example, the WI at Tatsfield, Surrey, founded 1925, took over a turn-of-the-century Baptist Hall, a plain tin tabernacle remaining fairly intact, which had the 1970s WI logo over the door.
Many WI halls were prefabricated buildings, some being bought from army surplus, such as the hut bought by the WI of Girton, Cambridgeshire, at a Ministry of Munitions sale in 1920, and still in use today. The timber WI hall at Romanby, Northallerton, North Yorkshire, also in use today was erected specifically for the WI.
The interwar WI hall at Parbold, Wigan, Greater Manchester is fairly unusual in being purpose-built to a distinct design, with the purpose of the building demonstrated in the initials ‘P.W.I.’ inscribed in a panel in the gable.
The listed buildings can be explored in the National Heritage List for England.
Historic England article