Cheshire Women's Institute celebrate 90th anniversary (with audio)

PUBLISHED: 17:30 03 September 2010 | UPDATED: 17:47 20 February 2013

Pat Plumb, Margaret Jefferson, Margery Hall, Alison Horton and Irene Robinson

Pat Plumb, Margaret Jefferson, Margery Hall, Alison Horton and Irene Robinson

As Cheshire WI branches celebrate their 90th anniversary, chairman Margery Hall reveals it's no longer just about jam and Jerusalem <br/>WORDS BY SARAH COLES <br/>PHOTOGRAPHY BY KIRSTY THOMPSON

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Almost 90 years ago, on November 17th 1920, the Cheshire Federation for the Womens Institute was formed following a series of talks hosted in Manchester.

The WI movement was introduced to the country in 1913, when Mrs Alfred Watt, a Canadian, arrived in the country following the death of her husband. She introduced a society that had started in her native country in 1897. The idea of a strong female union working hard for positive changes was for many women in the early 20th century hard to resist.

The first WI Institute was formed at Llanfair PG in Anglesey in 1915 and, by the autumn of the following year, 24 were already at work. By 1917, there were 199 Institutes and these numbers were rapidly increasing.

Today, the WI has over 6,500 Institutes and 205,000 members.
Cheshire home to the second largest number of WI constituencies in the country is proud to be celebrating its 90th birthday year. The Cheshire Federations County chairman, Margery Hall from Comberbach, is keen to discuss the WIs planned activities for their anniversary year.

The WI year always starts in March when we have our annual meeting and the celebrations started with producing the Chairmans Challenge Booklet, which contains poetry, prose and illustrations, by WI members. Then in April we had a literary lunch and Lesley Pierce was a guest speaker.

A celebratory garden party was held in May, to which over 1,200 guests were invited, and former MP Edwina Currie is expected to give a speech at Winsford in October, before an eagerly anticipated service at Chester Cathedral in November. Special invitations for this service will be issued to some WIs who are celebrating their own 90th birthday, and who Margery likes to refer to as her birthday girls.

It is this sense of unity and friendship that first attracted Margery to the WI when, aged just 18, she joined the organisation in County Durham. She explained: I was born and grew up in a small mining village. There wasnt a lot to do, but there was a lot to do in the WI.

Margery temporarily left the WI when she married and moved away, but she rejoined in Comberbach in 1980. She is now enjoying her fourth year as county chairman. Margery is adamant that there is no time for airs and graces.

Im expected to do anything from the washing-up to chairing county meetings, she laughed. But my role has certainly changed. Fifty years ago I would have worn a hat and gloves, but now I work as hard as anyone. I sit on every sub-committee and accept invitations to group meetings and parties. I also do a lot of baking, so its very hands on, youre not just a figurehead.

However, Margery is keen to quash the stereotypical jam and Jerusalem image and reveals a number of surprising activities that members, both young and old, enjoy.

She said: Were all-encompassing and diverse. But the stereotypical image people think is really quite wrong - our members like to go quad biking and abseiling. We also gave members the opportunity to go trout fishing for two days, you name it we try it.

The WIs main aims to provide women with educational opportunities and new skills is still of great importance.

Margery explained: WI members have just run a course called Lets Cook to help young mothers who feel like theyre struggling, and other members go into schools. At Whitley school there has been a Seed to Saucepan campaign, and WI members at Holmes Chapel go into schools and teach the children how to knit.

Nationally, the WI is dedicated to achieving their eight Millennium Development Goals. These include eradicating extreme poverty and hunger, achieving universal primary education, promoting gender equality, reducing child mortality, improving maternal health, combating HIV/AIDS and ensuring environmental sustainability.

There is no doubt that younger members have helped to develop the older womens awareness of current issues.

Margery said: A lot of the younger WIs dont think their baking skills are as important as the issues in public affairs, but they do appreciate our traditional skills. The younger members are generally more interested in public affairs and technology and the ways we can help local communities.

With new WIs cropping up across the county, the Cheshire Federation is going from strength to strength. Certainly, the WI movements main message of fellowship, truth, tolerance and justice has gone a long way to help women fight their way to equality.

The fact that the WI is now extending this same message to victimised women and children across the world highlights just how far the WI has come since Mrs Watt left Canada.

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