Contributed by Wendy Cruxton
“The Women’s Institute (WI) was formed in 1915 to revitalise rural communities and encourage women to become more involved in producing food during the First World War” (National Federation of Women’s Institutes website). The Peaslake Women’s Institute (WI) was founded in March 1918, one of Surrey’s first WIs.
On 7 March 1918 at 3pm, at the Hut, Peaslake WI took its first breath. It is recorded that “Mrs Ayres read a telegram and letter from the President Mrs Smeaton giving her good wishes to the Institute and her regrets at being unable to attend the meeting.
Voting papers were distributed and Mrs Ayres, Miss Collard, Mrs Elms and Mrs Pullen were elected to serve us committee. Miss Paine proposed Mrs Ayres as a Vice President of the Institute which was seconded by Mrs Pullen and carried by all present by show of hands.
Tea was served and 50 members enrolled”.
In the first Committee meeting one week later (14 March 1918): “It was decided that members of the Institute may bring a friend to the meetings and have tea at a charge of 2d. Regular meetings of the Institute to be held on the first Thursday and committee meetings on the second Thursday of each month. […]”
First full meeting (4 April 1918): “Mrs Ayres read a telegram from the Chairman Mrs Smeaton of good wishes to the Institute then gave a short talk on the use of the Suggestion Box and some ways in which members might help each other and on the possibility of cooperation in canning fruit and vegetables. Mrs Abram offered to make enquiries about the apparatus and cans. Mrs Gregory promised to enquire about pig clubs and how they were managed. Some useful leaflets on the seasons for planting vegetables were distributed[…].”
These two meetings establish the format for meetings in the years to come: business, demonstration/lecture, tea, entertainment (usually by members), and the national anthem to close. In December, a competition was included, with two prizes: 1st prize was 2/-d, 2nd prize was 1/-d […]. Subjects ranged from the practical (a child’s garment from an adult’s), to amusing and fun ones (a hat made in five minutes from a sheet of newspaper and 10 pins). The judges for the competitions we usually invited from […] neighbouring WIs, the speaker at the meeting or someone who suited. For example, one year a member, Mrs Webb from Fulvens Farm, was asked if she would allow Mr Rennie to judge the potatoes which had been grown from the 1lb. of potatoes purchased earlier in the year for the competition.
The Suggestion Box requests helped plan the programme, which, in the early days, was half yearly, and continue to do so for many years. Funds were obviously very limited but, from time to time, outside speakers were engaged. Together with a wealth of knowledgeable and talented members upon which to draw, the subjects of the lectures/demonstrations were numerous and varied with much emphasis on being self-sufficient and making do.
In these formative years, the names Miss Moberley, Mrs Webb and Miss (Sylvia?) Drew are much in evidence, possibly the equivalent of today’s WI Advisers. If a lecture/demonstration for a specific subject was acquired Surrey WI was contacted, by letter, for a recommendation (as there was no yearbook at this time) and these three ladies came themselves on numerous occasions. It also of note that Peaslake WI members were not immune to the influenza outbreak of 1918, with some members reported absent from meetings due to illness.
The Government (WI) Organiser came in May and “gave a little lecture on the work of Women’s Institutes in other villages and reason for joining the Federation and announced that Peaslake WI was formally affiliated.”
Throughout the year, demonstrations/lectures covered “Herbs and Herb Collecting for the Market”, “Fruit Preserving and Bottling”, “Fruit Drying and Canning”, and the work done by St Dunstan’s [Hospital for the Blind, set up to rehabilitate blinded soldiers] with photographs showing the blinded men working on netting frames invented by Miss G H Weatherby, the speaker.
“At Mrs Smeaton’s request, Mrs Ayres gave a short talk on Independence Day on 4 July, and what it means to 2 Americans and then all stood and sang the Star-Spangled Banner. This was followed by the most interesting address by Mr Heffer, on the war and how the civilian population could help win it by economy, particularly of food and the prevention of all waste.”
By September, the Peaslake WI was well established with increasing references to contact with neighbouring WIs, especially with Ewhurst and Shere; there seemed to be a particularly close bond with Ewhurst. Requests from County and National [WI Federations] for items exhibitions held that year to be declined as time was too short to prepare anything, but, when possible, that was in attendance. […]
The need for more housing was as relevant in 1918 as it is today, as recorded in October: “Mrs Ayres spoken rural housing and the necessity for more and better cottages to be built after the war”. Papers were handed round the suggestions that could be forwarded to the Housing Committee of the District Council, which the Housing Committee requested be returned by 18 November.
Note: interestingly, Miss Ayres is listed on the committee as ex-officio Agriculture Committee.
In December, WI Headquarters sent a directive to all WIs that their meetings must not be used for political or electioneering purposes. Fast forward to September 1920, Miss Austen of Reigate, on behalf of the National Political Union, asked that an emergency meeting of Peaslake WI should be held to protest against the miners’ strike, that delegate should be sent to a meeting of protest in London, and that a resolution of protest was enclosed should be signed by members of Peaslake WI and sent to the Secretary of the National Political Union at once. After due consideration, the committee felt it might savour party politics, but agreed that every effort should be made to stop the strike. Instead, the Resolution from the Union was altered, signed by the members present, and return together with an explanation direct to the chairman of the meeting. Surrey WI was informed of their action. In reply, the County Secretary wrote to apologise to Miss Austin’s letter and stated that the letter the letter should not have been sent.
On our first anniversary of the March records and committee minutes clearly show that the ladies of Peaslake had fully embraced the opportunity to come together the friendship; to learn; share knowledge; to support each other and the community; and to enjoy themselves and be involved in all things WI at local, Federation and National level.
Note: it also became clear as the years passed that Peaslake WI did not hesitate to speak out and show support, or disapproval, when deemed necessary.
In July, the committee was read an extract from the Toronto Daily News on Women’s Institutes in Canada and England. In addition, there was a letter from Mrs Watt OBE asking for samples of work to be sent to Canada by 1 August. [Mrs Margaret (Madge) Watt was the energetic Canadian Women’s Institute member who brought the WI to Britain.]
Mrs Smeaton read the editorial on Peace from the August Home and Country and then gave an account of her experience and impressions of the [19 July Peace Day] procession in London, and at the Royal Garden party at Buckingham Palace. A vote of thanks was proposed for the interesting and vivid story, which the whole room seconded by hearty clapping.
In the September meeting, members heard on account of the work of our women police. [The first women police were employed earlier in 1918, to assist in the maintenance of law and order with many male officers away with the Armed Forces]. Three years later at the June committee meeting, Mrs Smeaton reported on the May National Federation of Women’s Institutes Annual Meeting in London. It was decided to ask Miss Sutherland (Federation Secretary) to draw up a letter and have it signed by all the WI presidents and secretaries in Surrey, to be sent to Mr Edgar Horne MP, to urge the government “to give facilities for the passing into law of the Bishop of London’s Bill, the Guardianship Bill and to retain the women police”. The following month the Peaslake WI secretary was asked to send a letter to Mr Horne urging him to oppose the bill for the abolition of women police. Three years later, in October 1925, the subjects surfaced again, when Chief Inspector Champney spoke at Peaslake’s meeting: “she gave strong appeal in support of women police and suggested a resolution, which was proposed at this meeting and carried by a large majority”. Referred to again at the November meeting, members agreed by a large majority that it should be sent to our MP, the Home Office and the Surrey Clerk of Peace. It was also agreed to join the Women’s Auxiliary Service as an Associate. The December meeting unanimously agreed a resolution was to be sent to Surrey to come before the Annual Meeting in February. Peaslake WI sent 2/6d. a year to the Women’s Auxiliary Service as a token of sympathy for the work done by them.
In the February meeting, a letter was read from the Village Clubs Association and the Federation of women’s Institutes in conjunction with the Soldiers Clubs Association. The answer sent by the Secretary was to the effect that Peaslake had a Men’s Club, a parish hall and a new Hut, so that the village was well provided for.
The Annual Report: “The Institute has had lectures on the ‘Devastated Areas of France and Flanders’*, ‘Citizenship’, ‘Character Learning of Children’ and ‘Lantern Lecture on Burma’. Lectures and demonstrations on home nursing, tinkering and soldering, chair caning, skin curing and glove making, and millinery. The Institute also made 54 comments for the Save the Children Fund. An entertainment was arranged to raise funds to start a library for the Institute**.
*“Mrs Calvert Spensley spoke mostly about the Belgians. It was most pathetic to hear of the hardships and cruelty they had endured the hands of the Germans.”
**A library for the WI had been requested in the suggestion box. Following the successful fundraising entertainment on 15 December at an extra committee meeting on the 17th a letter was read from Mr Holt saying that if the Peaslake WI would agree to include Peaslake ex-servicemen as members of the new library, under the same conditions as Institute members, a grant of 5 pounds for the purchase of books could be obtained from the United Service Fund. It was agreed unanimously to cooperate with the ex-servicemen.
The Annual Report for 1921 detailed a year full of activity and variety. There were demonstrations; travel talks on Russia and Serbia*; and the Rector spoke on the reasons a necessity for the League of Nations, among others. The biggest and most successful undertaking of the WI was the starting of the WI library in conjunction with the ex-servicemen; the volume is now numbered over 400.
*The speaker gave an account of her experiences of the impossible life in Moscow and the Bolsheviks. At a later date a donation was sent to the Russian Famine Fund. Miss Drew spoke of her journey to Serbia the previous year, after which all felt they wished to know the Serbians personally. She asked the small gifts for the Serbian orphans of war. Nearly £1 was collected.
In March, the Library Committee had asked the Peaslake WI committee if it was possible for a deputation to meet the committee of the War and Spottiswoode Memorial to ascertain whether and when they would stop building, and whether they would incorporate into their building accommodation for the WI meeting room, library, etc. the Committee agreed and added to request to the Memorial committee that if it thought there was any definite prospect the members would work hard to get funds. It was announced at the August meeting that the trustees declared that women were certainly meant to participate in the benefit of the new Village Institute. Miss Payne, who was a member of the War and Spottiswoode Memorial, proposed to try and get three members of the WI Library Committee co-opted. The Peaslake WI Minute Book holds a vast amount of information on the ongoing dealings between the WI and the Memorial committee, and the hard work the members put in to raise funds