Happy New Year! At the start of every New Year most people make resolutions – lose weight, stop smoking, join the gym, etc. The resolutions made, often reflect our need to enhance our lifestyle by becoming slimmer, healthier and ultimately happier. Your resolutions can also include stimulating your mental wellbeing by starting a new hobby or joining a group…such as the Women’s Institute. The W.I. are celebrating their 100 year birthday in 2015 and despite its “Jam and Jerusalem” image, young ladies whose average age is nearer 30 than 75 are joining groups and having a ball. I’m chatting to a lovely young bunch of ladies from the Spa Sweethearts W.I. this week about why they joined and is it all about Jam and Jerusalem…. Welcome Becky…
Hi! My name is Becky Warburton, I’m 26 and I’m the president of Spa Sweethearts Women’s Institute in Harrogate, North Yorkshire. In my day job, I’m the Student Activities Manager at the University of York Students’ Union, which basically means I organise extra curricular activities for students while they study.
The Women’s Institute is celebrating its centenary this year. What was your initial incentive to become a member?
I’d just come back from uni in Newcastle and a lot of my old school friends had moved out of Harrogate. I wanted to do something that would help me get to know some new people, so my mum and I went along to a meeting. Within a few months, we’d both joined the committee, and I’ve been president since February 2014.
I imagine a lot of people perceive the WI as being all “Jam & Jerusalem” with an average age of 75 and with the saucy antics of the Calendar Girls. I am sure that there are groups like that in the UK but not everywhere is that the case. Being a group of women in their thirties who are very active members how do people react when you say you’re a member? How did you join – was it via word of mouth, out of interest,etc?
Yes, whenever I say I’m in the WI, people look a bit confused, then they either ask me if I can make jam or they make some reference to stripping off for a calendar. With 100 years of history, it’s a shame that that’s all people can think of! There’s so much more to it than that.
The WI has done a lot of campaigning over the last century and has done an enormous amount of good for society. The jam link actually stems back to the Second World War, when there was a huge drive to preserve fruit and vegetables, so WI members made a lot of jams, pickles and chutneys to help the country get through food shortages. In the 1950s, they launched a drive to reduce littering which was the beginning of the Keep Britain Tidy campaign group that has just celebrated its diamond jubilee. More recently, campaigns have been about things like increasing the number of midwives to make childbirth safer, and supporting local businesses to make sure our high streets survive the recession.
I heard about Spa Sweethearts at the Great Yorkshire Show as I visited the WI ‘tent’ to find out some more information and see if there was a group local to us. One of the advisors mentioned the Sweethearts and I knew immediately that that was the group for me.
So what do enjoy most about being members of the Women’s Institute? Have you a favourite activity that you do as a member of the Women’s Institute?
I really love the sense of community that I get from not only being a member but also from working alongside my amazing committee members. They never fail to make me smile, even after the worst of days at work! But I also enjoy learning something new and different every month and getting to step outside of my comfort zone every so often.
Baking and jam making still are popular pursuits, and joking aside, the Women’s Institute do know how to bake and make jams. Even TV shows like Masterchef call on the Women’s Institute for judging events. Be honest, how’s your baking? Are you expected to have expertise in culinary skills or an interest in that field?
I love baking and I’m not too bad at it, but not all of our members are. A lot of them have other talents, like sewing or knitting. Some aren’t interested in that sort of thing at all, and that’s fine too – we’re a very diverse lot! But we’re all pretty good at eating the cakes even if we can’t make them ourselves.
What benefits do you feel that the Women’s Institute could offer the lady in her 20s,30s,40s,50s?
When Spa Sweethearts was formed, the ladies from the WI who guided us through the process told us “The WI is what you make of it” and we’ve found that to be completely true. If you want to join the WI to learn traditional skills like baking, jam-making and knitting, you can. If you want to find an outlet for your campaigning side, you can do that too. You can be part of your community just by turning up to meetings, or you can use the meetings to invite people from your town or city to tell you about what they do, such as charity workers, police officers or even unusual things like forensic scientists. There’s no limit on what you can do with your meetings. We try to make our programme as varied as possible, so everyone can find something they’re really interested in, but we also encourage our members to come to all the meetings even if they’re not so enthusiastic about the topics. Quite often, people find they have a hidden talent that’s only uncovered by giving something a go for the first time at a WI meeting!
Of course, many people also come along just for the social aspect – to have a chat and a cup of tea, or even something a bit stronger. The great thing about the WI is that there are thousands of branches, so whatever your age and interests there is more than likely one to suit you. And even if not, you can just start your own – you only need three ladies!
What famous lady would you love to see strutting through your doors asking to become a member?
This is a really tricky one! Well the obvious answer is someone like Mary Berry, as I think our members would love a master class with her! But then I would have to say someone like Giovanna Fletcher, who is one of favourite authors (and also married to Tom from McFly!) because she loves so many aspects of the WI like baking and crafting as well as sharing her opinions through her many social media platforms but she also writes about a traditional WI in one of her books, Billy and Me, and so I would love for her to experience a Spa Sweethearts meeting to show how diverse we are as an organisation and the amazing things that we get up to.
Going back to the Calendar Girl reference – that must have been quite a giggle and at the same time it did stir some interest in the Women’s Institute as well as the charitable aspects of it all. Have you had any funny moments that you can tell us about at WI?
Nothing quite as headline-hitting as that! Our committee meetings are always hilarious – we have lots of work to do organising our monthly meetings, but we have such a laugh as well. One of my highlights was actually from the very first meeting I attended, which just so happened to be on jam making! It was led by two members of our federation who have been members for years and years and who were just this incredibly funny double act, telling us all about the organisation and why they love it so much and I just thought to myself, if I’m still involved at their age and enjoying it as much, then I’d be pretty happy.
Any advice to any ladies wishing to join the Women’s Institute? How should she go about joining?
Do it! The easiest thing to do is to go onto the WI website, www.thewi.org.uk, and put in your postcode to get a map of all the WIs near you. Alternatively, search for your nearest federation (regional office) and give them a call – they’ll be able to tell you which WIs are most likely to suit you in your area. Get in touch with one and find out when their next meeting is, then just go along. Most WIs let guests come to their meetings for a small fee, so you can try before you buy! And membership for 2015 is only £36, so if you do sign up for a year it’s really good value.
What outfits and shoes would you normally be found wearing at a meeting?
For me, it’s whatever I’ve been to work in as I never have much time in between getting home, grabbing some dinner and getting to the meeting, to think about changing. I’ll usually just be in jeans or something comfy as there is often a fair amount of setting up or cleaning to do before and after meetings – we all get quite stuck in with that.
You must have had many inspirational speakers visit your group – what speaker or topic did you feel was the most inspiring for you personally or inspired the group as a whole?
One of my favourite and more inspiring meetings was when we had Dee Marshall, from Welcome to Yorkshire, come to speak to us about Le Grand Depart in June 2014, about three weeks before it arrived in Harrogate. I’ve become a massive cycling fan since London 2012 and so was incredibly excited about all these world class cyclists racing through the streets of my home town. I’d also signed up to volunteer at the finish in Harrogate and so to hear Dee talk about how they had won the bid and all the preparation that had taken place was really interesting and made me even more excited to volunteer and be part of something that made me so proud to be from Yorkshire.
What’s next on the Women’s Institute event calendar for celebrating the 100 years?
There are loads of events planned to celebrate the centenary. We’ve got a lot of competitions going on for WI choirs, an official centenary fruit cake, heirlooms which can be passed down the generations… And there will be a couple of focal points in the year. Our national AGM is in June at the Royal Albert Hall and there will be lots of celebrations there, plus there’s a three-day WI Centenary Fair in our hometown, Harrogate, from 3rd-6th September, when WI members from around the country will be descending on us to meet up and celebrate.
At Spa Sweethearts WI, we’ll be going along to as many of the events as we can, but we’ve also got our own centenary fair planned for mid-September. We’re hoping to have lots of traditional elements like baking and craft competitions, but of course we’ll be putting our own spin on it as usual. It’s all part of our year-long campaign to get to 100 members of Spa Sweethearts in the WI’s 100th year. We want to prove there’s still plenty of life in the WI, and to get younger women in particular to put aside their preconceptions and come to a meeting with an open mind. It’s our way of making sure the WI will still be around to celebrate its 200th anniversary!
I’ve also launched a Twitter campaign under @WomenoftheWI. Every week, a different WI will take control of the account and tweet about their week – hopefully including live tweeting their meeting. The aim is to show how diverse our membership is, and how many amazing and wonderful things are going on around the country every week. The interest from other WIs in taking part has been really encouraging and I’m so excited about seeing how it all pans out.
Boots Or Shoes?
Completely depends on the time of year but spring and summer I live in ballet flats as they just go with everything and are so comfy, but then as soon as autumn and winter hit, I live in boots. I’m someone who gets very grumpy if I get wet feet, so I’ve got to keep warm in the winter months.
Links you would like to share e.g. website/facebook/twitter etc so that readers of the blog can learn more about your Harrogate group and the Womens Institute in general.
Our details are:
You can also find a lot of other WIs on Facebook and Twitter, as well as the national accounts:
Thank you Becky – I’m sure that you and your fellow WI friends will encourage many other younger ladies to take the plunge and go and find a group to suit them. It sure sounds that you have lots of fun and I wish the whole WI organisation a fabulous centennary year!
All photos published with kind permission of Becky & the ladies of Spa Sweethearts W.I.