Thorpe Hesley WI: not just jam and Jersusalem

They’re the matriarch of the community, knitting together companionship with campaigning for women’s rights.

And as the largest women’s organisation in the UK, the Women’s Institute has inspired generations of women to learn from each other and be a force for good in the community.

The WI was started in 1915 to give women a voice, mainly led by the Suffragette Movement during the war. From the off, they made it clear they would be campaigning on issues impacting women and they passed their first resolution in 1918 regarding state-aided housing.

The South Yorkshire federation of the WI formed in 1983. Over the last 40 years it has grown to encompass 70 WI branches, stretching from Harthill to Ingbirchworth. All groups are independent and arrange their own schedule, but most meet once a month try new activities, listen to speakers and campaign on issues that matter to them. There are also social events throughout the year where different WIs come together.

Over the last 100-plus years, the WI has moved with the times, thanks in part to the tenacious committee members who keep things going. There is a wider range of activities, updates are shared on social media, and some groups meet virtually. But in many ways, its traditional values remain the same: the WI still campaigns vigorously, it still educates women, and it still provides a safe, welcoming and friendly environment for women to meet.

One Wednesday evening in November, I was invited along to a Thorpe Hesley WI meeting at Trinity Community Centre to find out if the WI would resonate with someone like me, a young mum in her early 30s?

Joan Egley has been a WI member since before I was born, having joined in her 50s when she moved to the area. She’s done most of the committee jobs since then, including president, but tells me much has changed in 30 years. “It used to be very rigid and things were done by the book. But it’s much more laid back now. We’re always open to new ideas to get more younger people involved, especially with the committee.”

That night, there was a bit of a revelation as co-president Sue announces there are seven new prospective members at the meeting, women who have come to try-out before joining. In honour of the new faces, and I presume my being there, we’re treated to a rendition of Jerusalem, the Hubert Parry anthem written for the First World War that has been inextricably linked to the WI since 1924.

Sue touches on thoughts of rebranding with a new name to make it ‘more hip’. But something about the influx of new people shows the appeal of the WI still remains for modern women – new name or not.

Friendship is the biggest pull for most members. The chance to get out of the house and socialise with women from a diverse range of backgrounds. It’s clear this group are a sisterhood, supporting each other through the highs and lows of life. There’s a big cheer when it’s announced a lady called Sybil has returned following a period of ill-health, and they make a big fuss when it’s a member’s birthday.

The younger generation like myself aren’t always the most forward with making new friends. But the Thorpe Hesley ladies welcomed me into their fold with open arms, sharing stories of why they keep coming back for more.

Gwen Knowles, 81, is one of their longest-standing members and first joined Thorpe Hesley WI in 2001 when her husband died. “I tried it and I’m still here. You’ve got to try new things when you have the time to do so. It’s not just about making cakes and jam. I look forward to the trips or meals out that we all go on.”

Each monthly meeting is different and committee member, Linda, organises the speakers. One of the WI’s main aims is to ensure members learn something new, so Linda tries to vary the topics to appeal to everyone’s interests. Last year they had visits from a Pilates instructor, singer, former mayor, and butler. One the night I visited, there was a wreath making demonstration from a local florist who uses foraged materials.

Thorpe Hesley WI meet on the first Wednesday of the month. But between each month, members can meet up regularly at the book club, walking club, or knit and natter group. They are also starting a quarterly coffee morning. The committee also organises summer and Christmas parties, as well as quizzes with other WI groups.

Throughout the year, members vote on resolutions and campaigns, calling for change on issues in society that matter to them. Recent campaigns have included climate change, menopause equality, domestic violence, digital exclusion, and autism and ADHD in women and girls.

If you’re looking to make a change this year, the WI is the place to start. Find your nearest WI branch online