About the WI
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. Since then the organisation's aims have broadened and the WI is now the largest voluntary women's organisation in the UK. The WI celebrated its centenary in 2015 and currently has almost 220,000 members in approximately 6,300 WIs.
The WI plays a unique role in providing women with educational opportunities and the chance to build new skills, to take part in a wide variety of activities and to campaign on issues that matter to them and their communities.
The WI is based on the ideals of fellowship, truth, tolerance and justice. The organisation is non-sectarian and non-party political. WIs are charitable and everything they do must be consistent with that special legal status.
Who we are
The National Federation of Women's Institutes (NFWI) Board of Trustees consists of twelve elected members, plus the Chair of the Federations of Wales Committee (elected by federations in Wales) who is an ex-officio board member. The NFWI Board can co-opt two further trustees from within the membership, so the Board can be a maximum of 15 trustees in total. The Trustees appoint four officers from their number: the Chair, the Honorary Treasurer and two Vice Chairmen.
There are ten members of Senior Staff who head key departments in the organisation. The staff team is led by the NFWI General Secretary.
How to find us
The NFWI headquarters is located in Fulham, London. Follow the link for a very brief history about the building.
Open Hours: 09:00-17:00 Mon-Fri
Address: 104 New Kings Road, London SW6 4LY
The majority of the WI's income comes from annual membership subscriptions, which is supported by funds raised by our trading arm, WI Enterprises. Other sources of revenue include grant-making bodies, educational trusts, commercial sponsors and investments.
Key document downloads
The WI archives contain a brief history of the WI movement from its origins in Canada in 1897 and the first WIs in Britain in 1915, up to the present day.
The material is presented as a time line. After a short piece about the origins of the movement, the time line has been divided into decades. At the beginning of each decade there is a brief summary of events, setting the scene and giving the context to what was happening in the WI during those years. For each year there are headlines for the main events. For many of these events, or people, further information is provided on a linked page, just click on the section underlined.
If you you have an archive query or would like further information about the history of the WI, please get in touch with the Communications Department using the contact form here.
These archive documents have been kindly compiled by former NFWI Hon. Archivist Anne Stamper, who has drawn on previously published material including copies of the WI's original monthly magazine Home and Country, which dates back to 1919, and other documents deposited in the NFWI archives.
The NFWI and Denman archives are deposited at the Women's Library, which has recently moved to its new home at the London School of Economics (LSE) library, where forms part of a major collection and is accessible to the public The material is now included in the Genesis project, a mapping initiative to identify and develop access to women's history sources in the British Isles. The searchable index is available at http://www.genesis.ac.uk and information is also available on http://www.archiveshub.ac.uk.
The records of many individual WIs and federations are deposited in their local County Record Offices, where they can also be accessed by the public, though it is usually wise to order them in advance.
The Women's Institute Movement in Britain started in 1915. During the First World War it was formed to encourage countrywomen to get involved in growing and preserving food to help to increase the supply of food to the war-torn nation.
Click here to discover historical events that took place in during the WI's formative years.
Once the war was over the newly formed WIs began to concentrate on planning programmes of activities to suit their members. This new organisation attracted members from the Lady of the Manor, to her housemaid and cook; from the local shop keeper to the wife of the farm labourer: working together in the WI helped to break down the social barriers between countrywomen who had rarely met in the past. Women had now received the vote (at least those over 30) and NFWI was anxious to encourage women to become active citizens.
Click here to discover historical events that took place in individual years in the 1920s.
By now the WI had become firmly established in the countryside, and was so well known that it was the subject of cartoons in Punch.
There was a light-hearted feel to WI activities with WI members taking part in music festivals, country dancing and some very ambitious pageants and plays were performed.
Historical pageant in Westmorland. The organisation continued to support the League of Nations and in 1934 sent a delegate to the International Congress in Brussels. When war seemed inevitable, the NFWI had to decide what role it would play.
Click here to discover historical events that took place in individual years in the 1930s.
During the Second World War the WIs felt that it was important to maintain their meetings as normally as possible, “thus providing for the members a centre of tranquillity and cheerfulness in a sadly troubled world.”
Cookery demonstration at a wartime WI meeting
During the war, the WIs contributed an enormous amount to the Home Front. From the outbreak of war in 1939 they co-operated with caring for evacuees, but, as in the First World War, the main contribution was in growing and preserving food. Between 1940 and 1945 over 5,300 tons of fruit was preserved; that is nearly 12 million pounds of fruit which might otherwise have been wasted, provided food for the nation. This was the war work for which WI members became renowned (and the 'jam' image has stuck ever since).
One positive event in the 1940s was the formation of the WI’s Denman College which opened in 1948.
Click here to discover historical events that took place in individual years of the 1940s.
Once the war was over the WI concentrated on getting back to normal as quickly as possible. The Headquarters at 39 Eccleston Street was repaired of its war time damage. Denman College was lovingly furnished and the bedrooms with their hand made bedspreads became a special feature. The NFWI celebrated the beginning of the 1950s with a national music festival. In 1952 a national craft exhibition was staged at the Victoria and Albert Museum, the centrepiece of which was a huge wall hanging depicting The Work of Women in War. Finally the decade closed with a national drama festival. The NFWI continued its campaigning work and the highlight of this decade was the setting up of the Keep Britain Tidy Group.
39 Eccelston St NFWI Executive committee meeting
Click here to discover historical events that took place in individual years in the 1950s.
During the 1960s the WIs continued to grow in number. The Golden Jubilee was celebrated in great style in 1965 with, amongst other celebrations, a memorable garden party when the Queen invited her fellow members to Buckingham Palace. Between 1962 and 1966 the WIs raised £182,000 and WI Markets a further £3,000 for the Freedom from Hunger Campaign. There were two notable cultural events during the decade; the first National Art Exhibition and the specially commissioned operatic sequence The Brilliant and the Dark. The rule that restricted WIs to being formed in communities with a population of 4,000 or less was rescinded in 1965 and in 1968 there was a major conference on the Countryside.
Click here to discover historical events that took place in individual years in the 1960s.
The seventies opened and closed with new buildings being opened at Denman College. Although much of the public affairs work continued to be about supporting rural life there were also resolutions of a more overtly political nature. In 1974, the number of WIs reached its highest ever. The Diamond Jubilee in 1975 was celebrated with a large exhibition, This Green and Pleasant Land?, the question mark reflecting the concern that WI members felt about the future of the countryside.
Click here to discover historical events that took place in individual years in the 1970s.
There was a three-year campaign to raise the profile of the WI and a ‘promotion bus’ toured the country, parked in two or three locations in each county. There were also promotional stands in British Home Stores staffed by federations. The culmination of the three years was the WI Life and Leisure Exhibition held in 1984 at Olympia, attended on its opening day by the Queen. The decade ended with the WI's first appearance at the Chelsea Flower Show, bringing great success. The subjects of the resolutions debated at the annual meetings reflect women's concerns for current issues and show an awareness of modern technology.
Click here to discover historical events that took place in individual years in the 1980s.
This decade opened with the celebration of the WI's 75th anniversary, with the Queen attending the AGM. The National Federation held its first Triennial General Meeting at the National Exhibition Centre, Birmingham. During the decade, the NFWI worked in partnership with a number of organisations to develop special programmes. In 1998 over 450 members met at the Royal Institution for a special presentation, Great Scientists of the Royal Institution. Sport was promoted by the Regional Sports Coordinators and national competitions such as the golf tournament and the 1997 Swimfit campaign encouraged an active and healthy membership.
Click here to discover historical events that took place in individual years in the 1990s.
The Triennial General Meeting at the Wembley Arena in 2000 was addressed by the Prime Minister. Some of the 6,000 WI members present showed their disapproval with a slow hand-clap as they felt he was using the occasion to make a party political statement. The amount of coverage this received in the media changed the general public's image of the WI
The millennium was celebrated with a Craft Spectacular exhibition at Tatton Park, indicating a continued commitment to crafts, preserving and passing on old skills and developing new ones. The setting up of alliances with other organisations also helped the NFWI to conduct high profile campaigns.
Click here to see more key events in the 2000s.
The WI celebrated its centenary in 2015.
Click here to be taken to the dedicated centenary section of the website.
For archivists and researchers
This page contains links to, and downloads of, papers that have been given at conferences or talks to other groups over recent years, all relating to the history of the WI.
Most of these have been given by Anne Stamper, NFWI Hon. Archivist.
To download a copy of Thrift Crafts, the NFWI publication mentioned on the Wartime Farm television programme and on the BBC 2 programme, How we won the war, click here.
Paper given by Anne Stamper at Mainstream Women’s Organisations, a symposium to mark to opening of the NFWI archives to public access,
held at The Women’s Library, London Metropolitan University on 13th March 2004
Becoming Active citizens - Social action of the Women's Institutes in England and Wales – 1915 -1925
Article written by Anne Stamper for Studies in the History of Community and Youth work 2004
Unpublished article written by Anne Stamper, written Sept 2005
Countrywomen in Action - Voluntary Action in the National Federation of Women’s Institutes 1917-1965
Paper given by Anne Stamper at the International Conference ‘400 years of Charity – a conference on the history of voluntary action’ held at Liverpool University. A conference organised jointly by the Voluntary Action History Society, the School of History at Liverpool University and the Centre for Voluntary Organisation at the London School of Economics on September 11th 2001
Paper delivered by Anne Stamper to The Second International Conference on the History of Voluntary Action, held at Roehampton Institute, University of Surrey, 9-11 September 2003
Paper given by Anne Stamper at Hand Made Tales: Women and Domestic Crafts Study Day held at The Women’s Library 12November 2010.
Talk given by Anne Stamper at the Conference of the Adult Residential Colleges Association, held at Denman College, 8th May 2001
The role of the newly formed Women's Institute Movement in providing for the education and training of countrywomen 1919 – 1939
Paper given by Anne Stamper and Charlotte Dew at the study day ‘Education in Rural Areas in the Interwar period’ held at Museum of English Rural Life, Reading University – 17 September 2005
Paper given by Anne Stamper at a Voluntary Action History Society seminar held at London School of Economics on 21st March 2000.