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First WI market opened

The first WI Market; Lewes, East Sussex

WI markets were started as outlets for surplus produce from members' gardens and small holdings, and allowed women (and men) to supplement their incomes.

On the 14th December, 1919. a WI Market was set up in Lewes in East Sussex. This was a collaborative effort between a number of WIs and is usually recognised as the first WI Market.

Miss Brand, a member of the East Sussex Agricultural Executive Committee, realised, from her service on the Food Production Committee of the county, that much could be done to increase the food supply by inducing villagers to produce more food in their gardens and allotments.

Miss Brand, assisted by Miss E Shiffner of Lewes, and supported by Lady Monk Bretton (one of the first VCOs) inaugurated the Lewes Women's Institute Produce market. Initially it was for selling the produce of members of the local branches of the Women's Institutes, but soon it expanded to others - small holders, cottagers, ex-service men.

At its height, the market was selling produce from members of 23 different WIs. Soon however non WI members were bringing goods to the market. Anyone could become a shareholder, small holders, cottagers, ex-service men, etc.

The small holders referred to were largely those living in 'the Holdings' in Ringmer, these were small holdings established under the Land Settlement Scheme for returning service men. Lady Monk Bretton stressed how valuable the market was to these small holdings: a number of these had not received the training and experience of the pre-war market gardener and small holder, more especially perhaps in connection with the marketing of their produce.

Still further, the quantity produced by these small holders was not sufficiently large to be handled by wholesale dealers. There is no doubt that but for the Women's Institute market at Lewes a number of these small holders would not have been able to dispose of their produce profitably. The success of a number of them is largely attributable to the assistance they have received from the Women's Institute Market.

Gradually other Federations - East Kent, Berkshire, Buckinghamshire - had WIs that were running markets but until 1932 there was no co-ordination between them.

Carnegie Grant to Expand WI Markets

The first ever WI market was started by Criccieth WI in the Summer of 1916. Helped by the Agricultural Organisations Society it became a registered co-operative society in 1917 with both male and female shareholders. It played an important role in providing local food during the war but when the war ended the Criccieth market stall gradually wound up its business.

On the 14th December, 1919, a WI Market was set up in Lewes in East Sussex. This was a collaborative effort between a number of WIs and is usually recognised as the first WI Market. Gradually other Federations - East Kent, Berkshire, Buckinghamshire - had WIs that were running markets but until 1932 there was no co-ordination between them.

In 1932 NFWI decided to expand marketing activity and held a conference on February 4th at Caxton Hall, London. The prime objective of the conference was to investigate possible methods for marketing foodstuffs which are now wasted when member's gardens are glutted with produce for which no means of marketing exists. It was attended by 183 representatives from 47 counties.

At this time there were only about 20 market stalls in existence of different types; co-operative markets and market stalls, roadside stalls and egg collecting depots in villages. Their work was described at the conference and considerable interest shown in developing more.

At the AGM of NFWI on May 10th 1932 the following, proposed by East Sussex Federation, was passed:

That present economic difficulties render it desirable that Women's Institute members should do their utmost to improve the quality and quantity of foodstuffs they raise, using these to greater advantage in the home and increasing amounts offered for sale through Women's Institutes co-operative markets or otherwise.

The National Federation then applied to The Carnegie Trust for financial help to promote this work and received a grant which enabled them to appoint Vera Cox to the staff as a marketing organiser. She drew up model rules and wrote the first marketing handbook with suggestions for the formation and the working of market stalls. By the end of 1932 nine counties had set up registered County Marketing Societies. Individual markets were registered under the Industrial and Provident Societies Act.

Country Markets

The WI markets were registered as co-operatives under the Industrial and Provident Friendly Societies Act. Producers (both men and women) became shareholders by buying a share for one shilling (5p)

In 1990 NFWI became a Charitable Company limited by Guarantee. As a result the Charity Commission and the NFWI legal advisers suggested a more 'arms length' relationship. By 1992 the annual turnover of country Markets was £10million but NFWI was a 'not for profit' organisation.

Finally in 1995 Markets separated from NFWI, adopting a new name 'WI Country Markets Ltd'. It moved into separate offices and became self financing. In 2004 the use of the WI initials was discontinued.