History

The WI has been inspiring women for over 100 years. Discover more about our history, from our origins through to the present day.

Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II

Women have been granted the vote, British women have climbed Everest for the first time and the country has elected its first female prime minister. The Women's Institute has been a constant throughout, gathering women together, encouraging them to acquire new skills and nurturing unique talents.

Formed in 1915, the Women's Institute was originally brought to life 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 below timeline highlights the most important milestones of our longstanding history. 

If you wish to receive further information on the history of the WI, please get in touch with the Communications Department using the contact form. And if you consider yourself a WI expert already, why don't you try your luck at our digital WI Quiz? Simply follow this link!

WI Centenary Cake

  1. 1910s

    In 1915, the first WI meeting in Britain is held in Anglesey (Wales).  Only two years later, the National Federation of WIs, a democratic, non-party political and voluntary organisation, is formed and mainly led by women who were involved in the suffrage movement. WI members pass the first resolution in 1918, urging local authorities to take advantage of the government scheme for state-aided housing. By then 137 WIs have opened.

  2. 1920s

    1924 marks the year WI members sing "Jerusalem" for the very first time. It was specially composed for the WI and adopted because of its links with the suffrage movement.  Little did the WI members know that their "performance" at the Annual Meeting in London would start a tradition that continues to this day.

  3. 1930s

    In 1938, the British Government asks the Women's Institutes to help with preparations for the potential evacuation of children to the countryside in the event of war. Additionally, the WI, now a force of over 290.000 women, sets up a Produce Guild to encourage members to produce more home-grown food and preserve fruit and vegetables.

  4. 1940s

    During World War II, the WI plays a vital role in growing and preserving food and looking after evacuees. To highlight just one achievement: in 1940, the NFWI manages to obtain £ 1,400 worth of sugar that is distributed to Fruit Preservation Centres and prevents more than 1600 tons of produce from rotting.
    It is also during the 1940s that a WI resolution demands equal pay for men and women.
    After the war, in 1948, Denman College, the WI's centre for learning, first opens its doors to students.

  5. 1950s

    After passing a resolution to start a national anti-litter campaign, the WI and 25 other UK organisations form the Keep Britain Tidy group.

  6. 1960s

    Looking back at the past 50 years, the WI has more than enough reason for a great celebration of its Golden Jubilee in 1965. As President of a WI herself, Queen Elizabeth II invites her fellow members to a Garden Party at Buckingham Palace. During this memorable decade, WIs also greatly support the Freedom From Hunger Campaign in raising awareness of the problem of worldwide hunger and male nutrition. Together, the existing 8.500 WIs manage to raise over £ 180.000 for FFHC.

  7. 1970s

    Still mainly supporting rural life, the WI also challenges issues of a more political nature, such as requesting a policy for recycling of waste, raising concerns about increased marine pollution and urging that more rented accommodation should be made available to alleviate homelessness.
    During the Great Jam Debate, the NFWI successfully lobbies for members to be exempt from having to register with the local authority to sell jam to the public.

  8. 1980s

    After voting for more information to be made available to the public around HIV and AIDS at the Annual General Meeting in 1986, WI members campaign to raise awareness on the immunodeficiency virus.

  9. 1990s

    Now a charitable company, the 1990s opens with the celebration of the WIs 75th anniversary.
    Shortly after, in 1993, the NFWI becomes a founding member of the Fair Trade Foundation and, throughout the decade, continues to establish partnerships with other organisations, such as Carers UK, to further develop and strengthen its campaigning efforts.

    Furthermore, Denman College is expanded by several cottages and various exhibitions as well as festivals, such as “Focus on Europe”, and conferences are held.

  10. 2000s

    Tony Blair, British Prime Minister at that time, sends the WI off into the new millennium with a buzz-generating speech at the 2000 Triennial General Meeting. As some of the 6,000 WI members present feel Blair is using the occasion to make a party political statement, they show their disapproval with a slow hand-clap.

    It is only three years later that the WI once again attracts the attention of the media when the movie “Calendar Girls”, starring Dame Helen Mirren, is released.

    The "Care not Custody" campaign demands alternatives for prisoners with severe mental health problems and resolutions urging reduced packaging to minimise waste and to further research the plight of bees are put forward.

    In 2007, the new membership magazine WI Life launches and becomes part of every member’s subscription. Only two years later, the WI Cookery School opens at Denman College.

  11. 2010s

    After breaking the world record for the most people knitting simultaneously at the AGM in 2012, WI members have even more reason to celebrate in 2015 as the Women's Institute marks its centenary. A year of festivities begins, including the WI Centennial Fair and Her Majesty The Queen addressing members at the Annual General Meeting at the Royal Albert Hall.

    In 2012, the first WI inside a women’s prison is formed. Since then, other prisons in the UK have followed the example, hoping to improve their inmates’ mental health.

    During this decade, key campaigns focus on environmental and social issues such as domestic violence against women, mental health, climate change and microplastic pollution.

    Amid the Coronavirus pandemic, the NFWI offices temporarily close and WI members once again show their resilience and collective strength by keeping their communities connected and supporting those in need. From sewing for the NHS, supporting food banks and delivering prescriptions, the WI Community Champions go above and beyond to help others.

    To celebrate LGBTQ+ Pride, the WI logo temporarily shines in the colours of the Pride flag.

The Canadian Background

How was the Women's Institute set up in Britain?

The Roaring Twenties

The Post-war Decade

The 1960s remain one of the defining decades for Britain. What did the Women's Institutes campaign on during the "Swinging Sixties"?


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