The origins

  • Adelaide Hoodless – founder


    WI founded in Canada

    The first Women's Institute was formed in Stoney Creek, Ontario, Canada as a branch of the Farmer's Institute. Inspired by a talk given by Adelaide Hoodless at a meeting of the Farmer's Institute. Local farmers Erland and Janet Lee were instrumental in setting up the new organisation. They were supported by Ontario government who appointed Laura Rose to be the first organiser in 1899. The movement brought women from isolated communities together and offered training in home economics, child care and those aspects of farming that were traditionally done by women, such as poultry keeping and small farm animal husbandry.

  • Members of the first WI at Stoney Creek


    The first WI in Britain

    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. The first WI in Britain was formed under the auspices of the Agricultural Organisation Society (AOS). AOS Secretary, John Nugent Harris, appointed Canadian Madge Watt to set up WIs across the UK. The first one was at Llanfair PG, on Anglesey, North Wales on September 16th 1915, and the first WI in England was Singleton WI in Sussex.

  • 1916

    The AOS set up a Women's Institute sub committee to oversee the work and Lady Denman was appointed Chairman. By the end of 1916, 40 WIs had opened, the earliest in Wales and subsequently in England.

    By 1917, 137 WIs had been opened. When neighbouring WIs in Sussex decided to meet together, they formed the first Federation. Because the WI movement was growing so fast the Government decided it would be more appropriate for the responsibility for opening WIs to be handed over from the AOS to the Women's Section of the Food Department of the Board of Agriculture. At the same time, although the Board of Agriculture continued to fund the formation of WIs, the organisation became independent. The National Federation of Women's Institutes was formed on October 16th, when the rules were adopted and an executive committee elected. Lady Denman was elected Chairman and Grace Hadow, Vice Chairman.

  • 1918

    By the end of 1918 there were 199 WIs and seven county federations. The paid organisers were unable to keep up with the demand to form new WIs and so the first training school for WI Voluntary County Organisers was held. In order to fund the new organisation, and to promote the handicraft work being done, the First National Handicrafts Exhibition was held at the Horticultural Halls in Westminster.

    At the AGM the first resolution was passed urging local authorities to take advantage of the government scheme for state-aided housing.

    The first annual report of the NFWI was published.


    When the war was over, the Board of Agriculture handed over all responsibility for the formation of WIs to the NFWI, and the Government gave a generous grant for the work though the Rural Development Commission.
    The Consultative Council was set up, comprising representatives of every Federation and the members of the national executive committee, who met twice a year.
    Inez Ferguson was appointed as the General Secretary.

    Home and Country, the monthly NFWI magazine, started in March with Alice Williams as Editor.

    The first WI market opened in Lewes, East Sussex.
    Madge Watt formed a WI at Sandringham and Queen Mary became the President.

    By the end of 1919, there were 1,405 WIs across the UK.

View events from the origins

The 1920s

  • Lady Denman continued as Chairman; Miss Grace Hadow was vice Chairman with Mrs Helena Auerbach as Treasurer.

    A grant of £10,000 was made by the Government to the NFWI and the offer of decreasing grants until the organisation was self sufficient.

    The AGM passed a resolution urging the Government to pass the Bastardy Bill without delay. It also urged WI members to stand for Parish and District councils and for the committees dealing with health and housing.

  • Margaret Winteringham MP


    There are now 2,237 WIs.

    Mrs Margaret Winteringham, WI member and Honorary Secretary to Lindsey (Lincolnshire) Federation, was elected as Member of Parliament for Louth. She was the first English born female MP and only the second woman to be elected to Parliament.

    Mrs Winteringham was know in the organisation as "Our Institute MP".

  • 1922

    A resolution was passed at the AGM urging more public health education to prevent venereal disease.


    The formation of the Welsh Counties Conference. The first WI choral competition for WI choirs was held in East Sussex.

  • AGM in Queen's Hall, London


    Jerusalem was first sung at the Annual General Meeting, held at Queen's Hall. By singing Jerusalem the WI is marking its links with the wider women's movement, and its commitment to improving the conditions of rural life, which started a tradition that continues to this day.

    There are now 3,223 WIs.

View events from the 1920s

The 1930s

  • Collecting water from a village tap in Oxfordshire.


    An AGM resolution was passed asking for improved water supplies in villages, as was another calling for the preservation of ancient buildings.

  • 1931

    A resolution was passed at the AGM requesting better medical supervision of pregnant women in rural areas.


    A new resolution was passed calling on all WI members to support local efforts to deal with unemployment and distress among men and women.

    The number of WIs had now reached 5,111.

  • 1934

    Nancy Tennant was sent, as the NFWI delegate, to the International Peace Conference in Geneva following a resolution at the AGM reaffirming the NFWI's faith in the League of Nations and urging the Government to continue to press for world peace.


    The NFWI held WI War Week, when plans were made to organise evacuation at the time of the Munich crisis. Lady Denman was asked by the Minister of Agriculture to become Director of the Women's Land Army, which she accepted whilst remaining Chairman of the NFWI.

  • Produce Guild day school


    The Produce Guild was formed, with funding from Government, to encourage more home grown food and to preserve more fruit and vegetables.

View events from the 1930s

The 1940s

  • Using canning machines, many sent from the USA


    The Ministry of Food allocated sugar to the NFWI to be distributed to WI Preservation Centres in order to make jam and can produce which would otherwise go to waste. All the produce then went into the nation's food supply.

View events from the 1940s

The 1950s

  • 1950

    The NFWI celebrated the beginning of the 1950s with a national music festival. Ralph Vaughan Williams' Folk Songs for the Four Seasons was specially commissioned for the event. .

    There was a resolution passed at the AGM urging that hospitals would allow parents to visit children.

  • 1951

    Lady Brunner was elected NFWI Chairman until 1956, when she was succeeded by Lady Dyer. The first Market Place at the Ideal Home Exhibition, Olympia, took place. WI members all took part in designing the WI house which was built at the exhibition. It was designed for a working family, incorporating a porch outside the back door to leave muddy boots!

    The total number of WIs had reached 7,710. The Festival of Britain took place and the Country Wife mural was given to the NFWI. It was housed at Denman College until 2010 when it was given to The National Needlework Archive for conservation


    The NFWI Craft Exhibition was staged at the Victoria and Albert Museum; the centrepiece was a huge wall hanging depicting the Work of Women in War, which had taken WI members all over the country four years to make.

    The Malayan Government invited the NFWI to form WIs in Malaya and the WIs pushed for the speedy provision of electricity for agricultural use in rural areas.

  • Keep Britain Tidy


    HM The Queen Mother, who was a WI member, attended the AGM.

    The AGM passed a resolution this year to start a national anti-litter campaign and the NFWI called a conference of 26 interested organisations.

    Following the passing of the resolution, Keep Britain Tidy Group was formed.

View events from the 1950s

The 1960s

  • 1963

    The first National Art Exhibition, Painting for Pleasure, took place at the Galleries of British Artists and the first WIs were opened in psychiatric hospitals. The AGM called for coordinated public transport in rural areas.

  • WI members at the Royal Garden Party


    The WI celebrated its Golden Jubilee. There were numerous Golden Jubilee celebrations including a specially commissioned poem from the Poet Laureate C. Day Lewis and a special WI Royal Garden Party was held at Buckingham Palace.

    The Rule limiting formation of WIs to places with a population of under 4,000 was rescinded.

    WIs were invited to compile Scrapbooks of the Countryside and many of these are now deposited in the archives of Local Record Offices.

  • The Marchioness of Anglesey


    The Marchioness of Anglesey was elected NFWI Chairman and the AGM raised concerns about the availability of habit-forming drugs to children and young people. The number of WIs had now reached 8,864.

  • 1968

    The WI organised a conference on the countryside at Central Hall, Westminster attended by the Duke of Edinburgh. The WI subscription was raised to 10 shillings (50p) (10p for National Federation, 15p for the county federation and 25p for the WI).


    Sylvia Gray was elected NFWI Chairman and The Brilliant and the Dark was performed at the Royal Albert Hall. Commissioned by the NFWI, composer Malcolm Williamson and librettist Ursula Vaughan Williams produced a sequence following women's lives through the centuries. There were four performances given in the Royal Albert Hall.

    Alison King resigned as General Secretary and was succeeded by Meriel Withal. There were now 9,051 WIs. The AGM urged members to conserve the countryside to the best advantage of the whole community.

View events from the 1960s

The 1970s

  • 1970

    New teaching Centre and Brunner House at Denman College were opened by HM the Queen Mother.

  • 1971

    A resolution was passed at the AGM changing the interpretation of the non-party political and non-sectarian rules. Olive Farquharson, a WI member from Surrey, was elected World President of ACWW.

    The total of WIs had reached 9,203.


    The WI exhibition, "This Green and Pleasant Land?", took place at the Ideal Home Exhibition.

    The Produce and Handicraft Guilds were replaced by the Home Economics committee and the Carnegie United Kingdom Trust (CUKT) gave a grant for the Town and Country Project.

    The AGM passed resolutions calling for a full free family planning service and for more nursery education for children.

  • 1975

    The Diamond Jubilee was celebrated. The NFWI was awarded a coat of arms designed by J P Brooke-Little, MVO, MA, FSA, Richmond Herald of Arms.

    The WI exhibition, Tomorrow's Heirlooms, took place at the Commonwealth Institute.

    The AGM confirmed that NFWI 'believes in the principle of equality of opportunity and of legal status for men and women and pledges itself to work to achieve this'.


    The foundation stone of the Home Economics Centre at Denman College was laid by the Countess of Albemarle. The AGM showed support for doorstep milk deliveries and voiced concern about increasing marine pollution.

    The AGM also expressed concern about the availability to children of literature of a pornographic and violent nature.

  • HM The Queen at Denman College


    The Home Economics Centre at Denman College was opened by HM the Queen.

    An AGM resolution was passed urging the provision of single sex wards in hospitals, and voicing concern about the closure of village schools.

    'The great jam debate' took place when the NFWI lobbied successfully for the law to be changed giving WI members exemption from having to register their kitchens with the local authority before being allowed to sell jam to the public.

View events from the 1970s

The 1980s

  • One of the entries to Scene 80.


    The finals of Scene 80, the National Arts Festival, were held at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford upon Avon. The NFWI opened an office in Wales.

  • The promotional bus


    The Women in the Community campaign was launched. A promotion bus was sent off from the steps of the Guildhall by the Lord Mayor of London and spent a year touring the country. The AGM requested legislation on the status of artificially produced human embryos. The total number of WIs was 9,153.

  • HM The Queen opens the WI Life and Leisure Exhibition


    The WI Life and Leisure Exhibition at Olympia was opened by HM the Queen and the London Federation was formed. The AGM passed a resolution urging vigilance against child abuse.

  • 1985

    The NFWI celebrated its 70th anniversary. The £1million appeal for Denman College was launched. The NFWI held a Festival of Sport at Bath University. The total number of WIs was 9,242.


    The AGM voted for more information to be made available to the public around HIV and AIDs.

    Essential building work was started at Denman College to implement changes required by stricter fire regulations.

View events from the 1980s

The 1990s

  • The Queen addresses the AGM


    The WI celebrated its 75th anniversary and the AGM was addressed by HM The Queen.

    The WI organised a joint choir festival, the finals of which took place at St John's Smith Square, London.

    The NFWI became a charitable company limited by guarantee and moved its headquarters to Fulham.

    There was a national art exhibition at Rufford Abbey in Nottinghamshire. The WI ran a Citizen of the 90s competition and the Princess of Wales presented the prize.

    The Federation of Wales organised an exhibition about the history of the WI at the Welsh Folk Museum, St Fagans, Cardiff.

  • 1993

    The NFWI/NFU Caring in the Countryside conference took place. The NFWI became a founder member of the Fair Trade Foundation.


    Jana Osborne became General Secretary and the Denman Fanfare was performed at Denman College. Lyndsay Hacket Pain was elected World President of the ACWW.

    WI Country Markets Ltd legally separated from NFWI and the WI science network was launched at the British Association Festival of Science.

  • 1998

    This year saw the Golden Jubilee of Denman College celebrated by representatives of the federations at a special lunch. The NFWI project, Pathway to the 21st Century: Celebrating our Communities, was launched. 450 members attended The Royal Institution for special presentation, Great Scientists of the Royal Institution, by Professor Richard Catlow, Wolfson professor of Chemistry.


    Helen Carey was elected National Chairman and the Changing Villages survey was published. A Women in Farming conference was held jointly with the National Farmers Union and an address was given by HRH The Princess Royal. Delegates at the Annual Meeting voiced concern about genetically modified food and the Women in Europe conference was addressed by Glenys Kinnock MEP.

View events from the 1990s

The 2000s

  • Helen Carey and Tony Blair


    The Prime Minister addressed the Triennial General Meeting and a science conference was organised with the Natural History Museum. The Women 2000 exhibition took place and the website was redesigned and relaunched.

The millennium exhibition, Craft Spectacular, took place at Tatton Park. WIs organised a 'Buy British, buy local' fortnight. The NFWI Chairman of Public Affairs Jill Cobley, addressed MEPs in Strasbourg about threats to postal services in rural areas

  • 2001

    The Volunteers' Hours Survey taken from 1,000 WIs, showed that their members devoted 3,477,312 hours to voluntary work each year. In that same year, following the Foot and Mouth crisis, the NFWI called on the Government to support family farms. The NFWI was also invited to join the Rural Task Force. The 'Pathway to the 21st century: celebrating our communities' project was completed.


    The What Women Want postcard campaign was launched, leading up to the Earth Summit in Johannesburg. A review of the constitution took place, Denman College became integrated with the NFWI and the Community Challenge Project was launched.

  • 2004

    The NFWI archives were deposited at The Women's Library and opened up to the public.

    The NFWI membership survey results were published and the National Needlework Archive project was launched to record the WI's needlework textiles


    The WI celebrated its 90th anniversary. A special badge was issued and the Community Challenge Project was completed. The WI garden at Tatton Park won an RHS gold medal.

    Following the sudden death of Barbara Gill, Fay Mansell was elected NFWI Chair.

    The 90@90 research report was published.

  • 2006

    The final issue of Home and Country magazine, which was started in 1919, was printed, and then replaced by new membership magazine, WI Life - now part of every WI member's subscription - was later launched in 2007.


    The new WI Cookery School, based at Denman College, was opened.

View events from the 2000s

The 2010s

  • 2012


    Members broke the Guinness World record for the most people knitting simultaneously in a single location at the Annual General Meeting in the Royal Albert Hall in 2012 where 3,083 members knitting loops that were then used by the Craft Council in Diamond Jubilee projects.

View events from the 2010s



WI members across the organisation celebrate 100 years of the WI throughout 2015.  Click here for more details on the range of activities planned for the celebrations.