LOOKING BACK: Celebrating 100 years of the Women’s Institute

The store room stall at The Countrywoman's Year rally, 1955
The store room stall at The Countrywoman's Year rally, 1955

A century of the Women’s Institute was celebrated at The Keep with the help of one of the largest archive collections in the country.

Staff at Sussex’s archive resource centre created a display of WI history for 120 members of the East Sussex Federation of Women’s Institutes who travelled to Moulsecoomb to mark the occasion.

“We were honoured to be part of this important celebration of an organisation which has enhanced the lives of so many women,” said Elizabeth Hughes, county archivist for East Sussex County Council.

“The preparation of the exhibition was particularly rewarding. As an archive repository, our holdings are normally safely locked away in secure storage, and it was great to have an opportunity to get documents out on display.”

The display included local scrapbooks, which date from the early days of the movement to the Millennium. Many were either entries for the WI village scrapbook competition to celebrate the Coronation of Queen Elizabeth in 1953, or a competition to mark the Golden Jubilee of the WI in 1965. The books contain photographs, news cuttings and other papers, and are good sources for social history; often containing early unique material which would otherwise have been lost.

“The WI archive is rich and extensive. It tells the story of the movement’s early beginnings and traces its growth,” Elizabeth said.

“The early emphasis on food production and preservation soon led to surpluses and in 1919 Lewes WI Market was launched as an outlet for the produce of WI members who had been involved in ‘digging for victory’ during the First World War, and local ex-servicemen working on Ringmer smallholdings.

“During the Second World War the expertise of the WI led to a request to help maintain the nutrition of the nation. The Ministry of Food allocated scarce sugar supplies to WI Preservation Centres so that they could make jam from fruit which would otherwise to waste. The archive includes accounts for the Forest Row Fruit Preservation Depot between 1940-1941.”

As well as finding out about the history of the WI in East Sussex, visitors were given the chance to tour behind the scenes to view the strong rooms and to admire the map storage bags which WI volunteers helped to make for The Keep.

Speakers at the event on Monday April 13, included Elizabeth Hughes, county archivist, Anne Stamper, WI historian and Fiona Courage and Kirsty Patrick from the University of Sussex.

The first Women’s Institute in Britain was formed in Llanfair, Anglesey in September 1915, followed in December by Singleton in West Sussex, the first in England; Wivelsfield, established in March 1916, was the forerunner in East Sussex.

In 1916 Lady Denman of Balcombe Place, then in East Sussex, was the first chairman of the Agricultural Organisation Society’s Women’s Institute Sub-Committee, becoming chairman of the National Federation of Women’s Institutes when it was formed in 1917. The East Sussex Federation was formed in 1919.

The Keep is a world-class centre for archives that opens up access to all the collections of the East Sussex Record Office (ESRO), the Royal Pavilion & Museums Local History Collections and the internationally significant University of Sussex Special Collections.