Notes on the early years of Brightwell-cum-Sotwell WI

This year (1982) sees the Diamond Jubilee of the Women’s Institute in Brightwell-cum-Sotwell, and as is natural at an anniversary, present members were curious to know something about the beginnings of their Institute in the those far-off 1922 days. The absorbing task of reading Secretary’s minutes brought the realisation that relating a complete history would take much time and effort. However the following notes are based on the minutes of 1922 and a few incidents in subsequent years.

On Friday 20th January 1922 a Special Meeting was held to form a Women’s Institute (WI). Mrs Sealy took the chair and Lady Rucker was Organiser.

Officers Elected:

President: Mrs Sealy (the Reverend’s wife)

Vice Presidents: Mrs Chown & Mrs Saunders

Treasurer: Mrs Vernon Drewitt (Slade End Farmer’s wife)

Secretary: Miss Trollope

Committee Members: Mrs Boxall, Miss Chown, Mrs Frogley, Miss Holloway, Mrs Hawkin, Mrs F Hewitt, Miss Hyde, Mrs Leaver, Mrs F Prior, Mrs Fred Turner, Mrs Frank Turner, Miss K Wells

Members: Mrs Beasley, Mrs Cozens, Mrs Eggleton, Mrs Hammond, Mrs Hyde, Miss Leaver, Mrs Morphew, Mrs F Prior, Miss Parsons, Miss Rayner, Mrs Watts, Mrs H Wells, Miss D Wells, Mrs Ford, Mrs Heber Eggleton, Mrs Daniel, Mrs Dadler, Miss Herne, Mrs Curril, Miss M Saunders, Mrs Brooke, Miss Crocker, Miss I Brown, Miss E Brown, Mrs Percy Wilkins, Mrs Robert Prior, Miss O Vaughan, Miss Moore, Mrs Messenger, Mrs Winter, Mrs Sutton, Mrs B Simmons, Mrs A Harvey, Mrs F Brooker. (36 members)

In our present WI of about 45 members it is difficult to muster a committee of 6 – so it is interesting to note that in 1922 from a total of 54 there were 18 committee members. However, attendance was far from 100% - in 1922 the largest number present at a meeting was 39. Similar reluctance was apparent over the question of competition entries. The minutes report “only 5 members brought exhibits for the cake competition” and later, for the pastry-making competition there were only 3 entries. This cry of difficulty continues through the years.

The report on the next meeting (February 2nd 1922) tells us that Mrs Squire of Steventon spoke on “Old Berkshire”. Tea was 1d per cup, cake or scone 1d each. Exchange & Mart (Sales table) took £2.1s 4d.

At the next 2 meetings, March & April, only 33 members were present for demonstrations of rush basket making and rug making. The minute adds that “most of the members cut thrums and did a little of the actual rug making”. In addition to the April meeting there was a Social in the Schoolroom on 20th April. Sons and duets were sung and a play called “Don’t let the Lady Go” was acted by to lady members and one gentleman.

In May there were only 21 members present, the smallest number since the Institute was founded, but there was a comment that there had been deaths in 2 families. Next month saw the largest number present (39) and the meeting was held in the Rectory Gardens, where arrangements for the Summer Fete were discussed.

The Summer Fete was held in the Rectory Gardens on 28th June, and was opened by the Hon. Mrs Cross, who spoke of the origins and usefulness of the WI. “Each little village now has its own Parliament as well as all the benefits of social intercourse”. She wished that men would imitate the women and have their own institute.

Three Stalls – Needlework, Provisions and Vegetables did a brisk trade. There were various side shows, including bowling for gentlemen and for ladies (prizes not specified!) obstacle golf, a bran tub and competitions including one for the best decorated bicycle “judging very difficult” and one for the best scarecrow “alarming”.

A pretty little Pastoral Play called “White Magic” was performed, with a witch in a tall hat with cat and broom, a good fairy and a Dryad. There was a fancy Dress Parade of children, a tortoise race and as it all that wasn’t enough to daunt any WI member, a Baby Show! No wonder they needed a committee of 18 members! This Fete raised £56 a considerable sum.

Charges made at the Fete were: “Early teas 1/- per head, 2nd Teas 9d per head (children 6d) Entrance fee 6d (all day) or 6d afternoon, 3d evening. Tickets for dancing – 8 until 10 1/-”

True to form, the British weather defeated 2 attempts to hold a Garden Meeting that year, first in the grounds of Slade End House in July, and second at Style Acre in August. (at he the July meeting the Speaker didn’t arrive either!) But there were competitions and a whist drive … then eventually, in September a Garden Meeting was successfully held at Sinodun, in perfect weather, for the 2nd lecture on “Old Berkshire” by Mrs Squires.

September 6t was the day of an outing to Friar Par, Henley. “2 motor charabancs were hired and 2 friends kindly brought their own cars. The hire of the charabanc was £5 and each passenger paid 3/6d”. It was a highly successful and enjoyable excursion which lasted from 10 o’clock to 8 o’clock.

The last three meetings of the year contained demonstrations on “Feather Trimming” and “Skin Curing”, and a lecture on the “Making of the English Village”. At the final meeting in December the very appropriate subject of “how to avoid colds” was discussed. An important suggestion was “always live in a well-ventilated room” which, to one who remembers the chilly and draughty bedrooms of slightly later years, seems rather superfluous advice!

That was just a sample of the activities of the first year and here are one or two items from later minutes which might be of interest.

Mrs Sealy gave a lecture on “Indian Servants”, containing the remark “about 14 servants are needed to ran an ordinary house”.

1926: “Owing to the General Strike the speaker, Miss Hope, unable to come and demonstrate boiled sweet making”

1928: A Pageant

1929: Members called on to say “what I would do with £5” - the vast majority wanted a holiday away from daily surroundings.

1931: Lady Rucker urged members to support a Resolution at the County Council for beds or a ward to be set aside at the County Hospital for difficulty maternity cases.

1935: A yearly event noted; every April an egg collection was made for the Poor Law Institutes.

Then of course from 1939 onwards there came all the items of war-time living, and inevitably the WI became involved. There were arrangements for evacuation of children from London, war-time economy hints, the question of blackout curtains for the Village Hall, demonstrations on how to cope with incendiary bombs, making camouflage nets, gathering rosehips, herbs, collection salvage and the setting up of a jam-making centre. A proposal was made for this centre in March and by August a total of 247.25lbs of jam had been made (why was the extra quarter recorded!) By October the total was 500lbs of which 200lb was sold in the village.

In May 1941 HM Trawler “Hawthorn” was adopted. A request from Lieut. E T Symons RNVR for books, magazines, cigarettes, games etc. for his men was followed in December by his letter of thanks. Another request was for the “refooting seaboot stockings” which were “in a deplorable condition”. The ship was commanded at various times by Lieut. Hoult RNVR and Lieut. John Wilmot RNVR and their letters are recorded. The ship apparently survived to the end of the war because there is a photograph of the ship (“T32”) with the message of the back “HMS Hawthorne. Faithfully adopted by Brightwell and Sotwell Womens Institute members 1939 – 1946”

I often wonder what the German High Command would have made of the correspondence which passed between the ship and Brightwell if it had been intercepted by spies. There is, for example, the incident of the fruit cake – obviously a code word for a secret weapon! Apparently all WI members contributed ingredients from their rations to make a special fruit cake for the ship’s company. A complicated manoeuvre was planned to get the cake to the ship in good condition – it was sent to Lieut. Hoult’s wife for him to collect when he came home on leave. No doubt the lieutenant enjoyed his spell of leave, but of course at the end of it he was posted to another ship, so the cake never reached its intended consumers and was sent instead to a children’s hospital.

These are just a few of the events and items recorded month by month by conscientious secretaries. When the Hon. Mrs Cross opened the Fete in 1922, having noted that each little village now has its own Parliament, she then described the WI as a “meeting place and the means of doing a great deal of good among the female population”.

Perhaps these few notes can remind us how village women found hard work, fun and friendships in those early days of Brightwell-cum-Sotwell WI.

Joan M Crouch