The Women's Institute members' slow handclap of Tony Blair showed they had become a force to be reckoned with. KATH SKELLON met their members in Gwent.
THE Women’s Institute is no longer about jam and Jerusalem and has been enjoying a resurgence in recent years.
More than 500 branches across the UK are diversifying and focusing on learning new skills and finding new hobbies, whilst continuing to have a say on issues that matter.
The WI, which next year celebrates its centenary, has become a trusted place for women, run by women of all generations, providing a network to build friendships, share new skills, knowledge and to be heard.
Today there are more than 6,600 new WI’s, with over 500 of those formed in the past five years.
Whilst the institute admits there will always be jam making, members may find new age petanque, flower arranging, crafts, creative writing, race nights and excursions on offer.
The Gwent Federation has 1,450 members in 51 WI’s.
Its chairwoman, Marian Martin said: “We are no longer about jam Jerusalem and are moving forward.”
“People think we are just a group that meets for tea but we are so much more than that.”
“We are always exploring new things. For example our current campaign is to encourage people to shop locally.”
“The WI has evolved into something that is forward-thinking and make good use of technology through newsletters and social media.”
She explained that it began life as the Monmouthshire Federation on February 21, 1921 at a meeting in The Angel Hotel, Abergavenny when there were 12 institutes.
“These were mainly in the Abergavenny area, with one in St Mellons, on the outskirts of Newport. Over the years there has been over 80 WI’s in Gwent open at one time, but several small ones have closed in the more rural areas while new ones have opened in other areas.”
“The numbers of members in each WI varies from about 12 to 80 and each one is run by its own committee who decides on their programme of events so they are all different.”
The first branch to open was at Llantilio Crossenny, near Abergavenny, in February 1919 and the youngest is Tredegar, Blaenau Gwent, which opened in April this year.
Anita Hobbs, who joined Tredegar WI, which is the youngest branch of the Gwent Federation of Women’s Institute is keen to dissolve stereotypes about the organisation.
Ms Hobbs, 58, who is a councillor, representing Tredegar Central and West on Blaenau Gwent Town Council, said: “Most people don’t realise how relevant the WI is.
“It’s about women of all ages achieving. The WI is a focus for the community and has a range of generations who learn from each other.”
“I would urge anyone aged from 18 upwards to come along to our meeting. Our next meeting on the last Thursday of the month is all about scarves and the different ways that you can wear them which I’m really looking forward to as I have a few myself.”
Kath Powell is one of the longest-serving members, having joined Llantilio Crossenny in the late 1960s.
“I remember joining the group with my friend Hazel when we heard they were looking for new members,” explained Mrs Powell.
“I served as the secretary for a time and also on the catering committee.
“There were around 20 of us who used to meet at The Hostry in one of the sitting rooms or in the hall if it was not too cold.
“Nowadays we meet at Llanvapley Village Hall.
“I’ve made life-long friends through the WI. It’s been an important way of getting to know people and I’m thoroughly enjoying it.
“There is the view that it is for older people but it isn’t. We do all sorts of things from flower-arranging to crafts and new-age petanque.
“I would say to women out there, come along see what it like and find out about what we do.”
Llantilio Crossenny’s president, Lin Morris, has followed in her mother’s footsteps by joining the group in 2009.
She explained that in September the branch will bring out its archives and find out about its early days.
“We have all the records which is wonderful. There are accounts of what they would do when they first opened in 1919 ranging from poultry-making to knitting which will be fascinating to read about.”
The Gwent Federation’s youngest branch, which formed in April, was the idea of friends Mary Evans, Elaine Street and Elaine Gilmore.
Mrs Gilmore and Mrs Evans, who attended Sunday School together as children, began searching for suitable venues in the town and it all came to fruition in six weeks.
Mrs Evans, who had a part in the TV series ‘Nuts and Bolts’ and is branch treasurer said: “We got it off the ground fairly quickly and held our first meeting in May with 19 ladies in the Moose Hall. We had an old Tredegar boy Alan Badmington as our speaker and it was a great success.”
Whilst Mari Penny lays claim to being the most recent member to join Tredegar and is also the branch president.
Mrs Penny, who is a retired nurse said members come from a variety of backgrounds.
“Our members include a hairdresser, teachers and health service workers.”
“The beauty of it is that we all like different things.”
“One of my aims has been to attract the younger element and we have been very lucky in gaining a few.”
Mrs Martin said part of her role as chairwoman is to ensure new branches open and to strengthen the ones already established.
“I am introducing myself to everyone because we have some older members who cannot sometimes come to the events that we put on.”
She said it is an exciting time for the Federation.
“It has been a busy year and will be even busier next year. The Gwent Federation is hosting the Royal Welsh, we have the centenary celebrations in London, the meeting for Wales in Cardiff and the baton arriving in Gwent next month.”
Centenary celebrations began earlier this year in January when a specially-designed baton started its journey around the UK. The baton launched in Anglesey where the first WI meeting was held in the UK in 1915 and is currently travelling through the 69 federations in England, Wales and the Islands to celebrate the links of friendship and community developed through the WI, and will finish its trip at the annual meeting in June 2015 at the Royal Albert Hall.
Each federation will also upload twelve selected photos to a memory stick stored within the baton to represent their members, WIs, and the local area that will be shared on social media to keep everyone in touch and so that members across the country can share in the party.
The baton will spend one week in each federation and will arrive at Tredegar House on August 27, before making its way through Monmouth, Raglan, Llandenny, Llangybi, Usk, Caerleon, Blaenavon, Newbridge, Earlswood, Gilwern and Llanfoist.
Janice Langley, Chair of the NFWI, said:"It's so exciting to launch the first of the many centenary projects planned to celebrate 100 years of the WI.”
“We can't wait to hear what each federation has planned for their celebratory event, but I'm sure we will be continually amazed by members' ingenuity and creativity when they share their photos.”
"Starting the centenary celebrations with members working alongside each other in their federations and beyond really highlights the role that members have played in bringing their communities together since the very beginning of the WI, and we can't wait to follow the baton's trip around the federations."
The Gwent Federation runs events for any members to attend. Many of the events are open to non-members and visitors are welcome at WI meetings. For details visit www.thewi.org.uk