Friday, 1 March 2013

Wonder Women WI Style

Mention the Women’s Institute in wartime and the reaction, all too often, is: Oh ‘Jam and Jerusalem’. They did sing Jerusalem at their meetings during the Second World War and they did make jam.  A lot of it: over 5,000,000 kilos, all from surplus fruit. 

However that was only the tip of the iceberg. They did a great deal more and some of it was intangible, unquantifiable work.  They kept the countryside ticking and allowed rural Britain to expand to accommodate and cope with wave after wave of change: evacuees, evacuated business, prisoner of war camps, Army and Air Force bases, Auxiliary Units.  How did they do this? By being eminently practical. At the outbreak of war the government decided to shut down all markets but the WI successfully argued that more people in the countryside meant more pressure on food supplies. Markets would allow surplus fruit and vegetables to be sold to feed people. Just one small example of their clear-thinking, no-nonsense approach to problems.

As an author of four books on the social history of the Second World War, I am humbled by the extraordinary resilience and bravery of ordinary people during those long and often dark years.  Jambusters celebrates one of the groups that made an outstanding contribution to life in rural Britain during the war and I hope it will impress upon people that dogged determination, hour by hour, day by day, month by month to keep going can be judged to be as valuable, in its own way, as acts of overt bravery.

Almost no one did more to battle with bureaucracy and ministry officials than the WI General Secretary, Dame Frances Farrer.  She took on truculent officials and rang cabinet officers before breakfast, so she could be sure of reaching them but she saw it as nothing more than her job.

The motto of Cambridgeshire Federation of Women’s Institutes was: ‘Say little, serve all, pass on. This is the true greatness – to serve unnoticed and work unseen.’ Members of the wartime WI were, to me, some of the unsung wonder women.  I hope Jambusters will convince others of that too.

Julie will be celebrating the launch of Jambusters at IWM North on Sunday 3rd March 2013 with a lecture in the presence of two members of the wartime WI in the book, Peggy Sumner and Sybil Norcott.