At a “social meeting” in April 1919, the newly formed Witham Women’s Institute was established. Also, “songs were rendered by Miss H Bradhurst and Miss Pearce”. It is this branch which I believe is now being closed down. So it has done well, lasting nearly a century.
The first WI branch in Britain had been set up in Wales in 1915, and the National Federation was formed in 1917. The main aims were to strengthen life in rural areas, and to help grow food during World War I.
In 1922 our WI had a spectacular success at the Witham Urban District council elections. Women had been entitled to stand since 1907. But few had done so until the WI stepped in during the 1920s to help female candidates all over the country. In Witham, Miss Charlotte Alice Pattisson “agreed to break the ice”. She was duly elected as the town’s first female councillor, receiving just one vote less than the winner. She was a popular and friendly person, and had been Commandant of the Red Cross Hospital during the War. She was also leader of the Boy Scouts. She became a very successful councillor, taking a particular interest in the council’s new housing programme. When standing for re-election in 1925, she headed the poll. She lived at 16 Collingwood Road with her sister.
Life wasn’t all campaigning. In 1929 the WI won first prize at the Carnival for a tableau on a lorry, showing Queen Matilda giving Witham to the Knights Templars in 1135 (as shown in the photo). Another year, at the end of a very busy Christmas Party, “musical themes were contributed by the Institute band conducted by Mrs Dier.” At the time the membership was about 140. In 1932 the curate “rendered humorous anecdotes, and there were five entries for a Limerick Competition on the Women’s Institute”. In 1933 one of the competitions was for “bread and butter cutting”. In 1937 the annual outing went to Windsor, where members “had a hurried glance at the Castle before going on to the beverage factory, where they had tea”.
By this time Miss Edith Luard was president. She was one of the eight energetic daughters of the late Admiral Luard, and lived at Ivy Chimneys. Like her sisters she was well known for doing good works. In 1927 a young Mr Reg Turner arrived in Witham to run a gents’ outfitters. When he was telling me about his wife, Nell, he said “It was Miss Edith Luard who really got her going. I told her I wished my wife could get a little more mixed up with things and she took her in hand. Took her to the Women’s Institute.”
Miss Luard’s speciality was drama. Mrs Marjorie Coleman remembered that “when they had the Women’s Institute, Miss Luard coached the people who were keen to act, and they entered for the drama competitions and everything. She was very very good.”
She also ran the WI choir. Mrs Annie Ralling was a member, and told me that about twenty of them used to go to Miss Luard’s house every Wednesday afternoon to practise. It was “quite a good choir” and they won cups at competitions.
During the Second World War, the national WI restricted its work, because its policy was not to be associated with any particular political movement. But one of the permitted activities was the Fruit Preservation Scheme (i.e. bottling and jam making). The Witham WI obtained rooms for this purpose from Bramston Senior School (now Maltings).
1945 saw the end of the War and also the death of Edith Luard. This is all I have space for, but I am sure that the WI went from strength to strength. As Miss Dorothy Hancock said, “Oh the Women’s Institute was a great thing of course.”
A version of this article appeared in the Braintree and Witham Times in December 2012