3:06pm Friday 11th May 2012
NATALYA WILSON finds out all about a Ryedale Women’s Institute, which is celebrating its 85th anniversary
FORGET jam and Jerusalem – when Calendar Girls hit the big screen in 2003, the stuffy, twin-set-and-pearls image of the Women’s Institute was wiped out forever as the film fondly transported the organisation into the new millennium.
For those who haven’t seen the film, Calendar Girls is based on the true story of a group of Yorkshire women who, in 1999, produced a ‘nude’ calendar to raise money for Leukaemia Research under the auspices of the Women’s Institute.
It’s a far cry from its origins, when the UK Women’s Institute (WI) was formed in 1915 by a determined group of ladies under the guidance of Lady Denman, to revitalise rural communities and encourage women to become more involved in the production of food during the First World War.
Since then, the organisation’s aims have broadened and the WI is now the largest voluntary women’s organisation in the UK.
This year, Appleton-le-Moors WI celebrates its 85th anniversary.
Founded on September 26, 1927, the first meeting was a social evening on October 26, with games, competitions and dancing. The president was Annie Shepherd of Appleton Hall and five members of the Shepherd ladies were among the founding members, with 29 ladies present. Membership rose to 33 within the first year.
Today, Appleton-le-Moors WI is thriving and membership has this year increased to more than 20 after five new members signed up.
President Carolyn Frank, who joined in 2005 after moving back to the area, is the youngest member at 34 and says that members represent nearly every age decade, with Marjorie Ingleby, who has been secretary for more than 50 years, in her 80s.
Carolyn said that if she had to choose one word to sum up the WI, it would be “variety”.
“A variety of ages, interests, backgrounds, campaigns and activities make up our WI and the wider national organisation,” she said.
“The WI is the original social network for women, and its new strapline, Inspiring Women, is certainly true; members are inspired to join, inspired by the activities on offer and inspired by the friendships and interaction they find at meetings.
“The well-known Calendar Girls story was a big PR boost for the WI overall, and showed the organisation at both its best and worst.
“Appleton WI is somewhere inbetween.
No naked calendars, but no talks on the history of broccoli either,” she said.
Whereas many local WIs, such as Lastingham, Hutton-le-Hole and most recently, Gillamoor, have closed, Appleton-le-Moors is going from strength to strength, and is most definitely set up for the 21st century, with a new website and an exciting programme of speakers and events.
The wide variety of fascinating talks have ranged from subjects such as forensic phonetics and saving the Seychelles Magpie Robin from extinction, to astronomy, costumery for TV and film, and a talk by the chairman of Britain in Bloom.
“We sometimes have men at our meetings, too. Our talks have attracted many visitors from the village and local area, including men,” said Carolyn.
Meetings have also featured performances from the 1812 theatre group and Malton Male Voice Choir, and there have been outings to York Opera, the Wensleydale Railway and Sion Hill, the Esk Valley Theatre, Leeds Grand Theatre, Sheffield Assay Office and the Royal Albert Hall.
“While we stick to almost the same format of meetings that our founders used even today, the atmosphere is relaxed and welcoming with an open exchange of ideas and views and no dragons in twin-sets and pearls judging your baking and craft efforts,” said Carolyn.
Appleton-le-Moors WI is also thriving in the wider community, and last year members won the cup for the Ryedale WI with the most points at Ryedale Show.
“This is the first time the cup is back at Appleton since 1979, a tribute to the multi-skills of our membership – and a few late nights and bottles of wine to help the creativity,” said Carolyn.
Members come not just from the village of Appleton; they travel from as far away as South Kilvington, Broughton and Great Barugh, and as near as Lastingham.
“What all members have in common is that they were not scared to walk in and try it, and they looked past the ‘jam and Jerusalem’ stereotype to discover a modern organisation with many member benefits,” said Carolyn.
Gill Humphries, vice-president, assistant secretary and committee stalwart, urges any local women to come along and give it a try.
Initially reluctant to join, Gill’s mother- in-law signed her up in the village pub, and now she can’t imagine being without the WI.
“As someone who moved into the village, it has allowed me to forge friendships with other local women and there is never a dull moment at Appleton WI,” she said.
“We are very active, there is often too much going on to choose what to take part in.”
Heather Fox, who was president until 2006, and whose ancestors were among the founder members of Appleton-le-Moors WI, believes in the benefits of the WI as an organisation which has always championed the education of women.
She says that archived records, going back to the very first meeting, which have since taken place every fourth Wednesday in the month, demonstrate the charitable work of the WI, including organising collections for the Air Ministry during the war years, many uplifting and educational talks, outings and a great deal of campaigning on various causes, as well as many memorable suppers and dinners over the years.
Carolyn adds that all members fervently believe that the WI is as relevant to women today as it was in 1927, and friendship and education are still uppermost in everything they do.
Campaigning is something that the Women’s Institute takes very seriously.
At a recent WI federation lunch, North East Yorkshire Federation chairman and Appleton-le-Moors WI member Christine Field recalled resolutions for campaigning during the six decades of the Queen’s reign, including the difficulties and hardships of separated mothers obtaining financial maintenance, and in 1971 urging the Minister of Post and Telecommunication to examine the problems caused by closure of rural post offices.
Current campaigns include speaking up to protect honey bees, save public libraries and eradicate domestic violence against women.
The branch has recently twinned with Beadnell WI in Northumberland Carolyn said: “I think we are growing because, apart from having great equipment in the village hall which helps us to get good speakers, we have spread the word personally.
“Most members join by word of mouth, because if a friend recommends it to you, you don’t get the stereotype image and you may decide to give it a go.
“Many people don’t want to come because they don’t understand what it is all about, but hopefully we have broken down some of the stereotypes and persuaded people to give it a go. And most who come once are hooked,” she added.
“However, we’d like to get more members to keep it going – perhaps getting up to 33 like in 1927.
210,000 women can’t be wrong • The UK WI will celebrate its centenary in 2015 and currently has more than 210,000 members in 6,600 WIs. Many of the new WIs have a waiting list to become a member.
• The WI plays a unique role in providing women with educational opportunities and the chance to build new skills, take part in a wide variety of activities and campaign on issues that matter to them and their communities.
• Appleton-le-Moors is a branch of the North Yorkshire East Federation (NYEF). There are 106 branches at present with enquiries about opening more in towns and workplaces in the region.
• If you are interested in joining email AppletonWI@hotmail.co.uk, telephone 07867 994067 or visit www.appletonlemoorswi
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