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Benson Women's Institute

How it all began (1897)


The first Women's Institute was formed in Stoney Creek, Ontario, Canada as a branch of the Farmer's Institute. Inspired by a talk given by Adelaide Hoodless at a meeting of the Farmer's Institute.  Local farmers Erland and Janet Lee were instrumental in setting up the new organisation. They were supported by Ontario government who appointed Laura Rose to be the first organiser in 1899.  The movement brought women from isolated communities together and offered training in home economics, child care and those aspects of farming that were traditionally done by women, such as poultry keeping and small farm animal husbandry.


How it all began in Britain (1915)


During the First World War it was formed in Britain to encourage countrywomen to get involved in growing and preserving food to help to increase the supply of food to the war-torn nation.  The first WI in Britain was formed under the auspices of the Agricultural Organisation Society (AOS).  AOS Secretary, John Nugent Harris, appointed Canadian Madge Watt to set up WIs across the UK.  The first one was at Llanfairpwll, on Anglesey, North Wales on September 16th 1915, and the first meeting in England was held at The Fox in Singleton, in Sussex.  In 1924 Jerusalem was sung at an AGM for the first time.

Llanfairpwll WI Britain’s first WI

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How it all began in Oxfordshire (1916)


The first WI in Oxfordshire was Kelmscott WI formed in 1916.  The oldest WIs currently still flourishing in Oxfordshire, and formed in 1918, are Steeple Aston WI, Clanfield WI, Wolvercote WI, Milton-under-Wychwood WI, Cassington WI and Burford & Fulbrook WI.  The Oxfordshire Federation was formed in 1919.  There have been some well-known names heading up the Oxfordshire Federation over the years.  From 1923-1925 Mrs John Buchan, wife of the author John Buchan, was the President of the OFWI and Lady Brunner from Greys Court who was a member of Greys WI near Henley and became the third Chairman of the National Federation of WIs. Lady Brunner was a very redoubtable Chair of the National Federation for 5 years and founded the ‘Keep Britain Tidy’ Group. She remained President of this Group for 19 years.

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Freydis Sharland


How it all began in Benson

The first meeting of the Benson WI took place on 3rd March 1926 in the village hall.  65 members were enrolled with Mrs Crofton elected as President, Mrs Walker and Mrs Roland-Pryce as Vice-Presidents, Mrs Doris Chamberlain as Secretary and Mrs Munday as Treasurer.  At their next meeting on 7th April, the Countess of Macclesfield (from Shirburn Castle) came to talk about South Africa and members discussed their ideas for handicrafts to take up.  They also interestingly discussed a smoking ban – the start of campaigns to come!  During that first year, members heard a talk about Poultry Keeping from Captain Balls of Oakley Wood, a talk on Infant Feeding by Dr Birch, organised a glove making workshop and met up socially with members of Chalgrove WI.  Benson WI’s first Annual Report of January 1927 showed that membership had increased to 87.


In 1927 Benson WI was conducting its business in a format that continues to the present day.  Talks, craft workshops and fundraising were on the agenda for most meetings. In June 1927 Benson WI arranged their first village fete.  This was to include stalls and teas with the Royal British Legion being paid £5 to run sports and Lady Wittenham to be asked to provide a pig!  Advertising was to be done by hand to save cost (no computers!) and the Chalgrove Band was engaged to play.  Later in the year a ‘Charabanc’ outing to Windsor was planned using the Oxford Bus Company.


Benson WI’s first offer of financial support was to the Nurses Association in 1927 with a donation of £3.  During the 1930s and 1940s the members did much fund raising by holding whist drives, concerts and dances and during the war years Benson WI regularly entertained, with dances, the allied forces in the area including the Polish Forces at Howbery Park.  Donations were given many differing worthy causes. In March 1936 Benson WI protested to the Parish Council about re-roofing the village hall with corrugated iron and in April that year offered to raise funds for its interior decoration.


One of Benson WI’s more noteworthy Presidents was Freydis Sharland.  She joined the Air Transport Auxiliary as a ferry pilot in 1942 and delivered 110 new Spitfires and many other aircraft from factory to airfields around the country during WW2.  She was lucky enough to receive equal pay following a parliamentary campaign in 1943.  Something which the WI has campaigned for constantly over the years.

Women’s Institute Campaigns History


The WI has been campaigning nationally for 100 years.  The first resolution to be passed by the WI was on 24th October 1918 and it called for ‘the provision of a sufficient supply of convenient and sanitary housing’.


The WI first campaigned on jury service in 1921, urging eligible women to ‘accept their full responsibilities as citizens in whatever way they may be called upon to serve their country’ at a time when virtually no women met the qualifying criteria.


When the Metropolitan Police’s Women’s Patrols were disbanded in 1922 the WI passed a resolution calling for their reinstatement. Over the next 26 years WI members joined a vigorous campaign to increase the number of women police, lobbying the Home Office and winning the support of the Archbishop of Canterbury.  The results paid off during WWII, when more women were brought into the police force including a number who were given full policing powers.  Other campaigns over the years to present times include Equal Pay for Women, the inauguration of ‘Keep Britain Tidy’, preserving the natural state of Antarctica, SOS for Honey Bees, visiting children in hospitals and safeguarding the farmers within the milk industry. Benson WI has enthusiastically supported these campaigns and continues to do so into its 93rd year.

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