Inspiring Women and Powerful Campaigners

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Porlock WI Country Market, November 1944

Sometimes people who ask me about my work are a little sniffy about the fact that I am a female historian writing about Second World War home front focusing on women and the Woman’s Institute at that. They mock at their peril. Woe betide them if they ever come face to face with an angry WI group. Ask Tony Blair. He didn’t like it much when they roasted him in 2000. Politely. But a roasting nevertheless. The WI is a magnificent organisation with immense power and patience. I have endless respect for them today as I do for their mothers and grandmothers who were part of the WI seventy years ago.

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The Hon. Gertrude Lady Denman, NFWI Chairman 1917-1946

The wartime Women’s Institute was dominated by three powerful women at the top of the organisation who had energy, vision and passion. They took on the establishment to prove to the government what a valuable resource women, and the WI in particular, could be. The first was the national chairman, Lady Denman, who had been in post since 1917 and knew a thing or two about getting things done. Her deputy, Grace Hadow, was a brilliant academic and suffragist. The third was a Cambridge educated economist called Francis Farrer.

 

Grace Hadow was educated at Oxford and known as one of the best public speakers of her age; she was the brains behind the national executive. By the outbreak of war she was sixty-four and as active as ever, having spent the previous summer climbing in the Alps. It was Miss Hadow who had to designate the restrictions for the WI’s wartime work so as not to breach their Pacifist stand.

She wrote: ‘No one would wish to restrain people from volunteering for National Service, but National Service may lie in simple things, and to help to keep up morale and to prevent life in an emergency from becoming wholly disorganized is in itself work of no mean value.’

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Grace Hadow, NFWI Vice Chairman 1918-1940

The only stipulation she made was that WI funds could not be used towards the war effort. This meant that every penny spent on wool for knitting for the troops or jam jars and sugar for making jam had to be raised and accounted for separately. As the WI was and remains very good at fundraising this was no obstacle to their work but it was an extra burden for them at a busy time when many were stretched more than they had ever been. Men were away, the villages were full of evacuees and their help was needed on all fronts. Sadly Miss Hadow died in January 1940 of pneumonia and the WI was robbed of a great talent.

Frances Farrer was the general secretary of the National Federation of Women’s Institutes, from 1929 to 1959. She was created a Dame (DBE) in 1953 in recognition of the immense contribution she made towards the war effort by acting as a conduit between the government and the membership. She was, as far as I am concerned, the chief Jambuster, in that she bust bureaucratic log jams and hassled ministers to get things done. An early hit on the Ministry of Food three days after war broke out produced 350 tons of sugar which went towards the first ad hoc jam preservation of autumn 1939. This proved to the Minister, Lord Woolton, in 1940 that he had an army of willing volunteers with access to surplus fruit who would help him to stock the nation’s larder.

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Dame Frances Farrer, NFWI General Secretary 1929-1959

Miss Farrer took up cudgels on behalf of evacuees; she wrote to the Ministry of Health with members’ suggestions which fed into the Beveridge Report and she made sure that there were WI members represented on most post-war reconstruction boards. When the Board of Trade wanted to discuss clothes rationing they brought in two women they needed to get on side: Miss Farrer representing the WI and Lady Reading for the Women’s Voluntary Service. Miss Farrer would phone ministers before breakfast in order to get their attention.

The only battle she never won was with a Mr Squance in the Department of Mines. He was responsible for petrol rationing. They locked horns in 1940 and she eventually wrote her last letter to him in April 1946. The WI was not entitled to bulk petrol rations, like the WVS and the Women’s Land Army, as it was not a war organisation, on account of its pacifist stance. Thus the WI was treated as a civilian social organisation, something that enraged Miss Farrer. She needed extra petrol for members to deliver their produce to country markets or to collect and deliver fruit to preservation centres. This was never forthcoming and members had to resort to catching lifts or using unusual sorts of transport.

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Lady Denman wearing her WI badge

For me the most impressive member of the wartime WI hierarchy was Lady Denman. Even though she had technically stood down so she could run the Land Army, she was still the figurehead and highly recognisable in government circles. Extraordinarily practical – she was an expert on poultry keeping – she was an inspiring leader for the WI. She was described as ‘attractive, very intelligent, [she] had a fine stride in walking, was good at sport and expert in tree felling, a capable business woman, a good housekeeper, shy, devoid of sentimentality, and full of sympathy for those in trouble. She believed in success and demanded a high standard of work in everything and never spared herself.’

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Lady Denman speaking at a Land Army rally in 1943

Lady Denman believed in democracy and said: ‘It is better for a meeting to make the wrong decision it wishes to make than the right decision which its chairman wishes to make.’ One MP who saw her in action on House of Commons wrote that she was worth ten men on any select committee. An example of her belief in the power of the WI to be a force for change was when she was leading the 1938 WI resolution which campaigned to get free school milk for children. (remember 1/3 pint milk bottles, with frozen cream in the winter and often a little off in the summer?). She told delegates and members at the Annual General Meeting about her experience:

‘I do know that very many WIs did write to their MPs, for I was one of your representatives who met the Nutrition Group of Members of Parliament in the House of Commons. On that occasion more members came than we expected. One MP suggested that he would have been saved a lot of work if he had received one letter from the County Federation rather than fifty from individual WIs. I suggested in reply that it was always possible for one letter to be overlooked, whereas fifty were bound to receive attention. Judging by the way this remark was greeted by a chorus of ‘Hear Hear’ and laughter, most of the Members of Parliament entirely agreed that there is strength in a united attack.’

Lady Denman knew all about united attacks and she continued to make use of any means she could to communicate the WI’s message throughout the war. She used the media to her advantage and played it brilliantly: a visit to a WI in Kent with Mrs Churchill, Mrs Roosevelt and Lady Reading; a broadcast in 1942 which reached millions urging the government to make use of members in post-war reconstruction and an invitation to the Queen to speak to the only AGM that took place during the Second World War. By the end of the war no one could overlook the WI’s contribution towards the war effort, despite the fact they maintained their pacifist position throughout.

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WI propaganda Lady Denman style: HM The Queen visits a fruit canning centre near Reading in 1941

The WI has been and continues to be an organisation that believes in positive, constructive campaigning. Letters, petitions … even flower-bombing war memorials after the Women’s War Memorial in Whitehall was defaced in May 2015. I am always impressed by how much they achieve by the simple power of persuasion on a vast scale. They are inspiring women indeed. And these three wartime leaders in particular.

Home Fires Women Don’t Go Quietly

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It is almost three weeks since Home Fires was dropped by ITV but the noise on social media shows no signs of quietening. There is an impressive cross-section of people who comment on Facebook and Twitter. The majority of supporters are women but there is a strong male presence which, when I assessed it, almost matches the drama in terms of representation. I was once again reminded of Mark Umbers (Wing Commander Lucas) wise words when he wrote how the Home Fires story is told from the female perspective in a way that does not diminish its male characters. That’s exactly right and is one of the reasons why it has a strong male following as well as the perhaps-to-be-expected female audience.

St Boniface Church, Bunbury. Today’s view has hardly changed in 75 years.

This got me thinking about the profile of wartime villages in Britain. It was not the same as in the towns and cities, where factory workers were split almost 50/50 but the men were a great deal older, about 11 years on average, than they had been in the 1930s. The young men had in the main been conscripted. Women stepped up to the plate and took on roles that were hitherto the domain of men. They drove buses, became tram conductors, they made machines and munitions. In the countryside it was different. Women’s roles had changed in the Great War and with the birth of the WI they had a stronger sense of community than their urban counterparts. By 1916 women in the countryside made up a significant proportion of the labour force on farms. It is estimated that over 600,000 women worked in agriculture in the First World War, of which just 1/10th were members of the Women’s Land Army. The rest were wives, mothers, daughters of farmers and farm labourers who worked more often than not for no pay. It was simply expected that they would pick up where their young men had left off.

Rolling forward two decades these women, now a generation older, knew that they would have to do the same as they had done in the previous war. This time they were better organised. The Women’s Institute, formed in 1915, was a huge help in that it offered a ready-made structure to get things done: to bust the government’s bureaucratic logjams and keep the countryside ticking. They also knew that this time they would be more directly involved. The editor of Home & Country wrote in 1940:

‘Women who were grown up in the last war remember, as hardest to bear, the thought that young lives were being paid for their safety. Young men are defending us now, in a manner beyond praise. But this time we have the honour of sharing a little of the danger.’

Mrs Dunne, county chairman of Herefordshire wrote to her eighty-five presidents: ‘We must remember that “The main purpose of WIs is to improve and develop conditions in rural life.” To do this we must not neglect the education and social side of our movement. The war threatens civilisation, and we must do our best through the stress and turmoil to preserve all that is good and beautiful and true.’

There is something so stoical in these remarks. They are not headline grabbing or startling in their insight. They are not even particularly passionate but they are solid, determined and focused. Nothing, not even a war, was going to put the countrywoman off her stride. Throughout my research for Jambusters I found countless references to women who would carry on meetings or jam-making in an air-raid ‘because it had to be done’. A Kent member would shout and wave a clenched fist at the German planes flying overhead, not out of rage but out of frustration that it meant she had to abandon her fruit picking or gardening while they fought overhead. Other women sprang to help evacuees from the Blitz on Coventry and Plymouth, offering them practical help, such as a bath and a bed for the night. If there was anything they could do to help they would do it.

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Farrow Farm, Great Paxford

Simon Block has managed to capture this sense of community in his glorious fictional Great Paxford. I think one of the reasons why so many viewers react passionately towards Home Fires is that they recognise this as something they knew or or learned of through parents, grandparents or older siblings. It is living history in the most visceral way. Yet, as I have said before, Home Fires wears its history lightly. So it speaks to our sense of community, to our understanding of the role played by women in the war and, frankly, to our debt to them that they did so bravely and with humour. Looking at Frances Barden, can you not see how similar she is to Mrs Dunne of Herefordshire? Not speaking the same words but understanding the same sentiment: ‘to preserve all that is good and beautiful and true.’ In her own way, Joyce Cameron wants the same, but in the first series she is too stuck in her old ways to see that preserving something can mean allowing it to change with the times. By series two she is a changed woman and we find ourselves warming to her more and more. When Malcolm shows her the picture of her baby granddaughter I had hot tears in my eyes as I watched the brilliant, regal Francesca Annis do what every proud grandmother would do, which is to beam with joy. But Home Fires also speaks with a modern tongue to issues that cross generations: domestic abuse, loneliness, prejudice, racism and love. I think that Simon’s characters, in the hands of the outstandingly gifted cast and the superb camera crews, sound engineers, make-up artists, directors and producers, give us something that we really get. These are people who are real to us every Sunday evening, so that they have become like friends who we talk about all the next week. That is one of the reasons, I believe, that Home Fires has such a strong and passionate following.

I am going to end with a quote from the Chairman of the Women’s Institute, Lady Denman, from October 1939. If you want to change the words and see what I’m getting at slightly tongue in cheek, you are most welcome to try.

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The Hon. Lady Gertrude Denman, Chairman of the NFWI, was an inspiring woman and a wonderful example to her membership

‘Germany is said to count on breaking our nerve. Every person who spreads an atmosphere of cheerfulness and quiet resolution at this time is helping to win the war. We are proud of the cause for which Britain is fighting, and those of us who are not called upon to endure the hardship of actual fighting, will be glad to feel that we have comforts to go without, difficulties to contend with in daily life, and that by meeting such troubles cheerfully and helping our neighbours to do so, we are taking our small share in winning the victory which we believe will come, but which will come only if the whole nation is ready to make willing sacrifice.’

#savehomefires