“You are a very powerful force for good in our country…from domestic violence to women’s pay, from venereal disease in 1920s to AIDS in 1980s. That is a great tribute to the depth of your compassion, your fearlessness in tackling hard issues and the energy with which you further the cause of, not just women but, British society” (Tony Blair 2000).
I didn’t think I’d be quoting Tony Blair in a Tea Towel Blog. I include the quote because I wonder if it is this essence that my mother felt about the Women’s Institute, in the latter days of her life. I remember very clearly, as we chatted on the Renal Unit at St Mary’s Hospital in Paddington, knowing that her condition was terminal but not knowing exactly how long she had left, probably about two years, when she talked about the things that she felt she had missed out on. She promised herself that she would remedy this when she got out of hospital. She felt that she had forgone things that she really wanted to do for herself – like join a W.I. Group. She felt she would have liked to belong to a group of women doing things they enjoyed like flower arranging, baking, listening to talks, relaxing. She felt that she had given too much time to the things people expected of her – work and local politics, things that did not give her personal satisfaction and relaxation. It was bizarre because I’d never heard her talk about the W.I., never heard her say that she wanted to join a W.I. Group. But she was adamant. Bit like her wanting to go to Guernsey. She’d obviously spent a lot of time reflecting on her life. She was very cheerful about this, very positive; but she had promised herself that she would make up for lost time and missed opportunities.
The W.I. is an amazing institution. Although originating in Stoney Creek, Canada in 1897, it didn’t start in Britain until 1915 with the intention of ‘encouraging countrywomen to get involved in growing and preserving food to help increase the food supply during the First World War’. The first group in Britain was set up in Llanfair PG in Anglesey; the first in England was in Singleton in Sussex. By 1918, there were 199 groups; by 1919, that had risen to 1405. The 2015 Centenary saw 6500 W.I. groups and 215,000 members. The W.I. have tackled many campaigns – climate change, equal pay, the decline of the honey bee, the gap in midwifery. Maybe that is the sort of thing that my mother would have been interested in.
This, however, is a pure linen tea towel, designed to commemorate the 75th Anniversary of the National Federation of Women’s Institute. It has their coat of arms in the centre with their motto “For home and country”. I can remember exactly when, where and why I bought this tea towel; I can picture the precise building and the stall that it was on. When?: the first Wednesday in July 1990. Where?: the Royal Show which was held at the National Agricultural Society headquarters at Stoneleigh in Warwickshire. Why?: It was two and a half weeks after my mother’s funeral. The two years she had been ‘promised’ lasted less than three weeks. Because of all the discussions we had had about the W.I. in hospital I just wanted to go and see the W.I. stand. The W.I. were based in a building away from the centre of the show, it was the first place I wanted to go. I didn’t know anything about the W.I. but was very excited to see the tea towel and just had to have it.
I was with John who was totally interested in cooking; the W.I. were doing a programme of cookery demonstrations throughout the day. We watched two; one about a pork casserole and the other with chicken pieces. If I had any interest at all in cooking I would be able to remember the names of the dishes. Although I don’t cook, I quite like watching a demonstration. Besides the cookery demonstration, the W.I. had a lot going on – books on jam-making, preserves and chutneys which John loved and bought a couple of different books, which I still have. There were more jams on sale than I have had hot dinners; there was a competition for all branches to enter – to represent 75 years of the W.I. There were some amazing tapestries and quilts. All jam and Jerusalem. I loved it.
Personally, the day with the W.I. didn’t entice me to join a group but it will always remind me never to put off things until later, because you never know if there will be a ‘later’, you never know if you will achieve it. My mother was determined that she would join a Leicester Branch of the W.I. She had been promised that she had time. Sadly, she never left hospital, never made it to Leicester, never joined the W.I. This tea towel will always remind me of the potential member of the W.I. who never quite made it.