The Women’s Institute is the story of women helping women. The WI is a hybrid of a Canadian organization conceived by Adelaide Hoodless and an urbane British group founded by suffragist, Mrs. Nora Wynford Phillips. Both groups wanted to help women improve themselves and the lives of their families. Mrs. Hoodless was inspired by the death of her young son due to drinking milk improperly stored in the summer.
Initially, rural women were not interested as they felt their sons and husbands would belittle them. Things changed in 1915 as thousands of men went to war and women were forced to take on their work. Secretary of the British Agricultural Organization Society John Nugent Harris heard Mrs. Madge Watt, a Canadian who relocated to England, speak at an agricultural meeting where she proposed that a women’s Institute modeled on the Canadian one be started in Britain. Watt was employed by the Agricultural Society to start branches through out the country. The national association was created in 1918.
Many early members of the national Women’s Institute were active in the suffrage movement. The local groups were focused on improving women’s lives in practical domestic ways. In the public’s mind the WI was linked to the Suffragists.
The WI was not government funded. It was non-political, non-denominational and pacifist. During WW2, the Institute was invaluable in communicating within the civilian population, establishing once again produce markets for the home front population, and troop support.
After WW2 the WI groups were helpful in gathering data about the rural areas for the government and worked hard to lobby for improvements in living conditions, such as electricity and running water. Today the Women’s Institute continues to help ease the isolation of rural areas.
This is a well-researched history of the British Women’s Land Army in WW1 and how it paved the way for the success of the WLA in the Second World War. Unlike the United States that set up agricultural colleges after the American Civil War, Great Britain lacked a unified approach to agriculture until World War One.
The Great War forced Britain to organize the farmers and agricultural community on a national level, and the WLA was in the forefront of this initiative despite male farmers’ reluctance to accept women workers or their advice. One leading recruiter for the WLA wrote: “Farmers had been prejudiced and stupid about women.”
A harvest crisis in 1916 was caused by lower crop yields in both Britain and America, and Russian exports were curtailed by the Ottoman blockade of the Dardanelles. This required food rationing in 1917 as prices rose by 106 percent of July 1914 levels.
In 1918, the WLA helped insure that people would not starve as its members worked the land to feed England. The WLA was disbanded in 1919 leaving the groundwork for the next agricultural crisis.
Dorothy Peel was awarded the Order of the British Empire in 1918 by the Ministry of Food to recognize her creation of wartime recipes for householders. Peel’s great granddaughter wrote this book after finding Granny Dot’s cookery book on an attic shelf. Straker assembled more than 150 pages of recipes supported by color photographs and a table of measurement conversions. There is also a table that shows the compulsory ration amounts that helped cooks prepare pre-war recipes using the 1918 authorized quantities.
By 1917, Peel had a reputation for her domestic and culinary writing. The Ministry of Food contacted her to help in their task of insuring successful allocation and use of rations during the war. Using her contacts she insured nutritional content was maintained in her recipes during the rationing.
Peel wrote: “I did think that it was worthwhile to try to do what I was given a chance to do, to find … that those who do make the most mistakes! Still, if one is frightened of failing one is not likely to succeed.”
This reviewer has read a number of histories of the home fronts of Britain, the U.S., and France, and this oral history is by far the most fascinating. Authors van Emden and Humphries conducted about a hundred interviews from the late 1990s until the early 2000s with people who had grown up in Britain during the war. This rich trove of experience forms the core of the book, but the authors supplemented it with letters, diaries, and earlier recorded interviews. The chapters are a harmonious blend of distinct topics and a chronological approach. The oral histories bring alive such diverse topics as the shelling of East Coast cities by the German Navy, hunger and poverty, the poor treatment of people of German descent, the Zeppelin and airplane raids on Britain, the care of the wounded, the experiences of munitions workers, etc. The chapter “It is my painful duty…”, where the interviewees recount how they were notified of the deaths of their fathers or older brothers, is absolutely heart-wrenching to read.
This is a story about the home front from the perspective of children and teenagers, and a story primarily told by women. This reviewer did not find either of these demographic situations to be a weakness of this book. These oral histories are powerful enough to stand on their own, in addition to the fact that the interviewees often also recounted their parents’ perspectives on these events. If you’re going to buy only one book on the British home front, it should be this one.
Reviewed by Steve Suddaby, past president of WW1HA who In the 1990s interviewed about 40 people who had lived through the Zeppelin raids on Hull, England.
Ambassador Shurtleff, a retired American Foreign Service officer who served as President of The World War One Historical Association and as a past President of The Western Front Association – U S Branch, passed away on January 22, 2014. The searchable version of Len’s Bookshelf was created and will be maintained in his honor.