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Monthly Archives: December 2013

The Rise of the Women’s Institute in The East End

There’s a reason why traditions survive through time.

Lots of brides still wear white on their wedding day, despite the obvious, and one can observe the tense atmosphere in restaurants on Valentine’s Day where couples silently compete in loving gestures across a candle lit table.

And in a similar way to eating fish and chips in yesterday’s newspaper, the tradition of the Women’s Institute, which was founded in 1915, is still spreading itself across the country like marg on a homemade scone, and over the last few years has made its presence known in East London.

The original WI spent time with jam.  Lots of jam.

The original WI spent time with jam. Lots of jam.

The latest WI to sprout from Hackney’s concrete streets is Hackney Wicked Women, who had their first meeting in November at Cr8 Lifestyle Centre in Hackney Wick.

Started by Grace Shotbolt, 24, last month, Hackney Wicked Women saw a modest 15 people turn up from the area, including Grace’s mother, Elaine, a keen supporter of the institute and the only member so far representing the 50+ age category.

Elaine, who is 53, said: ‘I joined the WI to support my daughter but also because I’ve lived in London for three years now and have found it quite difficult to make new friends.”

Friendz 4 lyfe

Friendz 4 lyfe

Whilst the majority of the group are women in their 20s, Grace says the group is open to any woman who wants to join, from girls who want to learn craft to those who want to get involved in charity work or just want to meet the neighbours; the whole idea is to bring people together.

She said: “I work in the city which is not very women friendly and I wanted to do something for women and make a difference outside my job.”

In a creative area like Hackney Wick, Grace said that she’s seen a rise in traditional activities like making your own clothes, knitting and crochet which she hopes to encourage in her WI.

Members of Hackney Wicked Women.  Photograph: Eleonore de Bonneval

Members of Hackney Wicked Women. Photograph: Eleonore de Bonneval

Another thing that she wants to focus on is bringing in women speakers who have with interesting careers and charity work for which she has plans to work with Free Cakes for Kids, a Hackney based charity who provide birthday cakes for children in low income families.

And with other WIs in the area, including the Shoreditch Sisters and the East End WI, Grace said that there’s no competition between the groups and she’d love to collaborate with them on projects in the future such as supporting small businesses and causes in the area.

President of the Shoreditch Sisters, Martha Wass, 25, said: “Shoreditch is home to many charities and organisations that we work with, such as Women For Refugee Women, who are a local group challenging the injustices experienced by women who seek asylum in the UK.

Shoreditch Sisters in action

Shoreditch Sisters in action

“We are currently working on, Knitted Together, a knitting project which meets twice a month with them, sharing our knitting skills and creating a group blanket/wall hanging to campaign against the ill treatment and lack of support to the ladies sent to the immigration detention centre in Jarls Wood.”

The groups highlight the importance of supporting the community’s organisations, sharing and learning new skills and making national WI campaigns specific to their field.

Colleen Bowen, President of the East End WI says that the “two energetic women”, Niki Stevens and Sorella Le Var were not only inspired by the comedy series Jam and Jerusalem but the idea that you can still be lonely in a busy city like London.

The East End WI give you their hands

The East End WI give you their hands

She said: “The realisation that you can be just as isolated in a heavily populated area like London as you can be in a rural area meant that both Niki and Sorella were keen to set up a group that would welcome all local women, help them make new friends and have fun.

“Up until that time, WI’s has been based primarily in more rural areas, but the desire to build a supportive community of women while sharing and learning new skills is just as relevant in the East End as it is to anywhere else in the country.”

And despite it being almost 100 years since the first Women’s Institute, Martha, Grace and Colleen all agree that the idealogy has hardly changed; it’s still about campaigning for a better community and teaching women new skills.

Mysterious skills at a Shoreditch Sisters meeting

Mysterious skills at a Shoreditch Sisters meeting

But that’s not to say that it hasn’t moved on from 1915.

Martha said: “I suspect that the WI movement is a good deal more democratic and has adopted more modern means of promoting its ideals, though perhaps a little more slowly than we would like.

“Here in the East End we like to just get on with business as quickly using whatever means we can. Sometimes that might mean a bit of craftivism to get our message across, or just being vocal and visible locally.”

When in doubt of being visible, bang on a steel drum

When in doubt of being visible, bang on a steel drum

And in the age where women have demanding jobs on top of home responsibilities, WI’s need to prioritise what really matters to them in terms of their dedication and energy and according to Martha, “it’s the generous spirit of our women that keeps us going.”

In light of the “urban WI” where younger women are getting involved in cities, Janice Langley, Chair of The National Federation of Women’s Institutes said that it shows perceptions are changing and the WI has “something for everyone”.

She said: “Women of every age are attracted to the WI and members have told us that their WI meeting is the only opportunity they have to mix with women of different ages, and have made really good friends that they otherwise wouldn’t have ever met.”

No WI post would be complete without this cheeky calendar girls picture

No WI post would be complete without this cheeky calendar girls picture

With the first London WI starting in Fulham in 2003, Janice says that the cities WI’s are on the rise, with there now being 50 in the capital.

She said: “The East End WI, and Shoreditch Sisters WI in east London are all great examples of the organisation offering something to all women at every stage of their lives, and we look forward to hearing about the range of activities their members choose to get involved with long into the future.”

For more information see Hackney Wicked Women, Shoreditch Sisters, East End WI and The National Federation of Women’s Institutes.