The Women’s Institute takes Kilburn by storm

Times reporter Kate Ferguson discovers it is not all jam and Jerusalem at the North West Lonodn branch

Tucked away in a function room of a pub above the beeping traffic of the Kilburn High Road, a North West London’s Women’s Institute (NWWI) meeting is in full swing.

Around 40 women are debating the virtues of libraries, and vices of battery farms. A quick show of hands and the pigs clinch it – a motion ‘abhorring’ mega farms has been selected to be referred up to the Women’s Institute’s national conference.

“These farms would mean bringing the same terrible conditions battery hens are keep in, to other animals like sheep and pigs. They are disgraceful”, says Shelia Ryde-Weller, summing up the consensus of the room.

With the politics decided, women split off into groups for their monthly catch up. Some pull out needles and wool from their bags – the theme of tonight’s social is knitting. But as talk about animal rights gives way to a hum of chatter, one thing is immediately clear – the WI has become much more than ‘Jam and Jerusalem’.

Set up in 1915 as a way of revitalising the countryside and encourage women to become more involved in First World War food production, for many years the WI was considered a bulwark of traditional rural England, and dismissed by many as old fashioned and out of touch.

But all that is changing.

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Founded in 2007, the NWWI is part of a new breed of chapters springing up across London, bringing together women in their 20s with pensioners.

Among them are Rae Donn, who at 80 is the branch’s oldest member, and Rebecca Wilson, 23, their youngest.

“I took my boyfriend’s mum to one of our events and she told her colleagues that she was coming to a WI meeting in London with her son’s girlfriend and they all assumed I was an older woman”, laughs Rebecca, who works at St John’s hospice, in Grove End, St John’s Wood.

She moved from her home town of Sheffield to London last year and joined the NWWI as a way to meet people.

She says: “A lot of my family have found it quite funny when I have told them. But the organisation has changed a lot. I really enjoy it, so I keep coming back.”

This break with the past is something the older members also identify with.

Rae, of Fortune Green Road, West Hampstead, said: “I have a girlfriend whose mother was a member of the original WI where they used to make jam and cakes, back in the 1980s, and I never thought about it then. I wasn’t really interested.

“I thought it was all jam and cake making and going to fairs to sell their produce, but it really isn’t like that at all.

“It is a nice social evening and we hear about interesting things like the motion about the farming, which I wasn’t really aware of.”

While the WI may have shed its ‘fuddy tuddy’ reputation, there are many longstanding traditions the branch sticks to.

Knitting and arts and crafts are still regular activities, and the group are busy organising their bake sale at this summer’s Kilburn festival.

The group’s popularity has taken even its founders by surprise. It now has 70 members – just five short of its full capacity – and soon it may have to turn members away.

It is this ability to capture the new while drawing on the old that is the secret to the NWWI’s success.