Jam, Jerusalem and Facebook - around 150 women turn up for launch of new WI with a modern outlook

Launch of the new WI group in East Suffolk.

Launch of the new WI group in East Suffolk. - Credit: Archant

A new Women’s Institute has burst onto the scene in Ipswich – looking to mix a fresh modern outlook with a dash of tradition.

Launch of the new WI group in East Suffolk. Vice President Jenny Debenham and President Abigail Harp

Launch of the new WI group in East Suffolk. Vice President Jenny Debenham and President Abigail Harper. - Credit: Archant

The group held its first meeting last night at the Manor Ballroom with around 150 women arriving to join up, most of them invited through Facebook.

Abigail Harper, 34, who was confirmed as president of the group, said she was overwhelmed by how many people wanted to get involved.

“It’s amazing,” she said, “There’s obviously a demand for it. We were not expecting so many people to want to come – it is exciting, there’s a real buzz.”

Abigail said the group wanted to embrace new technology by using social media to gauge what their members would like to see.

“It is a slightly more fresh approach but we will still have what is expected from a WI,” she said.

“We will use online polls and social media to make it more exciting and discover what people want but at the core it will be exactly what the WI has always been. We don’t want to run away from jam and Jerusalem, it’s important to say that.

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“I don’t know how to knit, crochet or make jam and would love to find out how. We are not ruling out any of our traditional ventures.

“The important thing is that it is relevant to the time and the people involved, to make it accessible.”

So more mothers can attend, the group will be holding all its meetings in the evening.

The idea of the new group came from vice president Jenny Debenham, who had moved down to live in Ipswich from Cambridge. She decided a new club was needed – and the plans snowballed from there.

Jane Sago, chairman of the Suffolk east Federation of women’s Institutes said: “There are several existing WIs in Ipswich but they wanted something different. This new club will be largest in Ipswich.

“They wanted something to suit young mums and somewhere people could walk to. There will still be elderly members, there always will be, but that the joy of the WI - it encompasses everyone.”

The history of the WI

The first Women’s Institute was set up in Ontario, Canada, in 1897 as a branch of the Farmer’s Institute as a way for women living in remote rural areas to get together. It offered training in childcare and home economics as well as aspects of farming.

n The first WI group in Britain was set up in 1915 during the First World War to encourage women to get involved in

growing food to supply the war-torn nation.

n By 1917 there were 137 WIs across Britain and the first federations were formed. In October 16, 1917, The National Federation of Women’s Institutes (NFWI) was established.

n When the war was over the Board of Agriculture handed over all responsibility for the formation of WIs to the NFWI. By the end of 1919, there were 1,405 WIs across the UK.

n In 2015, the British WI celebrated its centenary. There are now around 6,300 WIs across the UK with almost 220,000 members.