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The Women's Institute

Elsfield Women's Institute

The impact the Women’s Institute had on the lives of the women of Elsfield cannot be overestimated. It transformed their lives, opening their eyes to a wider world, giving them skills they had not possessed, honing those they already had, giving them a sense of their own worth and while doing all this, having fun.

Susan Buchan had arrived in Elsfield with little experience of life in the country beyond what she had gleaned from Mary Webb’s Gone to Earth. The reality proved somewhat different. She writes:

"Like many town-dwellers of that day, I thought of life in the country as picturesque, stark and extremely romantic. I soon discovered I must spin the romance for myself as the village dwellers saw none in their lives or surroundings and that they regarded moonlight, sunsets, the hush of a December evening and the splendour of a lilac-scented May morning with equal indifference."

Elsfield villagers, she found, were completely turned in on themselves. She found the gossip and the intrigues difficult to come to terms with and discovered that life in a village is rather like life on board ship. "You are all in it together and human beings in a situation such as this watch each other closely, pounce on their neighbours’ defects and are always sceptical about any signs of improvement," she wrote.

As a newcomer and a Londoner at that, she was distrusted. Miss Parsons, having been ousted from the Manor House, was understandably reserved towards her and sometimes less than co-operative, and it was with some trepidation that Susan Buchan broached the idea of starting a branch of the WI. For the first meeting she suggested a talk on bee keeping. No-one objected. In fact she got the impression that everyone thought it was a good idea so went ahead and arranged it. She was then approached by one of the Elsfield WI vice-presidents who told her that nobody wanted bees, that two people in the village already kept them and that the others did not care to hear about them. In spite of all the difficulties she encountered, Susan Buchan persevered in her endeavour to establish a branch of the WI and in the end her obvious goodwill won through. Of Miss Parsons she writes,

"It was greatly to Miss Parsons’ credit that she became such an admirable Institute member. The idea ran completely counter to all the prejudices and established principles. …The Women’s Institute, with its democratic set-up and its accent on the members expressing their opionions freely, and running everything themselves, was a strange new portent to her."

There being no doctor in Elsfield and therefore no doctor’s wife, other posts in the WI were taken by Mrs Elkington, wife of the vicar, who became joint Vice-President along with Miss Parsons. The treasurer was Mrs Clinkard, wife of the farmer at Forest Farm and the secretaries were Mrs Webb and Mrs Morbey. Among the committee in 1920 were, among others, Mesdames Allam, Paintin, and Phipps, all of whom feature in the history of the village, along with the teacher Miss Hopcraft.

Thirty-three people attended the inaugural meeting which was held at the Manor at 3 pm on 4th May 1920. It was agreed that meetings would be held on the first Thursday in every month at 6 pm and a joint committee was set up with the men to organise social events. The timing of the meeting is interesting, as one might have expected women to be at home cooking the evening meal.

The first open meeting was held, surprisingly, in the grounds of the Manor rather than indoors. It consisted of a demonstration on making useful garments from old clothes, a treasure hunt, an exhibition of interesting articles brought by members and a discussion of labour saving hints. Miss Parsons also distributed small pieces of material for members to make up into useful articles for the July bazaar.

This was to set the pattern for the branch: pooling knowledge, increasing the pool of knowledge by bringing in outside speakers and demonstrations, fund raising for the branch and other good causes and Susan Buchan came to realise that what the women of Elsfield really appreciated was hearing speakers who brought information from the wider world and classes and demonstrations on how to improve the skills they already possessed.

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