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The Women's Institute

Lively minds and busy fingers

One of the most striking ways the WI sought to improve the level of skills was by competitions. Every kind of skill was put to the test by competition with fellow branch members, or on a wider scale, with other villages at the county level. Mrs Allam alone collected certificates for her marrows, carrots, chrysanthemums and beetroot. Her onions won a special award in 1932 and her wines were highly regarded. Unfortunately, there is no mention of what she made her wines from.

At branch level, they had competitions to see who could grow the most potatoes, the originals donated by Mrs Buchan, who could write a poem or short story, cookery competitions, who could provide the best article for a shilling. Mrs Watts won the potato competition, growing 11lbs 8 oz of potatoes from the one given her and so won a silk purse, donated by Mrs Buchan. Mrs Hambidge only managed 1 lb 6 oz. Perhaps Mrs Watts had access to more manure.

In their very first year, the women of Elsfield entered items they had made in the Oxford Handicrafts Exhibition, winning four prizes and in 1920 they had embarked upon a communal patchwork quilt which they intended to show at the Exhibition. Over the years,  Elsfield WI won the coveted shield for small Insitutes, a prize for best handicrafts and produce of the year, a very great achievement for such a small village, as Susan Buchan notes. She attributes their success almost entirely to Miss Parsons, who would look over her steel-rimmed spectacles and say, "I have put you down for this for the County Exhibition in two months’ time". She was "on your doorstep weekly to remind you," she comments. Miss Parsons herself won the Women’s Institute award, the Gold Star, for one piece of cross stitch she did.

The range of speakers and topics covered was quite astonishing. The winter programme for 1923 consisted of talks on home nursing, hat making, dress making, and cooking. There had been demonstrations of soldering and carpentry and a talk on making sweets. From about the middle of 1928, the variety of events and speakers invited and the topics for discussion became even more varied. There were talks about care of the hair (including cutting, shingling, bobbing and how to singe long hair), practical gardening, a cookery demonstration by Brown and Polson, a lantern lecture on Montenegro, demonstrations of rag rug making, raffia work, a lantern lecture by Miss Hadow and stories about Christmas customs. In 1930, they were attending talks about France, Canada, India and Ceylon; on public health, home nursing and “what to do till the doctor comes!” They went to Barnet House for a demonstration of cheese-making; they had a charabanc trip to Ewelme Manor and were invited by Lady Sybil Smith to visit Tusmore Manor.

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