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The Women's Institute

Treading the boards and borrowing books

By the late 1920s, drama had begun to play an important part in the social life of the village with the branch organising visits from the Oxfordshire Players and putting on plays themselves. Mrs Buchan suggested at one meeting that as they were going to put on a play for Marston WI it might be a good idea to ask someone from Barnet House, the WI centre in Oxford, to tell them about acting. In 1927, a visit from the Oxford Players attracted an audience of a hundred and by 1928 the Elsfield WI drama group, established four years previously, was putting on two plays a year and entered the WI drama competition which took place in Summertown with a play called Early Birds. This was no small event as they were competing against Marston, Beckley, Burford, Freeland, Garsington, Chinnor and Kirtlington.

By 1928, the drama sub-committee was becoming increasingly busy. It agreed to organise community singing and sent to the Oxford Times for song leaflets. They were short of men for the plays they wanted to put on and one can only guess at the events which led up to the formulation of the resolution: "If a person is acting a part they should willingly submit to the criticism of the committee and take another more suitable role if it is suggested". They had, of course, an author living among them, who was a teller at meetings where votes were cast. The play where Mrs Hambidge played John McNab must have come from the pen of John Buchan.

It is not clear where plays were held in the 1920s. In 1933, however performances were put on in the Manor House barn. Here, the Oxfordshire Players gave regular performances of plays such as The Lord and the Lackey, which was "fun and laughter from beginning to end".

Being near to Oxford was an advantage since it gave them ready access to the County Organisation based at Barnet House. They very quickly took advantage of the Barnet House Rural Library Service , a facility which had been set up by Grace Hadow, secretary of Barnet House from 1920 to 1929. In Elsfield, Mrs Elkington was to be the librarian and members were to pay a penny a month.

Members were not above calling on the skills of their own family to enlighten the branch. In April 1928, there was an entertainment by Miss Alice Buchan. This consisted of a short talk on the Women’s Institute in England and Scotland and a recitation while her brother, Master Alistair Buchan, gave three recitations. Again in 1930, a short play composed by Miss A. Buchan and acted by Masters John, William, and Alistair Buchan and the Misses Herbert was put on for the entertainment of the ladies of the WI.

By the 1930s, ten years after its inauguration, the BBC was also targeting the WI. Towards the end of 1932, the BBC for the first time gave lectures specifically aimed at WI members. Mrs Elkington, the vicar’s wife, suggested that members who had loudspeakers should invite other members to listen in.

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