Susan Buchan arrived in Elsfield four years after the idea of a Women’s Institute had been first mooted. The organisation began life in rural Canada, where its aim was to give women a voice independent of their husbands, and to improve food production. Its Canadian founder, Mrs Watts, brought her idea to England in 1915 and it was quickly seized on by the government of the time, as a way of organising women in the production of food. The intial organisation was formed under the auspices of the Agricultural Organisation Society, which had itself been formed in 1901 in response to the severe decline in British agriculture, to support and encourage diversification in the farming industry. Mrs Watts was invited to attend a meeting of the AOS, where she sat in the front row with her knitting. Towards the end of the meeting she put aside her knitting and spoke to the assembled members about the founding and growth of the Women’s Institute in Canada. She was appointed to the AOS staff for a three month period, with the specific purpose of organising the WI in Britain.
The first branch of the Women’s Institute in Britain was set up in Anglesey in 1915, with the explicit aim of revitalising rural communities and, as in Canada, encouraging women to produce more food during a time of shortages. The WI was the butt of men’s jokes at that time and has continued to be made fun of by many people to this day, but its impact on the lives of the women of Elsfield, whom we can assume were typical of village society of the time, cannot be overestimated.
What had been a democratic movement founded on co-operative principles in Canada was taken over and run in England by women many of whom had been active in the suffrage movement, notably, Lady Denman, the Chairwoman, and Grace Hadow, the Vice-chairwoman of the National WI. Grace Hadow had attended Somerville College in Oxford at a time when women were allowed to attend but not graduate. She became resident tutor at Lady Margaret Hall and a founder member of the Oxford Women Students’ Society for Women’s Suffrage. She must have been well acquainted with Helena Deneke, who was an active member of Elsfield WI from 1921 and on the committee of the national organisation and who became librarian and fellow of Lady Margaret Hall.
Branches of the WI multiplied, but not along the lines of the democratic Canadian model. In England, it was the Lady of the Manor who became the president of the local branch, the doctor’s wife was often the secretary, since she would be among the women comfortable with the written word, and the local teacher would almost certainly take an active part. In England, the WI under the influence of the ex-suffragists became a vehicle for the education of working class women in not only how to run meetings, how to formulate and present an argument but also in political issues which affected women. Women such as Grace Hadow and Lady Denman were well aware of the influence wives of politicians could have on how the country was run, and they deliberately cultivated the upper and political classes to increase the political clout of the movement.
Grace Hadow’s aim was to educate women to become active citizens which she undertook with an apostolic zeal. In 1918, she wrote, “The Women’s Institute is for all alike, rich and poor, gentle and simple, learned and unlearned – all pay the same subscription, and have the same responsibilities”. This was not exactly a true representation of the situation, as the subscription would be a rather different proportion of the income of the lady of the manor compared with, say, a farm labourer’s wife. And it turned a blind eye to the social realities of village life. They may all have been able to contribute to the organisation, but the wives of farm labourers would have known their place and would not have questioned any lead the lady of the manor might have given. As their confidence increased, however, they could and did occasionally modify attempts to educate them, Mrs Buchan’s offer on one occasion to read extracts from the works of Dickens being deferred and the branch opting for a talk on home nursing. Still, an organization which could receive both Mrs Buchan, later Lady Tweedsmuir, and her cook, Mrs Charlett, on relatively equal terms must have seemed positively revolutionary in the 1920s.
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.
The years 1920-1939
The Minutes of the Institute were meticulously kept and provide a wealth of detail about the events they organised and their concerns at that particular time.
Elsfield WI was extremely successful in its early years, perhaps due to the glamour associated with the wife of John Buchan, successful writer and politician, and glamorous in her own right as a member of the Grosvenor family. Not only was Susan Buchan generous with her money, giving prizes for competitions, tickets for events, and lifts in her car. She also had an endless supply of enthusiasm and belief in the organisation itself: its social role as well as its educational aspirations. She provided a venue for the yearly fete and a meeting room when other places failed. Until 1924, she sent or took notices of meetings to everyone, but by that time the branch had grown so much this was becoming a chore, so Mrs Clinkard sold twopenny notebooks to members so they could write down information about future meetings.
Her financial generosity was matched by Miss Parsons who, although suspicious at first of an organisation which appeared to ignore the social hierarchy of the village, and distrustful of Mrs Buchan as a newcomer, eventually became a whole-hearted supporter. She provided a venue for events and for competitions, giving practical prizes such as Brasso, tea, soap and tinned fish. Prizes for the Christmas Draw in 1930 were similarly practical: a boy’s woollen suit, half a ton of coal, a Christmas cake, a turkey, rabbits, a cockerel, plum pudding, bottle of wine, and cigarettes.
The vicar’s wife, Mrs Elkington, while unlikely to have had as much money as Mrs Buchan or Miss Parsons could provide support in other ways. In March 1921, the branch had decided to buy cups and saucers, because Mrs Elkington was lending hers and they thought they should have their own. Being careful with any money at their disposal, however, they postponed the purchase in order to see if prices came down. It was not till June, when they had £6-10-11d in hand that they bought their crockery: two large brown teapots, three dozen cups and saucers (white), three plates, four jugs for milk, six bread and butter plates and one dozen teaspoons. Miss Parsons agreed to enamel ‘W.I.’ on everything, which would save a lot of money while Mrs Buchan donated American cloth for the table.
The Women’s Institute banner
Mrs Buchan offered to work on a banner and was helped in this task by Mrs Allam. This is now kept at the Oxfordshire County Museum Resource Centre at Standlake. It is made of blue brocade, about two feet by three feet and is embroidered with birds and trees. On the back is a label saying, “The reason of this design is that Elsfield is a hill-top crowned with elm trees and with a rookery. The arms are those of Christ Church, the principal owners of the estate. The banner is the work of Mrs John Buchan and Mrs Herbert Allam”.
Links with other villages
From the beginning, the branch was concerned to fraternise with other villages. One of the first events they organised in the December of their first year was an entertainment for Marston WI. They aimed to ask the men to join them as thanks for the use of their room and the free lighting and heating they had enjoyed.
In 1921, they organised a competition for plain and fancy needlework, to be judged by Marston WI, and a hat trimming competition for the men. Mrs Cox and Mrs Webb would give a duologue and there would be music and games. This became a regular event, with hospitality being reciprocated by Marston WI. In 1922 they were invited down to Marston, to be taken there by Beckley Carriers. A competition for the men was not hat trimming but darning and Miss Hatt of Church Farm agreed to provide stockings for them to darn.
The liveliness of the Elsfield branch meant that there was an increasing number of people joining the branch from Beckley, who were conveyed to Elsfield by carrier. It was agreed they would pay 3d each towards the cost of the carrier and the rest would be provided from branch funds.
The Summer Rally and Fete organised by the County at New College was a highlight which attracted members’ support. They contributed to the gift stall, with Mrs Elkington making a cake, Miss Parsons contributing a raffia basket and Mrs Clinkard making a cake and a pot of jam. The whole group practised three folk songs to be sung at the fete and it was suggested they should hire a brake to take them there as some members would find it rather a long way to walk.
The establishment of bus services in the country areas had made it much easier for people to get around and the Elsfield bus service was to continue into the 1960s, when the increase in car ownership meant that there was much less demand for a bus. One regular task which fell to Mrs Buchan as President was to communicate with Oxford Bus Company to try to improve the service. One year she was asked to point out that the buses were crowded and the same amount was charged from Oxford to Elsfield, four miles, as to Forest Hill, seven miles. Later Mrs Buchan had to write to the Oxford Bus Company to ask for an extra bus both morning and afternoon to take everyone to Oxford for an exhibition of produce. At this event Miss Parsons coordinated the vegetable display and Mrs Buchan gave 4/5d to the tea and outing fund.
 This is a great deal better than in the 21st century when there are three buses a week into Oxford on Mondays, Tuesdays and Thursdays.
Pounds, shillings and pence
Agricultural wages had been high during the last two years of the war, with a minimum wage paid to farm workers enforced by wages boards, but they were to take a downward turn in 1921 following the passing of the Agriculture Act which got rid of the minimum wage. It has been estimated that agricultural wages fell by 40% between the autumn of 1921 and the spring of 1923. This had an impact on Elsfield families, and the WI meetings were affected. In the first couple of years after the inauguration of the branch they had had a number of tea hostesses who took it in turns to provide the tea, milk and sugar needed for their refreshments, but by November of 1922 they were aware that with the reduction in wages some people might not be able to afford the expense. While it is not clear what the outcome of this discussion was, in subsequent years money was set aside for a tea fund, and it seems likely that they decided to fund the refreshments out of branch funds rather than from individual pockets.
In August 1925, with funds standing at £6-16-4d, Mrs Buchan suggested giving each baby born to a WI member two shillings to start a savings account, but this suggestion was not well received. The branch could be generous to its own members in recognition of their hard work. Miss Parsons was presented with an umbrella for her work for the branch, Mrs Clinkard was given a book of sea shanties and on 6th February 1930 they agreed to present Miss Brown, the farmer’s daughter, with a teapot as a small present on her marriage and did the same for Miss Buchan when she became engaged to be married in 1933.
Elsfield was providing the WI stall in Oxford with a regular supply of goods to sell, part of the profit going to the County Organisation and part to the branch and in 1930 were also working hard to contribute funds to the Radcliffe Infirmary, so felt they couldn’t work towards raising funds for a Village Hall.
Fetes and parties
A summer fete soon became an established part of village life. At their fete on 20th July 1920 they planned to have a stall selling their work, a sweet stall, to raffle an iced cake and to do teas. There would also be a roulette table, a Village Pump, whatever that was, nine pin bowling and a competition for the children which was to be a collection of wild flowers. In 1923, the third fete to be organised at the Manor, there was a bowling competition, where the man’s prize was a pig, and the woman’s prize, a tea-service. The ‘Striking the ham blindfold’, unfortunately with no explanation attached, was won by Mr Blowing. A plot of land was set out for a treasure hunt where contestants had to dig for treasure, though one person failed to claim their prize. Mr W. Haynes’ band played for dancing and Climo and his troupe gave a concert in the evening from all of which they raised £50 for church funds. A list of winners of some of the races for one year survives, unfortunately undated but likely to be 1936 since one of the races is called the ‘Coronation race’. There were two which we can be sure were running races: the spoon and marble race, presumably the same as the egg and spoon race, and the hundred yards flat race. What exactly the Coronation race was, there is no way of telling but the winner was Miss Phillips and there were 18 people who took part. The teaspoon and peas competition sounds as though it must have been a game of skill, the aim being to get the peas from one container to another with the aid of pins: there were 35 peas to be moved. Good use was made of peas again in the ‘teaspoon and peas’ race won by Mrs Morby . The ‘candle and potato’ race may have involved pushing the potato with the candle over a set course. Not too long, one hopes, for the sake of the participants’ backs!
At the 1924 Christmas event, Miss Stace offered her house for use as a cloakroom for Marston WI members. She also agreed to make paper hats for everyone out of crinkled paper, one of which would conceal a lucky number entitling the owner to a prize. That year the December party held at the Manor had to be postponed because the household was in quarantine caused by an outbreak of measles.
They were always on the lookout for games to play at their socials. Mrs Clinkard suggested eating biscuits blindfold, while one of Mrs Buchan’s ideas was to try to eat jelly with skewers. Other games they played were Musical Arms, Musical chairs or cushions, egg and spoon race, guessing six articles in an envelope, and a treasure hunt.
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.
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.
Charabanc trips and the outside world
Trips away from Elsfield were a regular event held in the summer months. In 1924, Windsor, Wembley or a trip to the seaside were mooted, and weekly payments were collected by Miss Parsons to spread the cost of the outing. A charabanc was booked regularly to take members to the Oxford Handicrafts Exhibition. In July 1925, they set off at 7am by charabanc for London Zoo, the tickets for which had been donated by Mrs Buchan, and two years later their annual trip, organised for Tuesday 28th July, was to Bournemouth, at a cost of 11 shillings return.
Another interesting feature of the speakers they brought to their meetings was the speed with which commercial organisations sought to advertise their products via the WI. By the late twenties they had begun to visit places such as Lyons Tea factory and the Rowntree Factory in Birmingham, while also inviting speakers from Brown and Poulson, Singers sewing machines, Sutton’s Nursery and Heinz.
Once a month, a letter arrived from head office, suggesting topics for discussion and asking for members’ views on a variety of issues. This gave the branch an insight into ideas circulating in other areas of the country and raised awareness of social problems in the wider world.
In 1919, the branch decided that in view of ‘the great distress in Central Europe’ they should support the Save the Children Fund by donating any spare funds they might have. They also spent 30 shillings on wool to knit at their monthly meetings to make money for the Radcliffe Infirmary and other worthy causes.
In 1924, Headington WI asked Elsfield to be waitresses at the Wingfield Hospital Fete in July, and no doubt they performed their duties admirably. They were less supportive when Headington again approached them for support the following year. Headington WI wanted Elsfield to second their resolution (presumably to the County organisation) on ‘rapid motor driving’. Elsfield WI felt that it would be better for Headington to ask another branch which was ‘situated in a more populaced thoroughfare’. With a herd of cows going back and forth along the road in Elsfield twice a day to be milked, mud and cow muck would have been more of a hazard than fast moving vehicles! The Oxford Federation of Women’s Institutes’ resolution was ‘The Destruction of the Countryside’. They were concerned about waste paper, the picking of wildflowers and the shutting of gates.
In January 1929, they were looking for ways to help the miners and their families and sent a subscription to the Miners’ Fund. (The Distressed Miners’ Fund, established by the government to relieve extreme poverty in mining communities where the men were out of work.) In 1930, in the grip of the economic depression, the Prime Minister sent a message to every WI to ask them to buy British.
Elsfield also expressed the wish to have a lady doctor at the Radcliffe Infirmary. The Radcliffe was trying to raise money to build an extension and a speaker from the Infirmary came to give details of the needs of the Infirmary. The target for the village was set at £30, a lot of money, but it was pointed out that over the last 9 years 26 people from Elsfield had been in-patients and 54 had attended the hospital as out-patients, so the people of Elsfield had need of the services the hospital offered.
By the late 1930s, foreshadowing the Welfare State which was brought in by the Labour Government after World War Two, there were increasingly clear expectations that the state should provide a different level of support for rural communities. By 1937, they were lobbying for cheap milk for expectant mothers and young children, for police to be stationed in villages and for there to be a telephone in every village.
When the Buchans, now ennobled, went to Canada in 1935, Elsfield still maintained links to the aristocracy through Lady Askwith, who had become a member of Elsfield WI in 1935. In 1937, she gave a talk about Windsor and displayed her coronation robes. She also allowed members to try on her coronet, and villagers were surprised by the weight and the smallness of it.
 This is probably Lady Cynthia Asquith, who was married to Herbert Asquith’s second son, Herbert. (The eldest son, Raymond, a friend of John Buchan’s at Oxford had been killed in the war.) She was a writer of ghost stories and diaries.