Potato buns and snow eggs: the Women's Institute at war

Jam, not bombs.

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On 4 June, members of the Women’s Institute (including the long-serving president of the Sandringham branch, one Elizabeth Windsor) gathered in London at the Royal Albert Hall for their hundredth annual meeting. Besides the inevitable prize-winning fruit cake, items on the agenda included a lively debate on long-term care provision in the NHS, a talk by a City CEO, and some daring contemporary knitwear.

Such subjects may sound at odds with the popular image of the organisation as the official face of the blue-rinse brigade, but then the WI has always been about more than cake and conversation; Mary Gwynn notes in her new WI Cookbook (published by Ebury Press) that it “was, and still is, in essence a feminist movement in the true sense of the word”, with “food and cookery at its heart from the outset”.

The WI was formed in the middle of the Great War when “a group of women banded together to help their country and themselves”. As the rather fierce “Aims and Ideals” section of an early WI manual begins: “Talk that does not end in any kind of action is better suppressed altogether.”

A plum opportunity for such action came in 1917, when a German submarine blockade of Britain sparked panic that the country was running out of food. The infant Institute rolled up its sleeves and set to work; thousands of “Patriotic Rabbit” clubs were formed to increase meat supplies and small factories were set up to preserve surplus fruit and vegetables. Even the stones from the fruit were used to produce charcoal for gas masks, and Gwynn gives a recipe for rosehip jelly from a time when foraging was a necessity rather than a fad.

There was education to be done, too. In a song called “The Patriot Potato”, published in 1918, the titular spud has some tuneful advice for WI members about nutrition and thrift:

Very soon to the polls you’ll be going,

And wonderful things will ensue,

But it’s up to you now to be showing

What women with ’taters can do.

WI members were clearly excited that, for the first time in British history, some of their number would be playing a part in the coming general election. Many had been active in the Votes for Women movement: the founder of the first branch in Lancashire, Edith Rigby, spent time in prison for crimes including throwing a black pudding at an anti-suffrage MP – home-made, of course.

Barely a decade after the war for women’s votes was finally won in 1928, the WI was called up to the food production front line again, with the added complication that this time around, sugar was in short supply from the start. The Institute was assigned special supplies for its work, which was strictly regulated – though police discovered at least one member running a black market in the stuff.

But the organisation seems to flourish in adversity. As Margaret Leech, a rural domestic economy instructor who toured rural Britain in the 1940s, observed, Institute audiences “were marvellous . . . nothing like a good war to cheer up the WI”. And cheerful they stayed, even if they were forced into making jam buns from mashed potato, or substituting snow for the eggs in their Yorkshire puddings.

Seven decades on from the Second World War, what does the 21st century hold for the WI? Recent campaigns have included a project on global food security and lobbying for clearer labelling on packaging as well as fairer prices for milk. Many federations run basic cookery courses for families and make regular donations to food banks. This summer, Somerset members will even be at Glastonbury, where they hope to sell a thousand slices of cake a day to ravenous revellers. After all these years, the WI is still jammin’.

Felicity Cloake is the New Statesman’s food columnist. Her latest book is The A-Z of Eating: a Flavour Map for Adventurous Cooks.

This article appears in the 11 June 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Who owns the future?