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Stonnall Women's Institute

The War Years

Julian Ward-Davies

December 2013

From its origins in Canada as an offshoot of the Farmers' Institute in 1897, the British Women's Institute commenced activities on September 11, 1915, as a means to engage more women in food production in rural areas during the First World War. The Women's Institute in Stonnall was formed in 1927 and has been operating continuously ever since. It is affiliated to the National Federation of Women's Institutes.

The Beginning
An exploratory meeting, intended to gauge local interest, took place on Friday, Dec 3, 1926, with Mrs Freer (the then Vicar of Stonnall, Rev E L Freer's wife) presiding and with 30 ladies present. Mrs Stokes, the WI's County Organiser, addressed the meeting, explaining the work of the organisation and the benefits of membership.

The ladies of Stonnall Women's Institute in the grounds of Sandhills House, shortly after the branch was formed
(Courtesy of Pat Saul.
© Stonnall History Group

An enrolment meeting then followed on January 3, 1927, with Miss Wright presiding and with a total of 25 ladies signing up. This was considered to be the branch's foundation and Stonnall WI's birthday would be celebrated annually at around this date. Miss Bathers, the County Treasurer, explained the rules and general work of the Institute. The very first committee meeting followed on Jan 17, 1927, with 8 members present.

The first few months
Meetings of the WI took place usually in the Village Institute, although several other locations, such as Sandhills House, are recorded. Contacts with many local branches, such as those in Wall, Burntwood, Shenstone, Little Aston, Lichfield and Whittington, were numerous and the group habitually sent delegates to regional and national meetings in Stafford and London.

The activities of Stonnall WI during its first few months typify those of the coming years. These included dances, parties, sing-songs, classes, talks, excursions, whist and beetle drives, etc, etc. All were recorded with neat long-hand writing, in copious detail, in a series of logbooks. Here are some summaries of the first few entries.

Early activities
A general meeting on February 7, 1927, decided to start a National Savings club with Mrs Jones as its secretary. Dr Stewart had been invited to address a general meeting on March 7, 1927, but was unable to attend because he was busy elsewhere with the outbreak of an influenza epidemic. Rev Freer gave instruction on community singing instead on that occasion.

On June 9, 1927, a meeting decided to use half the proceeds from a whist drive to pay for a summer outing to Stratford-upon-Avon, an excursion that had been agreed the previous May. The outing took place on July 25, with expenses of £2/7s/3d (about £2.36), including a gratuity of 2s/6d (about 12p) for a lucky waitress.

By January 1928, Stonnall WI had 35 members, which was probably the majority of the adult female population of the village.

On Nov 19 1928, in order to promote the enjoyment of singing and dancing, a committee meeting decided to purchase a gramophone for the December general meeting. This was in all likelihood a wind-up type as it appears that an electricity supply had not been installed in Stonnall by that date. Indeed, we find that one of the earliest letters issued by the group was an appeal to Lichfield Corporation for the village to be connected to the grid.

On June 29, 1929, the ladies received a demonstration of the latest sewing technology from Singer Sewing Machines. Similar exhibitions were arranged with Cadbury's and other commercial organisations at various dates.

The 1930s
By the end of the next decade, members were evidently having second thoughts about their relatively new electrical supply, so much so that in March 1938, they signed a petition to Parliament for cheaper energy costs.

War on the horizon
At this time, war was looming in Europe and preparations for it were underway. On April 4, 1938, Mr Walsh gave a talk on the government's scheme for the protection of the population in the event of air raids.

The committee in 1939 consisted of Mmes Bayley, Coates, Hall, James, Lloyd, Till, Wright, Robson, Arnold and Lane. Mrs Lane was elected unanimously as the branch president. Miss Wright, having been proposed by Mrs Langley, was elected unanimously as its chairman.

Britain at war
Britain declared war on Germany on September 3, 1939, following the invasion of Poland two days earlier. A wave of uncertainty spread through the village. The following day on September 4, only 16 members turned out for a general meeting "owing to the international situation" as the logbook records. The principal topic of discussion on this occasion was the safety of children.

Recovery from the initial shock was rapid as far as Stonnall WI was concerned and the group quickly set about adapting its activities in response to these new circumstances. Food, clothing and charitable causes became the priorities but, as we will see, fun and entertainment were by no means removed from the agenda.

On October 2, Mrs Lane sent for 3cwt (336lbs, or about 150kg) of sugar for the preservation of fruit, with every member participating. Later, the committee met to weigh it out, with 6lbs for each member present and 3lbs for each member not present. It was sold for threepence-halfpenny (just over 1p) per lb.

On November 26, black-out curtains were made for the Village Institute and 11s (£0.55) was donated to the Red Cross. The following December, the WI's AGM took place and dolls and blankets were given to Walsall Hospital Supplies. Mrs Wright made 2s/6d (just over 12p) from the sale of apples and gave the money to buy wool. Knitting for serving men then commenced in February 1940.

Growing food
By the beginning of that year, preparations for garden produce became a top priority. Vegetable seeds in abundance arrived from the USA under the auspices of the president's wife, Mrs Roosevelt. These donations continued annually.

Mrs Lane was authorised to obtain seed potatoes for the coming season and, on April 1, a massive 27cwt (about 1350kg) of them were delivered. They were sold to members for 1d/lb (about 1p per kg).

A trip to the panto
A good indication that the WI ladies had not given up the need for a bit of fun every now and again followed on March 4 when tickets for an evening performance of a pantomime at the Alexandra Theatre, Birmingham, were obtained. The seats for March 18, 1940, cost 3s (15p) each and the fares cost 2s (10p) per person. Trips to the panto, as good morale boosters, featured throughout the war years.

Evacuees arrive in Stonnall
The logbook for June 1940 records a remarkable event when 40 children arrived from Margate on the 2nd of that month. These evacuees were treated as Stonnall's own throughout the war years. For example, they were treated to tea and, following that, to sport in "Mr Burton's field" as the logbook records, on August 12. Presumably, this field was the enclosure that would eventually become the village playing field.

Phyllis Johnson (left), one of the Margate evacuees, pictured a few years after the end of the war.
She was housed with the Orgill family and became friends with Nancy Snape who lived in one of the Cartersfield Lane council houses.
(Courtesy of Nancy Snape.)
© Stonnall History Group

Donations to charitable causes continued during this period. On July 1, for example, after what was described as a "whip-around" in the logbook, 10s (50p) was sent to Staffordshire Mobile Canteens and 10s/6d (about 53p) was given to the Ambulance Fund.

Such was the frugality of the Stonnall WI ladies that their collective war savings had reached the staggering sum of £300 (about £30,000 in today's money!) towards the end of 1940.

Other things under consideration at that time included an air-raid shelter for the school and entertainment for the children.

Keeping up morale
The children's Christmas party was held on January 4, 1941, with 86 children attending, including those from Margate. Every child was given 3d as a Christmas present. A couple of days later, Stonnall WI celebrated its 14th birthday. Visitors included blind evacuees from the south coast, then staying in Brownhills. There was plenty to eat, with trifle and iced birthday cake with 14 candles - and all in spite of the rationing regime that prevailed for the duration of the war.

Soon after, the ladies of Stonnall WI booked 40 seats for a matinee performance of a pantomime at the Prince of Wales Theatre in Broad Street, Birmingham, for February 5.

Broad Street, Birmingham, as it was during the Second World War, with the Prince of Wales Theatre on the right

The tickets cost 3s/6d (about 18p) each and the coach fare was 2s/3d (about 11p) per person. Lunch was taken at the Crown Inn public house, also in Broad Street.

Ensuring food supplies
On March 3 1941, Mr Kennedy from Rodbaston Farm Institute gave a talk on the importance of keeping pigs in wartime. Stonnall WI decided immediately to start a Pig Club. This was so successful that, by the end of that summer, a grand total of 46 pigs were being raised by its members.

On May 3, another parcel of garden seeds was received from, as the logbook records, "American friends".

On July 7, members were asked to pick gooseberries at Sandhills House before jam-making the next day. On September 1, a film entitled "Cooking by Steam" was shown and on October 2, 200lbs of sugar arrived for jam-making.

A vegetable show and competition was held on November 3. The prize-winners were Mrs Langley for carrots, Mrs Knowles for leeks, Mrs Bayley for onions and Mrs Lane for parsnips and for potatoes.

The reality of war from a civilian's point of view: Frances Mycock's WWII ration book.
Rationed items included meat, bacon, cheese, eggs, milk, butter, sugar and tea.
Courtesy of Colin Smith.
© Stonnall History Group

On January 5, 1942, Stonnall WI celebrated its 15th birthday with a party. Members from Burntwood WI were invited and a whist drive took place. The proceeds from the event were donated to "Mr Churchill's Aid to Russia Fund" as the logbook records.

On June 2, 1943, Stonnall WI won second prize in a potato recipe competition.

By the end of 1943, as rationing became more and more difficult to contend with, food was getting scarce and thus more difficult for members to give. So much so that in December of that year, the ladies were obliged to book an outside caterer to provide for the children's Christmas party at 1s/6d (about 8p) per head. This took place on January 3, 1944, with 86 children present, including the evacuees. The kids were also treated to films and games and each received 3d as a gift.

The beginning of the end
For the remainder of the war years, Stonnall WI continued as it had started this period. For example, on February 2, 1944, £2 was donated to the Red Cross and in August, Mrs Lane single-handedly gave £10 for charitable purposes.

There was, however, a slight shift of emphasis and the provision of social occasions, principally dances, became more commonplace, the logbooks recording the booking of bands and caterers for these events. This was particularly noticeable after the arrival of American servicemen in the area. We can be sure that many wartime romances commenced as a direct result.

The ladies of Stonnall WI continued to be enthusiastic pantomime-goers as did, it seems, everybody else in the region. On January 10, 1945, Mrs Lane obtained tickets for a show on March 12, 1945, that being the only date when 80 seats could be reserved. That was enough people to fill 2 coaches.

The last act
By September 26, 1945, just after the end of the war, Stonnall WI had amassed £63/6s/10d (about £63.35) in its fund. As a gesture of thanks and recognition for the sacrifices and selfless efforts of servicemen, the ladies decided to distribute this money among the members of the forces in Stonnall, with 62 persons each getting £1.

And so ended Stonnall WI's proud record of generosity, improvisation, adaptation and of service to the community during the war years 1939-45.

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© Julian Ward-Davies BA Hons PGC 2013

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