Tuesday, 31 March 2015


The Women’s Institute is 100 years old and looking better than ever. Sam Taylor looks back at its history and meets two members baking enough fruit cake to feed 5,000 people

Written by Sam Taylor
Llanfairpwllgwyngyllgogerychwyrndrobwllllantysiliogogogoch (or Llanfair PG for short) has two claims to fame. The first, and probably the most obvious, is that it is the longest place name in the UK. The second is that it was the birthplace of the Women’s Institute.

Initially set up to encourage women to help increase food production during the First World War effort, the institute also provided a meeting place for women living in isolated rural communities. Within 10 years, institute federations had been set up across the UK and from their ranks came the first female English member of parliament, Margaret Wintringham, known as our ‘institute member’. They had also taken a resolution to combat venereal disease, invented a recipe for vegetarian pudding and adopted Jerusalem as their AGM rallying call. The jam bit didn’t come until 1940 when they embraced the Fruit Preservation Scheme for the Ministry of Food in order to maximise food supplies during the Second World War. They were also the primary movers in setting up the evacuation schemes that saved thousands of children’s lives during the Blitz.

WI-Mar27-02-590From left: WI members watch a fruit bottling demonstration. A wartime sealing machine

So it should come as no surprise to learn that two current members, Pat Tulip and Anne Harrison, have spent the last month making a fruit cake for the 5,000 WI members attending this year’s centenary AGM at the Royal Albert Hall.

The cake is the result of a competition held for members to come up with a recipe that would earn the title Centenary Celebration Cake, pass into the archive of famous WI recipes and win a place in a cookbook of the members’ favourite 100 recipes. The winner was Julie Clark from North Yorks West Federation. The logistics of making and baking the cake in parts and delivering it to London two months later are made slightly easier by the fact that both women are retired home economics teachers.

Still, it’s a daunting task. Initially there was an idea that they might get an outside company to do it. But that was swiftly dismissed. ‘When we were discussing it, I said, “I’m used to making about 15 for the Yorkshire show”, and Pat said, “I’ll do it as well”. I think it’s much better that we’ve made them,’ says Anne.


Each woman is making 22 x 12- inch square cakes; they have worked out to the last currant how many portions they can get from each cake. ‘We work on inch squares per person,’ says Pat. ‘So each cake will give us 144 portions. It might be a little bit less, it will depend on how thick the crust is and wastage, but that should be it. It will only be 11 days’ cooking for each of us.’ The pair will then meet up at the institute’s college near Oxford where a small team will be gathered to start the job of cutting the cakes into slices ready for the big day.

Like Anne, Pat is saddened by the demise of her old profession and its removal from the curriculum. ‘I retired early because I was aware of what was happening with home economics and I was not happy with the way it was going and I knew I couldn’t do anything on my own to stop it moving the way it has done. So I left teaching and started a catering company.’

WI-Mar27-04-590From left: Pat mixing up a storm in her kitchen. Ann sorts through ingredients, many of them donated

The two women could clearly run a small country before lunch but, even so, Anne admits she does have her worries. ‘I said to Pat we better have enough.’ They are planning to do spares. And they aren’t planning on wasting any money. Like most women of their generation, Anne remembers rationing and the ‘waste not, want not’ mantra of the war period.

‘We bought the eggs in bulk… the eggs and flour. I was working out my flour today. In all my 22 cakes, I think I’m only using eight x 1.5 kilo bags. We’re using cheap flour.’ The other ingredients have been donated, which is just as well given the numbers. In total, they will use: 34kg butter, 34kg sugar, 28kg plain flour, 9kg selfraising flour, 12kg ground almonds, 12kg glacé cherries, 60kg small pinhead currants, 26kg sultanas, 9kg mixed peel, 600 large eggs, 8kg marmalade, 26 bottles Captain Morgan Spiced Rum.

Each of their 12-inch cakes takes three glasses of rum. ‘Some people pour the alcohol on top but I mix mine into the cake. I know some of the alcohol will come off in the cooking but the flavour will be there and it will cut up well. We don’t want it all to drop to pieces.’

WI-Mar27-05-590From left: Preparing fruit for jam. Wartime chutney making

The fruit and ground almonds were supplied by Whitworths, the butter by Dairy Crest, and even the peel was given to them at a discount by local store Lewis & Cooper, Yorkshire’s answer to Fortnum & Mason, Anne says.

Pat has been a WI member for about 18 years ‘taking a break during my career’ and Anne has been a member for 50. Like her mother before her, she joined as a young wife at the age of 22. Her husband is a Wensleydale dairy farmer. ‘We have Jerseys. They are very friendly and nosy. And my son farms here with his dad.’

Like their neighbours, they watched their beautiful herd culled in the foot and mouth outbreak and are now struggling to keep going against plummeting milk prices. As it has done with many other social issues, the WI has taken up the cause of the British dairy farmers.

‘We’ve had milk campaigns and once we’ve had a mandate on a subject, when the members have passed it at the annual meeting they can go back to it at any time. We have a public affairs committee too. But we’re non-political… so we can’t be seen to be taking sides with anybody.’


It’s something that Tony Blair discovered to his cost. He maintains the dubious honour of being the only guest to be booed by the WI . Anne was there: ‘I’d switched off. The woman next to me had started reading the paper and I thought good heavens, that’s not very respectful to the PM. Then I heard this booing and I thought oh my God, what’s happening? And I tell you he looked as if he’d been startled by car headlights. He got political, that’s why they booed him.’

The Calendar Girls are from her Yorkshire federation and she is very proud of what they achieved in changing people’s perceptions of the WI – although she didn’t feel like braving the cameras herself. Instead, she sits on the board and is responsible for helping to grow the membership. ‘We have about 212,000 and rising. Getting new members has been marvellous.’

Kate Middleton helped by attending her local group on Anglesey, although she didn’t join – you don’t have to be a member to go to a meeting. The Queen is a member, as is the Duchess of Cornwall and Duchess of Wessex.

In keeping with the tradition, a new cause will be adopted this year. ‘Every year we have a new resolution and that has to be passed by the AGM ,’ says Anne. ‘This time it’s all to do with care for the elderly. Some of them weren’t very pleased with it because they think it reflects us all as old women. But I said a lot of younger people are having to think about their parents. That’s what we’ll be voting on at the AGM . And that’s when they’ll be getting their cake!’

The WI Cookbook: The First 100 Years, by Mary Gwynn (Ebury Press, £20).

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