Cottonopolis WI - the modern face of the Women’s Institute in Manchester
PUBLISHED: 00:00 14 September 2015
The WI may be 100 but Lancashire has some thoroughly modern members, as Mairead Mahon discovers
The Women’s Institute is celebrating its centenary year and, as it attracts a new generation of women to the ranks, it’s fast becoming cool to be a member. While it’s true that they still serve cakes that would give Mary Berry a run for her money, today they are about so much more than just the traditional Jam and Jerusalem image with which they are associated.
‘It’s ironic really that we have this image,’ says Liz Williams of The Lancashire Federation. ‘After all, we have our roots in the Suffragist movement and have campaigned for several issues over the years, including equal pay. Our oldest Lancashire club, Hutton and Howick was formed in 1918 and its founding member was the well known suffragette, Edith Rigby, who set fire to Lord Leverhulme’s bungalow on Rivington Pike as a protest.’
Liz isn’t recommending that any of Lancashire’s 7,000 strong members take such drastic measures but she is delighted that newer groups with fresh ideas are becoming part of what is being called the Modern Face of the WI and Lancashire can boast that it is home to the very first group formed in the centenary year, Cottonopolis.
Formed in January and based in Ancoats, Cottonopolis WI - named because it is surrounded by the cotton mills that made Lancashire famous and that gave Manchester its nickname - already has 30 members, many gained through social media. It also has another claim to fame: the youngest ‘member’ in the UK.
‘Yes, Phoebe is only one and we’ve designated her an honorary member because her mum is a member. She can’t actually join until she’s 18 but there’s no harm in starting them young,’ says Katie Pegum of Cottonopolis.
Honorary member Phoebe aside, the average age of the Cottonopolis group is 32 and most of them are working women, with jobs such as teachers, television producers and costume designers. But why begin a new group at all?
‘Well, there is room for traditional and more modern groups to work alongside each other: in fact, some people have dual membership of two groups. In the more modern ones, the traditional values of friendship and crafts are still appreciated but we also like to do other less traditional activities such as car maintenance, de-stressing workshops and belly dancing. They are all essential elements for modern life..., well, maybe not belly dancing,’ says Katie.
They don’t just stay in the meeting room either, with regular trips to cinemas and places that have historical significance for Lancashire such as Manchester’s restored Victoria Baths. Some of them have even formed a sub group, The Railway Girls, and travel about the region indulging their love of trains. They are also enthusiastically embracing the summer event of Tea and Tents, which unsurprisingly is a camping weekend combined with delicious teas and which this year will be held in aid of Refuge, a charity which helps victims of domestic violence.
‘The WI is a part of the community and we want to contribute. Although we are not even a year old, we also help out at food banks and with the homeless and this is something we want to do more of.’ says Katie.
Cottonopolis are certainly making a name for themselves in the community. They are keen to have a voice when it comes to deciding which woman will be represented by a statue that is due to be erected in Manchester in 2019.
‘At the moment, the only statue of a woman in the city is Queen Victoria. We have had lots of discussions about who the next one should be but, for now, most of Cottonopolis seems to be divided into two camps: Elizabeth Gaskell or Emmeline Pankhurst,’ says Katie.
There’s always room for discussion in Cottonopolis but one thing they quickly agreed upon was deciding to make one important break with tradition: they don’t sing Jerusalem at the beginning of every meeting, preferring to save it for special occasions.
However, in an example of just how much each WI decides what is best for its own group, the ladies of Lytham Belles decided that singing Jerusalem was one tradition that would definitely stay when they formed in 2012.
‘I had read about a new type of WI group in London and thought why not Lytham? We used social media and hoped that maybe 30 women would turn up for our first meeting,’ says president Maria Tierney.
‘I was certainly stressed though, worrying about what would happen if no-one turned up but I could hardly believe it when 65 people came through the doors and it has set the tone for the successful group that we have become.’
Lytham Belles have quite a reputation for their cakes, although they do sometimes try to do a spot of damage limitation by holding Cake and Pilates session; how effective the Pilates section has been though, they’re not saying! The cakes are certainly successful though and they sell like the proverbial hot ones whenever they bring them along to a community event.
‘We want to challenge the stereotyped view that people may have of the WI and the new wave of WI groups is doing just that. At Lytham Belles, we still want to do traditional things but we want to put a modern twist on them,’ says Maria.
Knitting, for example, what could be more traditional than that? The Lytham Belles supported ‘Knitted Knockers’ - handmade woollen breast prosthesis for women who have undergone breast surgery. They are also involved with helping Fylde Coast Women’s Aid, by making sure women and their children have essential toiletries and pyjamas.
There is no doubt that this group of vibrant women care about their community but that doesn’t stop them having fun: everything from giant willow weaving to belly dancing. It is no wonder that every month sees potential new members popping along to see just what is on offer and the lively mix of friendship, community and fun sees them staying.
We all like nostalgic images of the WI, as shown in ITV’s recent drama, Home Fires, but Lancashire is helping lead the way by making sure that it continues to inspire the women of the 21st century.
The WI has always been popular in Lancashire. Its first group was formed in Hutton and Horwick in 1918. Their first President was the militant suffragette Edith Rigby, the Preston campaigner who suffered several terms in prison because of her involvement with the campaign for Votes for Women.
Today, across the County Palatine, there are over 7000 members in 161 groups and there is no sign of it losing momentum. The Federation arranges a host of activities from cycling workshops to digital story telling with the odd spot of crafting thrown in. There is so much going on that Lancashire publishes its own magazine called, what else, Hotpot, in addition to the national WI publication.
To celebrate the centenary, the WI are sending a baton around the country. Lancashire was one of the first places to receive it. It came from the Isle of Man federation and was handed over, on a windy day, on top of Blackpool Tower. There were no faint hearts though, although there were certainly some proud ones!