Click here to return to the main site entry page
Click here to return to the previous page
By Helen Day
Podington, Hinwick and Farndish
Women's Institute 1918-1998


When the new millennium dawns Podington Women's Institute will be in its 81st year. It began in 1918 with 32 members. Its purpose was to fulfil a social need in the lives of countrywomen. Within five years its members had bought a plot of land and erected a wooden hut, which served as the village hall for twenty nine years. It enabled them to organise social functions and raise money for village needs and charities.

When I first read the early minutes of Podington and Hinwick W.I., I realised that they were not only a record of W.I. history, but also of the local and social history of the times and as such, they were worth recording for posterity. The details may be of little or no interest for anyone not connected with Podington or a Women's Institute, but seen in the light of social history they may take on a new interest. It is in this context that I hope they will be read.

How it Began

On the 4th December 1918 Mrs Faith Orlebar of Hinwick House called a meeting of the village women to hear about the new Countrywomen's organisation formed in 1917; how it was spreading rapidly in England and Wales with 17 already formed in Bedfordshire. It had been given Government recognition and was to be called the National Federation of Women's Institutes. The minute book records it thus:

"An inaugural meeting was held in the vicarage at 3pm on 4th December. Mrs Warren (from London) explained the objectives and work of the W.I. and how to start one in the village. It was agreed to form an Institute in Podington and to form a small committee with power to add to their number. The following were proposed: Mrs. Robinson, Kitchen, Orlebar, Wildman and Lines along with the Misses E. Orlebar and Draper and Annie Brown and Mabel Pettit. Proposed and seconded by Mrs. C.E. Brown and Mrs Norman."

I expect there were so many Browns and Pettits in the village they had to be distinguished by their Christian names! The minute continues "The following officers were elected for the vear beginning 1st January 1919. President - Mrs Orlebar, Vice President - Mrs Robinson, Secretary - Miss Erica Orlebar, Assistant - Mrs Stanton, Treasurer - Mrs Kitchen; - proposed bv Mrs Dick Pettit, seconded bv Mrs Lines.

The first committee meeting was arranged for Friday the 13th December at 6.30pm. Mrs. Wildman offered her sitting room for the meeting. This was at Poplar Farmhouse - the first on the left at the top of Gold Street. I wonder if at that committee meeting it was realised that it was on the 13th of the month and the number present was thirteen? Despite the inevitable ups and downs, a second world war, the new technological age and the social revolution that it brought, our W.I. still survives to belie superstition.

The Background

To realise what this new movement was to mean to countrywomen we need to see it against the background of history and to be reminded of what life was like 80 years ago.

The first world war had just ended. Everyone had lived through four years of restrictions and food shortages; of anxiety, waiting for news of those who were "at the front" in France or in ships at sea, and of tragedy when someone never returned. A woman's place was in the home - cooking, cleaning, washing, ironing, mending, knitting and making children's clothes. There was no mains water supply or sewage system; no electricity and none of the labour saving devices of today. The only means of transport to the nearest town or railway station was by bicycle or by pony and trap or on foot. There was little time and less opportunity for leisure pursuits. Lace making gave way to knitting garments for soldiers and sailors. The men folk had their football and cricket. their allotments and the Wheatsheaf at Hinwick. A woman's social life was centred round the church or the chapel. This was the background into which the W.I. was launched.

The war years had brought women's capabilities and potential to the fore, along with a new sense of freedom. The W.I. was to offer them the opportunity to learn new skills and fulfil their potential. To show us what they achieved there is no better way than allowing them to tell us themselves, through the minutes of their meetings.

What They Did at the First Meeting

"The first and opening meeting wax held on 7th February 1919 in the schoolroom. Miss Foster, Aspley Guise, addressed the meeting on the working of a Women's Institute. After refreshments, served and donated by the committee, dancing and games followed. Mrs Wildman gave potted meat: Mrs Stanton, I 1lb. slab cake: Miss A. Brown, 3 dozen pastries The schoolroom had been comfortably arranged by Mrs Lines and Mrs Tysoe with easy chairs, rugs and cushions lent by members. (Today we sit on hard chairs!) 32 members enrolled. The only expenses were hire of crocks 7 pence, Colonel Orlebar 2/3 for 1 hundred weight of coal, Mrs Westley 9 pence for oil lamp and 1/6 for cleaning. A most interesting collection of war trophies and other curios lent by the President and others was much appreciated."

The list reads like the props for a horror film - a German saw-edged bayonet, a German piercing bayonet and egg grenade, a German helmet and field glasses, an Iron Cross (1st class), a piece of a German zeppelin and a part of an Austrian aeroplane shot down by Lieut. Watts in Italy. The King of Italy who was watching stood over the aeroplane after it fell.

There were less gruesome items:- Jacob Johnson's hat and Mary Johnson's bonnet (who they were I have never found out). There was an old paisley shawl lent by Annie Brown but the piece-de-resistance must have been the patchwork quilt of 2,380 pieces made by Miss Draper. One wonders what happened to it?

Up until 1996, the only surviving founder member was Mrs Graham, who like Erica Orlebar, was the secretary. Whenever she came back to Podington she loved recalline that first meeting and the excitement it caused. She died at the age of 96.

The March Meeting

"Nurse Redwood of Wollaston was the speaker. Mr Norman fetched and took her back in his pony and trap for which he charged 3 shillings." One wonders what the weather was like - both journeys would have been made in the dark. The other expenses were 2/6 for tea sugar and coffee at the Co-op., 1/- for milk and 2 pence to a boy for fetching the kettle from Hinwick House! The half-year programmes printed by Perkins of Wellingborough cost 18 shillings. There must have been some discussion about refreshments. Times have not changed! "It was decided not to ask for donations for refreshments. Everyone to bring their own food and the committee responsible for the milk and sugar and for making the tea. Members to bring visitors who will be charged 6 pence but there will be one meeting a year where a member may bring a friend without payment."

They also made a bye-law that girls from 14-16 would be admitted as associate members for 1 shilling a year. The annual subscription was 2 shillings a year but it appears from subsequent minutes that they decided that subscriptions could be paid half yearly or quarterly.

I do not know to what extent a W.I. could make its own bye-laws in those days, but in later years, when I came to know the older members of the county executive, they occasionally spoke of Podington W.I. and the difficulties that arose, because in some things Mrs Faith Orlebar was a law unto herself.

The April Meeting

This seems to have suffered from an influenza epidemic as very few members attended, but nevertheless 2 new members enrolled. The talk on Labour-Saving devices was cancelled as the fee of 10 shillings and sixpence plus travelling expenses was considered too costly. However, Miss Taylor of St Bride's vicarage gave a talk on hay-box cookery for which Mrs Kitchen lent her hay box. There were only 4 entries in the competition for a home made handy article costing not more than 1/6.

The minutes tell us that "a very successful whist drive and dance was held on Easter Monday. 100 tickets were sold at 9 pence each. All prizes and some refreshments were given. The result was a profit of £4 14s. 4d."

In May

"the talk was about the cultivation of the Blackberry and the speaker left a recipe for making Blackberry Vinegar. The Rev. L. R. Levitt brought his magic lantern. Gentlemen were invited to this meeting and dancing followed until 9 30 pm.

In June

"the meeting was a summer garden one at the Cottage by kind permission of Colonel Orlebar. Miss Parsons of lrchester demonstrated the simplest way of fruit bottling. 8 new members were enrolled. (The Cottage, in High Street, is now the residence of Mr and Mrs Lee chambers.)"

The July Meeting

This was cancelled - members were helping with the Peace Celebrations.

The August Meeting

"was another garden one at the Cottage with an open air whist drive and dance. Tickets for the whist cost 6 pence and an entry fee of 2 pence for non-members. There were lawn games for those who did not play whist. 80 people were present and the profit was £1 16 shillings and sixpence." It had been so enjoyable that another was arranged for later in the month but had to be held in the school because of the weather - nevertheless another £1 went into the kitty! Today, Mr Lee Chambers kindly allows us to have the use of the garden for the occasional coffee morning and summer lunch, prepared by Mrs Chambers (our president) from which we raise a considerable sum of money to help pay the £150 for the annual cost of hiring the cricket club.

The September Meeting

"was a very important one" says the minute - "Miss Foster, the county secretary came and consolidated us. She explained that as soon as a county has 15 Institutes it is at liberty to form a County Federation. Bedfordshire now had 24 and had decided to form the Bedfordshire County Federation. Mrs Stanton was elected to be the delegate at a meeting in Bedford on 27th September." (It so happened she was unable to attend owing to a rail-strike). Prior to this meeting the Institute was named Podington but from now on it was to be Podington and Hinwick W.I. Also at this meeting 18 members bought a W.I. badge costing 1/-. Famdish was added to the name some time later.

Among our records was a press cutting from the Beds. Times giving an account of the meeting in Bedford - in 27th September 1919 — at which the County Federation was launched. When it came to celebrating its Golden Jubilee in 1969, I discovered that the County had no press cutting of its inauguration meeting. I suggested we had our cutting framed and suitably inscribed and presented to the Federation. It now hangs in W.I. House in Bedford.

In October

"a course of dress making classes started with Madame Wilson as Instructress. The class met every Wednesday afternoon in the Men's Club Room (now the United Services Club in Gold Street), and in the school in the evening. The classes were arranged by the L.E.A."

In November

Colonel Orlebar gave a talk on the history of Podington and Hinwick - after which they practised The Quadrilles!

In December

There was to be a party for the children of the village on 27th December and another for adults on 31st December. The minute tells us "that all the children on the school register along with all the mothers with babies and children under school age. were invited to lea in the school room at 4pm. 70 accepted the invitation. The school was decorated with evergreens and flags and the tables with coloured paper so that everything was looking cheerful when the children arrived. After tea there was games and dancing until 8pm. The costs were:- 1 loaf - 4½d., mince pies 5 shillings and 6 dozen oranges 11 shillings.

One can imagine what it must have been like to enjoy the festive season after 4 years of war. Probably some of the children had never seen an orange before.

When it came to the evening for the adults on 31st December each W.I. member was sent an invitation card allowing them to bring 2 guests for the social and dance.

"120 people were present. After the clock struck midnight they sang the hymn "Father let me dedicate all this year to Thee", then we danced the leap year dances and the evening closed with Auld Lang Syne." (It is only speculation, but as Col. Orlebar was a lay preacher he may have had some influence in the choosing of the hymn.)

The committee minutes tell us more about the festivities that evening. The accounts, in particular, are interesting in the light of today. "The musicians were Miss Cross and Mr Reddis at a charge of 22 shillings, plus 2 shillings and sixpence for the piano. The refreshments were tea, coffee, sandwiches, cakes, mince pies, jellies, blancmange and oranges. 6 jellies cost 4/6, 2 blancmanges 1/3, French chalk cost 2d. and washing cloths 4d. The total expenses came to £2-15-4½d."

The Balance Sheet

At the end of the first year there were 48 members. The last item on the expenditure side was the affiliation fee to the County Federation at 2d. per member.

The balance was £8-8-11, £6 of which was put into a deposit with the P.O. savings bank.

So ended the first year of Podington and Hinwick W.I. One can visualise the stir it must have caused with so much going on to disturb the peaceful tenure of village life. No doubt it created curiosity — if not interest — and also the odd misgiving. But it was only the beginning of a new life for most of its members and probably for the village. It was to give them new interests beyond the confines of four walls and for the first time to enable them to take an active part in community life. It was the beginning of fulfilling their potential.

How the W.I. Progressed

In reading through the minutes of the early years a picture emerges of how the activities must have caused a wind of change to blow through the community. The W.I. motto "For Home and Country" was to be taken seriously. Members were asked to make a list of long felt wants in the village. It is not surprising that the priorities were:- water laid on; street lighting; good drainage. At that time the water had to be carried in buckets from stand pipes in the street. The sewage cart came round once a week to empty dry closets.

There was also concern about the youth of the village. The boys had the scouts but there was nothing for the girls. An open meeting was arranged (for October 30th 1920) when Miss St John brought a pack of girl guides and explained the guide movement, so that the first company of Podington Girl Guides was duly formed.

There was another open meeting that year to hear a talk on "Flies", no doubt in the interests of public health. It is ironical to reflect that, fifty years later, a talk on "Flies" would not have been inappropriate because of the maggot farm! The men folk of the village were not left out. An open meeting was arranged at the Men's Club - a wooden hut where the United Services Club now stands - to hear a lady give a talk on Bolshevism. As the W.I. is non-sectarian and non-political, I wonder whether this was one of the occasions when Mrs Faith Orlebar, as President, was a law unto herself?

In 1921, there was a mammoth Garden Fete at Hinwick House when they raised £210-3-6. The expenses came to £109-11-2. They donated £40 to the nurses fund and £15 each to the Boy Scouts and Girl Guides.

Podington W.I. - if nothing else - was at least ingenious and enterprising when it came to raising money. They bought an orange slicing machine. They made and sold 150lbs. of marmalade, which enabled them to donate £15 to the war memorial fund. Then they decided to buy a preserving pan for jam making, "a brass or copper one but not to cost more than £2 and to hire it out to members for 2 pence per day. Miss Kitchen found one for 30 shillings," says the minute.

The following year (1922) they bought new scales and weights for £2-11-9 and realised £8 from the sale of jam. At this time the W.I. had yet to acquire the "Jam and Jerusalem" image and many years were to pass before the W.I. Markets became established.

More ingenious enterprises were yet to come. Colonel Orlebar offered them walnuts to pickle. They decided to have 4 bushels! Mrs Orlebar lent a bath for salting and offered to change the brine and order the vinegar. 5 gallons cost 13 shilling and nine pence and 2 bars of salt -3 shillings. The surplus vinegar was sold for £1-6-8 and the profit from the pickled walnuts came to £1-3-0. Anyone who has pickled walnuts will probably consider this a small profit for all the work - and it seems doubtful that rubber gloves were available in those days.

Then there was the W.I. Fish Shop - something that is talked about in the village to this day. Fresh meat was obtainable in the village but no fresh fish, so the W.I. decided to do something about it. They arranged for an order of fish to come from Grimsby on one morning a week and to be collected at Wellingborough Station by Mark Wildman, who was one of the three people in the village who had a motor car. Colonel Orlebar granted the use of Jetty Cottage, which was empty at the time and from which the fish would be sold to members. It appears to have been a seasonal operation as the minutes mention paying Miss Wildman 5 shillings and 6 pence for cleaning the fish room for 11 weeks. The first month's profit was £2-2-0½. The annual balance sheet states that in the Fish Sales a/c the cash in hand was £7-3-5. Jetty Cottage is now known as Susannah's.

There was a growing need for a W.I. HQ in Podington and arrangements were made with Colonel Orlebar to have Jetty Cottage at a weekly rent of 2/6d. and to share it with the girl guides. There are frequent references in the minutes to paying Miss Hannah Croxton 2/6d. for cleaning the "W.I. Cot"

There was also a growing need for a Notice Board. The Co-op granted permission for it to be on the shop wall adjacent to the Cottage. The wooden notice board which Mr Wildman made for 14 shillings remained in position for 50 years until the Co-op was sold, after which the Parish Council provided the present one by the Church Yard wall.

The first and perhaps most exciting occasion for W.I. members in the early 1920's was the charabanc outing to Bedford to the first Produce and Handicraft Exhibition. There was also time for shopping. They may have returned exhausted but they were very proud of the awards they won in the handicraft section. Another enjoyable summer outing for some years was cycling to Carlton for a joint picnic with the Carlton W.I. This was revived on several subsequent occasions - but not on bicycles!

The Story of the W.I. Hut.

It soon became apparent that one of the greatest needs of the village was for a village hall - not only for the W.I. but for the community. Colonel Orlebar offered to sell the W.I. a plot of land in a field opposite the present Cricket Club for £100. The next two years were devoted to raising money to buy it, during which time they found that there was a large wooden hut in Harrold for sale at a reasonable price. It had been used as a poultry house during the war years. Mr Bass of Gorong Farm, assisted by Bunny Brown brought it from Harrold by horse and cart and also erected it. It was officially opened by Miss Kitchen in 1925 and, known as the 'W.I. Hut,' it served the community as a village hall for 29 years. Some of the older members, who were young girls then, remember the social evenings, concerts and dances held in the hut - and how it was lit by oil lamps and there was no running water or "mod cons".

Letter inviting Mrs Miller to attend the Craft Exhibition
Mrs Orlebar started a folk dancing class and, later, a choral and drama group, which presented one of the tableaux in a big historical pageant in Bedford. Lace making, for long a village industry in Podington, was celebrated on one occasion with a special evening with the traditional Catteran Cake and a tableau in which the lace making members took part, dressed in the period costumes - some of which their grandmothers had worn originally. Alas! there are no lace makers in the village today although there is one lace making member. Mrs Shirley Miller, who lives in neighbouring Wymington. In 1975 she had the honour of being presented to H.M. the Queen, who had accepted the gift of a lace handkerchief made by Mrs Miller when she visited the N.F.W.I. Craft Exhibition on 'Tomorrow's Heirlooms'.

The Passage of Time

The W.I. and the Hut continued to play and important role in the life of the community for many years. Mrs Faith Orlebar was president for 32 years to be followed by her daughter-in-law. Mrs Barbara Orlebar for a further 12 years.

By that time, as the hut was in need of much repair and modernisation - all of which would be very costly - it was decided to dispose of it as best they could and move to the Cricket Club pavilion for meetings. (The pavilion was a small wooden hut in the bottom comer of the cricket field, where there is now a seat. It too was nearing the end of its days). Eventually, in 1954, Mr Keith Wykes bought the W.I. hut for £150 and it was dismantled, leaving the plot of land empty. As all W.I.'s are registered as charities and therefore exempt from Income Tax, the money could only be spent with the permission of the Charities Commission and on something equivalent to its original use, otherwise it had to be invested and only the interest from it could be spent

Meantime, all was forgotten about owning the plot of land until one day in the early 1960's a letter came from the Education Authority to say that it had been requisitioned for the purpose of building the new school, for which the W.I. would receive a cheque for £600. The land now forms the forecourt of the school in which the Red Chestnut tree was planted to commemorate the site of the old W.I. hut. We were to find out from the Charity Commission that we were entitled to have had an independent valuation of the land but we were never given the opportunity to do so.

By this time the membership had risen to over 50. We began to take part again in the W.I. County events, entering the produce and handicraft competitions in Bedford and at the East of England Show. We seldom came home without winning awards. The drama group was revived and took part in the county Drama Festivals in Bedford. In the 1970's it won the top three awards in one year. Through the LEA we had evening classes in the village for a few years. They included Rushwork, Upholstery and Dressmaking. Two members were regular producers for the W.I. Market which started in Bedford. For a time the interest from the £600 was used as a bursary for Denman College. Several members have attended courses there.

By Helen Day, 1998

Click here to return to the main index of features
Click here to return to the villages index
Click here to e-mail us