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Helmdon Historical Articles

A Hundred Not Out!
A History of the Helmdon Women's Institute

an article by Audrey Forgham



This article below was written in 2021.  Since then the Helmdon branch of the WI has been bowled out.  It failed to find a president and officers to carry on and it folded in the spring of 2023.The members were very sad but were proud to have achieved their 100 years anniversary.


2021 celebrates the foundation of Helmdon Women's Institute, a group of women whose names have changed over the years but who have continued to come together to learn and to socialise through the years.

The WI movement as a whole was founded in Ontario, Canada in 1897, and the first meeting in the UK was in September 1915, its aim being to revitalise rural communities and encourage women to become more involved in producing food during the First World War. The movement also sought to "improve and develop conditions of rural life by providing a centre for educational and social intercourse and activities". Among the many rules it was decreed that "no sectarian or party political matter shall be brought forward for discussion at an Institute meeting". The Helmdon branch was formed in 1921, 100 years ago.

It was the Rector of St Mary Magdalene church, Canon Bartlett, and his sisters, who called a meeting to discuss "the desirableness" of forming a Helmdon branch. Notices were placed in the Reading Room, the Post Office and Mrs James Watson's shop. Mrs Holloway was reluctant to join but Canon Bartlett said that it was her duty to do so. Miss Simpson "explained the motive", and Helmdon WI was born, with President Mrs Johnson, Vice-Presidents Mrs Golby, Mrs Robson and Miss A Barrett, together with secretary Mrs L Watson and treasurer Mrs Perridge. Committee meetings were held at "Littleholme", and the committee members were Mrs Adams, Miss M. Barrett, Mrs Abel, Mrs Berry, Mrs Dytam, Mrs A. Humphrey, Mrs Watson, Mrs T. Humphrey, Miss Salmon and Mrs Smart.

The first village meeting was held in March 1921 and the annual subscription was two shillings. April was the highlight meeting. A neighbouring WI was invited and 59 members attended the first meeting, a musical one, with the Head Teacher closing the school early to enable the children entertain the members. From then on meetings alternated between afternoons and evenings, and during that first year talks were given on glove making, cane basket making, soft toy making and bottling and drying fruit and vegetables. In 1922 skin curing and soft slipper making were among the talks and 102 members and guests sat down to the Christmas social. In 1923 there was a lecture on first aid, a talk on pork pie making and a demonstration on ironing starched collars! Later on the branch staged a baby show and had talks on infant welfare and soap making, sick room nursing and Making the Best of Yourself", and had a "very useful" demonstration on eiderdowns. Other talks were on gardening, sweet making (by Mrs Saunders), raffia mat making, poultry keeping and papier maché. The number at meetings in those first five years varied between 1921 and 1926 but there was generally an attendance of around 40 – 50 ladies. Canon Bartlett continued to keep a watchful eye and the branch was often invited to tea at the rectory gardens.

There were competitions including "How many words can you make out of 'Women's Institutes'", with WI badges given as prizes. Whist drives and sketches by members were also on the programme. One year every member was given some seed potatoes from Moulton Park Farm Institute and the Autumn competition was the member with the best crop. The school children entertained too, with folk dancing and drill demonstrations. They also did folk dancing, had jumble sales and later on had rounders matches. An occasion at the Manor House Gardens included a cricket match and an oddly named Bunty stall.

The branch possesses one great piece of tangible history. Jenny Liddicot has donated a NCFWI (Northampton County Federation of Women’s Institutes) Recipe Book, date unknown, but probably from the 1920's or '30s, soon after the formation of Helmdon WI. Priced at one shilling it contains eleven recipes from the branch, including Chicken Cream, Cocoanut (sic) Apricot cake, Sponge Roll, and a curious Scripture Cake, as follows:

Scripture Cake
4 ½cupsful of I Kings IV 22
1 ½cupsful of Judges V 25
2 cupsful of Jeremiah VI 20
2 cupsful of I Samuel XXX 12
2 cupsful of Nahum III 12
1 cupful of Numbers XVII 8
2 tablespoonsful of I Samuel XIV 25
season to taste II Chronicles IX 9
1 pinch of Leviticus II 13
6 ozs of Jeremiah XVII 11
½ cupful of Judges IV 19
2 teaspoonful of Amos IV 5
Follow Solomon’s prescription for making a good boy. Proverbs XXIII, v.14, and you will have a good cake.

The old minutes further record that donations were given to good causes such as the Horton, Northampton and Brackley Cottage Hospitals, towards the churchyard extension and the Mansfield Cripples' Home, and in 1922 1cwt of coal was given to any needy in the village as a Christmas present.

Mrs Lees, who lived in the big house at Falcutt, was President for 25 years. On one occasion, Mrs Holloway recollected, Mrs Knightly the County President visited the Institute. Mrs Barker, the County Secretary, also joined several meetings, travelling by train from Moulton to Northampton and thence to Helmdon. She was met by the Falcutt House chauffeur, and lunched there with Mrs Lees. After the meeting she returned by train.

In the 1920's, when the branch was formed, members initially enjoyed visits to local places such as Sulgrave and Delapré Park and once in the very early days Freddie Whitlock took the WI to a matinée performance at the theatre. They went in an open top cart and when they came home it was snowing. However the branch soon ventured to more far away destinations, like Stratford, Oxford, Wembley, Bedford, Warwick, and Cheltenham, and then to more specific destinations, as, for example, to the Ideal Home Exhibition in London, and it can only be imagined what enjoyment this was to women who were not yet used to the convenience of cars. The following photo of a visit to the Bournemouth is dated around 1937-38, with members sitting on the beach, looking to us very uncomfortable in coats and hats, and Mrs Cleaver even clutches what looks to be an attaché case.

"I do like to be beside the seaside"
Back l. to r: Mary Turnham, Nurse Walters
Middle l. to r: Joyce Rose, Mrs Rose,
Mrs Cleaver Finch, Mrs Turnham
Front: Mrs Nell Duncombe

Two press cuttings have been found from that decade. The first was just before the Second World War and it is to be wondered in what state of anxiety the occasion was held.

Feelings must have been even more alarmed when the reality of the situation hit, and because of the blackout and "lighting up", meetings were solely held in the afternoon. A work party, mainly a knitting session, was held once a week. Once a canning day was held at Falcutt House laundry because it had running water with members supplying fruit and the Ministry of Food contributing the sugar, with members each allowed to buy two cans. Once the labels got mixed and up and Mrs Nell Duncombe remembered that she got a wrongly labelled can. Jam making sessions were held at Stone House. Helmdon was allocated 1 cwt of sugar, the jam being made for the Ministry of Food to distribute as part of the wartime rationing system which prevailed at the time.

But it was the monthly meetings, of course, that were the core activity of the Institute. Early members from the 50's Ann Smith and Jean Brookhouse still attend meetings. Mrs Eileen Jeffs was also an early member and her daughter, Pam, soon followed on in her stead. Hats were still de rigeur in 1959 when Ann Smith joined and on going to her first meeting she was surprised to see many ladies wearing them. She also recalls that in those days there were more than 40 members and you had to be proposed and seconded before you could join. She goes on to say: "It was all very formal. Mrs Holloway was President, Miss Nicholls secretary and Miss Kate Humphrey (Mrs Holloway's sister) was treasurer".

40th Birthday celebrations
From l. to r.: Miss Hawker (founder member) Mrs M Morris (President) Mrs R Ipgrave (secretary) 1961

"We did have some laughs. I remember Mrs Wheeler and Mrs Gwen Cleaver (Jean Brookhouse's mum) used to get the giggles a lot and that set me off. Before very long (I lived at Falcutt Hall then) I was taking a car load to WI. First I would pick up Eileen McGrath then Mrs Somerton, then Ruth Jessett, who at that time lived at Thatch Cottage, and Edith Shellard. By the time I had three children (1963) I became secretary and Mrs Vera Wilson was President, followed by Mrs Grant." Ann remembers organising an early coach trip to see a play at Oxford, a new venture for the branch, and it was almost certainly with Sammy Walters Omnibus Service based in the village, which preceded Jeffs coaches. When her son William was born in 1967 she gave up being secretary but her rest time was short lived as she soon became President, with Mrs Moelwyn Hughes, who lived in Rose Cottage, taking her place as secretary.

Ann Smith was also busy in the sixties and seventies representing Helmdon WI at tennis. She won the mixed doubles with Mike Elkington (a relative of a WI member) at the 1965 Golden Jubilee Celebrations at Grendon Hall near Northampton, and later on in 1978, with her daughter as partner, they were County winners of the ladies doubles, going on to come second in the Eastern area tournament for WI's.

In a report to the Annual Helmdon Parish Meeting in 1968 it was stated that the Helmdon WI choir joined a South Northants choir, practising under Mrs Doris Clark of Evenley, for the first round at county level of the operatic sequence “The Brilliant & the Dark”, which was performed at the Albert Hall in 1969.

Golden Jubilee Party 1971

At the Golden Jubilee Party of the branch in 1971 there was an exhibition of interesting artefacts called "Past Helmdon". To celebrate further Ann Smith, President, planted a flowering almond tree in the grounds of Helmdon School.

Some little while after that, choir members, led by President Ann Harman, rehearsed for a WI county choir event, "Captain Noah and his Floating Zoo" by Michael Flanders and Joseph Horovitz, and Jenny Saunders recalls that Helmdon members assiduously went to the rehearsals. The event was held at the Thomas Becket School in Northampton and the Helmdon members found themselves at the back, fronted by ladies who had not rehearsed, and Ann, not afraid to use her elbows, pushed the Helmdon group to the front.

(newspaper cutting) 60th Anniversary celebration From l. to r. Mrs M Cockram (County President), two founder members, Mrs C.R Gibbons and Mrs L Holloway (centre) cutting the cake, Mrs Edith Shellard (Helmdon WI President) and Mrs Walker (County Chairman) 1981

At the 60th anniversary in 1981 it was fitting that two founder members cut the cake. Mrs L Holloway and Mrs C. R Gibbons, both of Church Street, were among the few who could vouch for the accuracy of the first minutes taken in March, 1921, which were read by the secretary, Mrs. G Wallis. This was the occasion upon which the engraved WI notice board was put on the Reading Room wall where it hangs to this day. It was largely the work of a member's husband, Mr Alan Watson, who renovated an old oak picture frame to splendid effect. The birthday cake was provided by Mrs Ann Harman who was particularly pleased that celebrations were held "on the exact day of foundation". The branch also staged an exhibition of old village life, "Past Helmdon", with photographs and interesting objects dating back to the 1920's. It created a lot of interest, in particular because Len Wills, the last man to signal a Great Central train through Brackley, lent photographs and other memorabilia of the old railway to go on display.

Ready for "the off"

The WI of yesteryear will be particularly remembered by the village for its floats at the legendary Helmdon Carnivals, on the sports field, which attracted upwards of 2,500 people in their hey day, before their demise principally because of health and safety regulations. BBC Gardener's World was the theme for the WI in a float in the early eighties.

(l. to r.) helper with Annie Humphrey

Handicrafts have always been a favourite activity of WI members. They are sometimes exhibited at meetings and above is a photo of a craft work display put on in the Reading Room in 1984. However, some members are skilled enough to want to show their work to a wider audience. "Helmdon Viaduct", a canvas work picture, designed and made by skilled needlewoman Jenny Overson, was Helmdon's contribution to the County WI wall hanging made in 1985 to celebrate 70 years of the WI. At a Handicraft Show and display at Cottesbrooke Hall in 1986 there were entries from Dorothy Cernick, Eileen Collett and Sheila Rodgers. The basket pincushion by Dorothy was judged as "commended".

Group craft competitions with local Institutes were also popular at this time. On 1988 the branch came first in a group Handicraft Show and in 1989 third in a group co-operative display entitled "Harvest Supper", presented by Jenny Overson, Dorothy Cernick and Jenny Saunders. The individual class winners were Jenny Overson, Ann Harman, Eileen Watson, Margaret Reardon and Olive Holton.

Dorothy Cernik, another very skilled lady, had the highest individual score. "Barnum" came first in the in the 1991 co-operative entry at yet another show and competition, with the judges commenting that it "was a good choice of theme giving scope for variety and colour".

But handcrafts were forgotten on the August Bank holiday of the same year when St Trinian's was the subject of the WI float.

St Trinian's float 1991

Outside visits have continued throughout the years but in the main to local venues such as Plenti-full Pots up on the Welsh Lane, the Herb Centre, the conservation area at Oxhill farm in Oxfordshire or the Thee Shires Shopping Centre, where it was not really a case of "shop till you drop" but we did have a really good lunch!

The 70th anniversary was another occasion for cake. The particular one below, was made and iced by two of the members and cut by founder member Louise Holloway. The branch was delighted to have the company of the Federation President Mildred Cockram.

(newspaper cutting) 70th Anniversary celebration 1991

Helmdon WI has had its fair share of organised walks. One lovely evening in the mid-90's members walked to The Star at Sulgrave and sat down to a light supper and were then picked up by cars to go home. I remember that Val Moir and I opted out of the refreshment and walked back for the exercise.

As a Millennium project the WI members of 1991 - 2000 recorded their own thoughts and memories of their lives. The illustrated book was compiled in the hope that it would be a pleasant and interesting record of the people who have come from all walks of life to join together to make up the Helmdon Women's Institute at the turn of the 21st century.

Medieval float 1994

1994 is memorable in that Helmdon WI were placed first with their medieval float (above). It certainly looked as though a lot of effort had gone into its preparation. Doreen England (left) and Jean Brookhouse (right) sat proudly at the front.

Another year, another carnival, and another float. This one had a war theme to coincide with the 1995 VE and VJ Day celebrations, and the WI's float was decked in bunting with the participants attired in World War costumes. It was an impressive parade which journeyed from the station yard to the sports field and according to the Banbury Guardian "floats like that from the Helmdon Young Husbands' Organisation and the Women's Institute delighted people lining the route".

Tony Blair before his blunder
The branch invariably has representation at the annual WI conference which always attracts excellent speakers such as the Duchess of Kent.

In 2000, at an event attended by Jenny Saunders, Tony Blair was the main speaker. However he was given a hostile reception by Women's Institute members, who heckled and slow hand-clapped a speech which verged on the political.

An eagerly awaited event in the WI calendar is always the Christmas lunch, so on 4th December 2002 sixteen members of the Helmdon branch of the WI sat down to a meal of turkey and ham.

After games the evening ended with traditional carols.

From l. to r. Sue Mantle,
Audrey Forgham and Ann Smith
In 2003 the branch undertook a different sort of activity for a Northamptonshire Federation competition. Twenty branches signed up to take part, their brief being a conversation between a woman in history and a woman of the 21st century, and two judges arrived to see a duologue presented by Helmdon branch members. Audrey Forgham wrote the text (inspired by a WEA, adult education, course Helmdon had enjoyed in the Spring), and it was ably performed by Ann Smith and Sue Mantle. Although they didn't get placed Ann and Sue had good fun preparing for their stage debut!

Ann Harman loved to write short stories, and in 2003 she submitted one called "Memories" for a County competition. Later on she submitted a story for a competition called "Every Picture Tells A Story" and "The Wedding" was the subject for her entry in 2004. In 2005 Ann also wrote a poem (one of three submitted by the Northamptonshire Federation for the countrywide Denman Cup) which was highly commended. The judges commented that she had chosen a really good form for the subject and spirit of the poem.


Women are the strongest sex
They run the house and nurse the kids
They drive the car and next
They cook for in-laws and for stalls
They polish furniture - then pause
For coffee and biscuits with their friends
And chatter like a flock of hens.
Their hobbies varied, talents great
Embroidery, painting, making cakes,
Gardening, sport, arranging flowers
So many things just not enough hours
To do everything they want to do
Paper the lounge and paint the loo
Walk the dog and feed the cat
Keeping fit so they don't get fat
Do the washing, iron the sheets
Hoover the carpet, carve the meat.
The list is endless but they still do it
For what they do instead
Nursing, typing, shop keeper
Lawyer, doctor, school teacher
For women can do two jobs at a time
Unlike men who need time to think
They'll always go that extra mile
A kiss and cuddle make it all worthwhile.
At last the quiet time of the day
The children tucked up in bed
They put up their feet and rest their head
And remember the day that they wed
For women are not only Grannies and Mothers
They are carers, partners, wives and lovers.

Ann Harman

In 2005, our other Ann, Ann Smith, who is also a competitive lady, put together an interesting scrapbook entitled "Stepping Out" for yet another County competition, based on keeping healthy and looking after your heart. She had to walk and record how many miles she had completed with a report and photographs. She was placed fifth and her efforts also merited a "highly commended".

In the same year Jenny Saunders and Doreen England were winners in the Northamptonshire Federation Handicraft Show in a class called "precious things" and "a victoria sandwich" respectively. Doreen's entry was a very good result in that there were 41 entries in her class.

The WI has been synonymous with cookery since its beginning, and although it does not figure in the branch much at all now, members are sometimes called upon to provide refreshments of the cake variety for various events such as the carnivals and village fetes. There were, however, occasional cookery evenings up until the 2010's.

Margaret Reardon making a peach
and marzipan tart 2000

Margaret Reardon, with Jan Harrold as her sous chef, twice demonstrated recipes based on a selection of recipes from their latest Denman College course. As well as delicious tasters to tempt even the most committed weight watchers there were enough raffle prizes to go round the assembled company, to members' delight. Members surely also remember Margaret's chocolate making evenings, when again the results were raffled. Some time later Bee Payne demonstrated how to cook Thai meals.

In the place of housewifely skills, interests have widened considerably as the time has gone on. For instance there was once a speaker from the Northants Trading Standards and he showed members an interesting selection of faked named sportswear, watches, perfumes, all quite undetectable by the average person, and it was realised how easily people could be conned. Much enjoyed were the visits of Ruby Easterbrook. On one occasion members were "artists for the evening" under her tuition, and took home a watercolour painting of a seascape.

Doreen England and Jenny Saunders model
some of the hats on show - May 2003

Among the wide ranging subject for meetings have been the reminiscences of a retired county coroner, a demonstration by Hilary's Hats of   Middleton Cheney, and the background to the making of her books by a children's author, Linda Newbury.

Sometimes the County Federation arranges events. It is a sad fact that they usually occur in Northampton or north of the County but in 2005 Ann Harman, Ann Smith, Jenny Saunders and myself enjoyed a Supper and Murder evening at a local branch. Less successful was a talk arranged by the Federation on Flora Thompson, who had lived nearby at Juniper Hill, in that it was vastly over subscribed and took place in a very hot hall.

From left to right: Christine Farmer, Diana Birch, Ann Harman and Mildred Cockram.

From l. Christine Farmer, Diane Birch, Ann Harman and Mildred Cockram

In March 2006 over twenty members of Helmdon WI celebrated its eighty fifth anniversary. Ann Harman, the then President, welcomed to the Reading Room visitors Diana Birch, Chairman of the Northamptonshire Federation, and two past Federation Chairmen, Mildred Cockram and Christine Farmer, who have become good friends to Helmdon over the years. Later on in the evening Janice John gave a fascinating talk on the making of a beautiful Quaker tapestry.

And now ... relax!
February 2006
In the same year we had an interesting demonstration from holistic therapist, Marianne Allitt. She explained various therapies, particularly aromatherapy, which works with the pure properties of plants, using their essential oils in natural complementary therapy, which can help to improve both physical and emotional well being. Marianne produced a massage couch and three lucky WI members were given a relaxing and beneficial treatment.

Occasionally Helmdon WI have catered for outside organisations which has raised funds for the branch. In 2006 they served teas for 45 members of the Sunnyside Club from Brigstock in the east of the County. In the same year lunch was made for 43 members of the Oaks Club from Yardley Hastings, another successful event for the branch.

In June 2007 WI members visited Grafton Regis, and had the pleasure of being guided round the village and church by informative costumed volunteers. In the same year there was a visit to Stowe School; this time the party of twenty members and friends were shown round the house by the retired school matron, and this visit was memorable because she was so passionate about her subject.

Federation walk round Helmdon 2009

One July Carol Brookhouse and Ann Smith hosted an evening walk for the Northamptonshire Federation of WIs in and around Helmdon, and ten WI branches from county WIs were represented, together with ten members from Helmdon. Some fifty people set out from The Bell Inn, a walk which took in a visit to the Mary Magdalene church to see the William Campion window, and the ancient yew tree in the churchyard, and a ramble along the line of the old Great Central railway.

Andrea Leadsom.
In 2009 the branch had a visit from Andrea Leadsom, not in her capacity as MP for South Northamptonshire, but talking about a project dear to her heart, the Oxford Parent Infant Project which she had set up and continues to support. She was an excellent speaker and was well received by members.

Who would have imagined a wine tasting session 100 years ago? In January 2010 members who were able to make their way through the treacherous snow were rewarded by a most entertaining and informative talk by Alex Corrin. The practical side which involved sniffing and the spitting was done with gusto. Indeed, spitting was not an option but no complaints were made!

A talk and then a taste with Alex Corrin - 2010

l. to r. Julia Metcalfe, Jenny Liddicott,
Carol Brookhouse and Ann Smith

An evening in 2010 saw between forty to fifty WI members, including four of our own Helmdon branch, undertake a six mile autumn walk around Cosgrove. It included walking along tow paths and through a tunnel, along a river bank, an aqueduct, looking at the site of the lost village of Old Wolverton and finally enjoying a nice lunch at The Barley Mow, Cosgrove.

The way through the woods...

Another evening walk was through Hazelborough Woods to see the bluebells. Yes, we did find some! Then it was off to The King’s Head in Syresham for an enjoyable evening meal.

WI party members

From l. to r. Margaret Reardon, Mary Nash and Pauline Butler

WI members always look forward to enjoying their annual Christmas Party and 2010 was no exception.  After an excellent meal provided by members, there were games and a quiz, and members shared poems and stories with a Christmas theme. The evening was rounded off by the singing of carols, and thanks were given to the committee for all their hard work over the year.

90th celebration of Helmdon WI Some of the members back: l. to r. Ann Harman, Ann Smith, Mary Nash, Louise Stothard, Jean Brookhouse front: l. to r. Celia Terrey, Doreen England, Vanessa Vicars - 2011

In 2011 the branch gathered to celebrate its 90th anniversary. Members decked themselves out in period dress and a beautifully iced cake was made to mark nine decades of the village WI.

2012 brought another celebration, this time a national one, the Queen's Diamond Jubilee, and the WI presented the Reading Room with a wall clock and mounted the trug on the outside wall which they keep filled with flowers.

Alson Shepherd demonstrating silk painting

Alison demonstrating her craft
WI members hard at work

WI Members hard at work

In the same year Alison Sheppard from Radstone gave a fascinating talk about painting on silk. Wax resist techniques for embellishing silk can be traced back to India in the second century A.D. She showed a variety of lovely cushions and samplers which she had painted herself and whetting our appetites for what was to come, a step by step demonstration of the technique. Then came the opportunity to see what we could do.

Simon Courtie - 2013.
Another interesting talk was given by Simon Courtie, broadcaster & writer, who entertained the WI with a talk about his trip round the world with his wife and inset into text  three children, travelling in a VW camper van starting from Strawberry Fields children’s home in Liverpool and ending in Strawberry Fields memorial garden in Central Park, New York, ‘busking’ Beatles' songs and raising money for the charity UNICEF.

In 2014 Derek Batten talked entitled Women of the Wild West, and what an interesting and fascinating evening that was. He gave us glimpses of the lives of such well known figures as Annie Oakley and Calamity Jane, and touched on some women who are less well known, leaving us with mental images of them and their big families living in shacks and in poor conditions on the vast, treeless prairies. To get into the spirit of the evening members dressed the part. There were many cowgirls and a saloon girl too!

Derek (middle) with his audience - 2014

Rebecca and Sashiko quiilting
Rebecca showing some sashiko designs.
In 2015 over twenty WI members enjoyed a talk and demonstration by Rebecca Ayrton on Japanese sashiko quilting.

Even the less creative of us (yes, there are one or two!) became enthusiastic as Rebecca told us its history and showed some beautiful examples of her work.

There is almost aways a competition to complement the subject that the speaker has chosen and on the occasion when Rebecca visited us members were asked to bring articles to do with Japan. These are judged and a cup is awarded annually.

Extra special "Flower of the month"

There is also another annually awarded cup to be competed for. At every meeting there is a monthly flower competition, usually a single flower, with points being awarded each month. At one special spring meeting the call was for a 'flower arrangement in a tea cup' and the results were stunning.

Vanessa in WI Centenary
party mode - 2011
Any club or institution stands and falls by its chairman or President, supported by a committee, who must have the drive to keep enthusiasm going, and this was true of the Helmdon branch. I myself remember former Presidents such as Jenny Overson, Ann Smith and Ann Harman and our present president, Louise Stothard, as such guiding lights, but mention must be made of one unassuming President, Vanessa Vicars, who kept the branch on the straight and narrow in the second decade of this century when the numbers attending meetings dipped lower than they are now. We were fortunate she stepped up to the challenge.

We are also fortunate in having Jean Bates (a Trustee and chair of the WI Campaigns and Concerns committee for the Northampton Federation) as a member of our branch, as she keeps us up to date with green issues and news about The Associated Country Women of the World (ACWW), which is the largest international organization for both rural and urban women, with a membership of nine million in over 70 countries.

The Helmdon branch of the WI - 2015

In 2015 came the 100th Birthday of the WI movement in Britain as a whole, and needless to say the Helmdon branch had a celebration, this time in the form of a summer garden party for members which Jenny Saunders hosted. Louise Stothard, President, said at this centenary "The ideas and values of the Women's Institute as a modern organisation remain the same. The WI continues to stand for the education of women, giving them the confidence to ask important questions in public, both locally and nationally. Women are given the opportunity to work together through music, drama, discussions, science health and social welfare, making a difference in their own communities". Thus Helmdon WI is still a strong and relevant group in the village.

A crowded Reading Room - 2015

Then in the July, to further celebrate the national centenary, Helmdon WI members invited anyone who wished to come to what was a very successful Tea Party in a decorated Reading Room. There was a craft exhibition of members’ work, a display of history of the WI, and photographs of Helmdon branch’s activities throughout the years. A delicious tea was provided by members which was enjoyed by all.

Albeit it was as the result of a lottery it was very fitting that it was Ann Smith who had the honour of going to the Centenary Garden Party at Buckingham Palace which was attended by Princess Alexandra, the Duchess of Cornwall, the Countess of Wessex and the Duchess of Gloucester, because she has done so much from an early age to keep our WI alive in Helmdon. Afterwards she summed up the experience by saying that it was "a memorable day".

In the same year, Jenny Saunders, the present hard working branch secretary, attended the Centenary AGM at the Albert Hall in the presence of Her Majesty the Queen, Princess Anne and the Countess of Wessex. In her speech the Queen (herself a member) said that she was proud of the Women's Institute "and what we have achieved throughout the years". (This event will always be remembered as the one in which the Queen had difficulty in cutting the anniversary cake. She joked that she knew it was a fruit cake because it was so hard to cut, and pretended to struggle with the ceremonial knife and Princess Anne and Sophie Wessex had to help her.)

WI link meeting speaker
Storyteller Jo Blake - 2015
For some time there has been a twice yearly link meeting of local Women’s Institutes. Indeed, as early as 1923 there is a record of a visit from Sulgrave WI.

We have had varied meetings such as when David Barby, antiques dealer of TV fame, gave a very interesting talk and valued the items which members had brought, but on 7th October 2015 it was Helmdon’s turn to host the event and institutes from Aston le Walls & Appletree, Boddington, Byfield, Chacombe, Chipping Warden & Edgecote, Lois Weedon & Weston, Middleton Cheney and Woodford & Hinton, converged upon Helmdon.

A warm welcome awaited them and after excellent entertainment from Jo Blake Cave, Storyteller (you could have heard a pin drop the audience was so entranced), a delicious supper was served by Helmdon members.

Christmas party 2015

Christmas 2015 brought to an end a very busy year for the branch when members gathered together for their Christmas party with a hot meal prepared by the committee, followed by craft activities of candles in decorated flowerpots, along with a soap and flannel in the style of a reindeer complete with antlers, tinkling bells, red nose and wiggly eyes!! Secret Santa presents added to the excitement and yet more food with mince pies & chocolates – just practising for the coming weeks of course...

For many years there was a trading stall in Helmdon, with a fraction of the price of an article raised going to the branch. An accounts book of 1970 offers eggs at 20 old pence for six and a jar of tomato chutney for 20 old pence. Of latter years Jean Brookhouse and Doreen England had been the driving force behind the stall but in 2017 it was felt it had run its course. Doreen England also did sterling work delivering magazines to members in the Home & Country days before WI Life went digital.

See the source image
Baroness Floella
Mention must be made of Federation events which take place over the years with members going to varied events at Spinney Hill, Northampton. Here members have heard talks, for instance, by Michael Portillo (in good form and characteristic brightly coloured attire) talking about his railway journeys, Adam Henson about his Cotswolds Farm, Doreen Wise about life with Ernie, and Baroness Floella Benjamin on her incredible life, a rise from a presenter of children's programmes to becoming a highly respected member of the House of Lords.

A few devotees enjoy the Federation literary lunches. After a splendid lunch they have listened, for instance, to an author talking about a book on the royal family, and there was at one meeting a fascinating presentation about the poisons used in her detective novels by Agatha Christie, a pharmacist in her early wartime working life.

March 2020 brought the Covid-19 epidemic, and the country came to a stop, and Helmdon WI, together with all the village organisations, ceased their various activities, but Jenny Saunders kindly kept us up to date with WI news and at the beginning of 2021, with a tentative easing of restrictions, members gathered together again outdoors. President Louise Stothard's home was the venue for a very successful flower arranging event. We all had a chance to arrange flowers to take home.

Pam Jeffs admires some of the flower arrangements

Some of the members, from l. to r.: Margaret Watts, Jenny Saunders, Val Smith, Barbara Buxton, Mary Nash, Audrey Forgham, Carol Brookhouse, Jenny Liddicott, Pam Jeffs and Doreen England

Cutting the Centenary cake
This set the scene for a year very important to the branch. It is the year it celebrated its Centenary, 100 years in Helmdon, and a further garden party at Manor Farm Barn celebrated the fact.

Pam Marley and Ann Smith cut the cake as we toasted the branch and willed it to remain a force in the village for another 100 years.

Then in September 2021 the branch sat down to an excellent Centenary Dinner in the Reading Room.

On this occasion the branch had caterers to provide an excellent meal and the committee had time off from providing the refreshments as was their usual function.


On display was a banner designed by Vanessa Vicars and the committee for the Northamptonshire Federation on the occasion of the WI's Centenary in 2018. Member Pauline Butler's daughter, Justine, kindly embroidered it on an industrial machine. To celebrate there was a County WI picnic in the park at Althorpe House and some of our members were able to attend.

The education of women was, and still is, at the heart of the WI. The WI is not insular (not just "jam and Jerusalem") and knowledge and concerns about the wider world are always on the agenda. Indeed, it is not an exaggeration to say that its concerns have sometimes been ahead of their time and in many cases have had an influence on government agenda. At the time of writing, for instance, the importance of recognising the symptoms of cervical cancer has been voted upon as an important topical issue and pressure will be put on the relevant organisations to rally to the cause.


                   Louise Stothard, President

                      in this centenary year

I can do no better than end this short history of Helmdon Women's Institute by quoting the words of Mr B. Humphrey, chairman of Helmdon Parish Council in 1971, the occasion of the 50th anniversary of the branch. He said, according to a Banbury Guardian press cutting: “I would like to congratulate Helmdon on their Golden Jubilee. When they first started I remember thinking they wouldn’t last long, but now I am sure they will go on for another fifty years.” They have, they are alive, they are flourishing, and are on their way to another half century.

Audrey Forgham

Some while ago Louise Stothard, a great support for the branch, placed the existing early minutes at the Northamptonshire Record Office. However, before she deposited them she had the foresight to write a resumé of the first five years of the branch 1921 – 6, which have been very useful.

Jenny Saunders has been a loyal member of Helmdon WI for many years and is again in 2021 the WI secretary. She has faithfully documented every activity she could in albums from 1981 without which this article would have been very short of early history.

Thanks also to another long standing and loyal member, Ann Smith, who kindly gave me her recollections, some of which also appear in the NFWI
publication Within Living Memory, published in 1992.

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