Littleport Life explains why the WI is known for ‘Jam and Jerusalem’

In 1915 we set out to give women a voice and to be a force for good in the community. Since then, our membership and our ambitions alike have grown tremendously. Today, we are the largest women’s organisation in the UK and we pride ourselves on being a trusted place for women of all generations to share experiences and learn from each other.

Making jam is probably one of the things that the WI is most famous for. But what is less well known is that during the Second World War, WI members made jam on an epic scale and made a significant contribution to Britain’s food supplies. In 1939, realising that much of the fruit from the summer’s bumper harvest might be wasted unless it were made into jam, WI’s headquarters secured sugar supplies direct from the Ministry of Food. WIs across the country gathered in surplus fruit from gardens and allotments or growing wild. In their first wave of jam making, it is estimated that the WI saved 450 tons of fruit from rotting.

During the 1920s, many WIs started choirs and NFWI set up a music committee. W.H. Leslie, an amateur musician from Llansantffraid, Shropshire, acted as an advisor, and held a one-day school for village conductors in London in early 1924. He asked his friend Sir Walford Davies to write an arrangement of Hubert Parry’s setting of Jerusalem for WI choirs. This hymn, with its association with the fight for women’s suffrage, was considered appropriate for the emerging WI movement which was encouraging women to take their part in public life, and to improve the conditions of rural life. Leslie suggested that Walford Davies’ special arrangement for choir and string orchestra should be performed at the Annual General Meeting of NFWI held in the Queen’s Hall, London in 1924. He conducted the singing, bringing a choir from local WIs with him to lead.

This was so successful that it continues to be sung at the opening of NFWI AGMs, and many WIs open meetings by singing Jerusalem, although it has never been adopted as the WI’s official anthem.

As part of the 95th anniversary celebration, a modern version of Jerusalem was recorded by The Harmonies, selected from entrants from the WI Search for a Star competition. It was released in 2010 as part of the album Voices of the W.I.

Royal membership

Her Gracious Majesty, Queen Elizabeth II has been a member since 1943, and is President of Sandringham WI. Her mother Queen Elizabeth was also a member, and Sophie, Countess of Wessex, Camilla, Duchess of Cornwall, and Anne, the Princess Royal are all members. The Queen attends the January meeting at Sandringham each year and in January 2019 referred to “common ground” and “never losing sight of the bigger picture” in a speech which was widely reported. The evening’s guest speaker was Alexander Armstrong, host of the TV show Pointless a favourite of Her Majesty the Queen, who participated in a game played at the meeting. Her Majesty headed the winning team, after which Alexander commented on Queen Elizabeth’s “deft, silky Pointless skills”.

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