Radley Women’s Institute in wartime

The Women’s Institute (WI) nationally played an important role in World War Two in placing evacuees with families and taking in evacuees to their homes. They worked hard to help the evacuees settle into the community.

The war affected not only the actual meetings of Radley WI but also the way members lived their lives. Seven days after the war started the monthly meeting on 7 September 1939 had to be cancelled because of the national emergency. The following month, however, it was possible for the president to give an interesting talk on what could be done in the trying times they were about to experience.

In December 1940 Mrs Dussek’s suggestion of a Nativity Play was decided against as it was considered inadvisable to undertake anything that would bring children out at night or assemble them in one place in considerable numbers. After some discussion it was decided that a carol party should be formed, open to all enthusiasts, to sing carols in aid of the Warren Hospital on Radley Road in Abingdon. [The Warren Hospital had replaced the old cottage hospital on Bath Street in Abingdon. Formerly a large private house, it had 26 beds when it opened in 1930. It became part of the NHS in 1948. It later became a maternity hospital and, from 1969 to 1977, a geriatric unit.]

In May 1941, the Group Committee made up of representatives from about six local WIs decided that, given the conditions at that time, a river expedition would take members too far from their homes. Instead it was agreed to hold a group meeting in the Abbey grounds in Abingdon on 17 June  at 3.30 pm, with members taking their own tea and each participating WI arranging a game or sport.

In view of the alerts, blackout and transport difficulties it was proposed in November 1941 that the monthly meeting should be held at 2.30 pm in the winter months instead of in the evening. This proposal provoked a storm of rather confusing discussion and it was finally decided – on Mrs Saunders’ suggestion – that the meetings should be held on alternate evenings and afternoons. Mrs Dockar-Drysdale, Mrs Hellard and Mrs Wrinch offered rooms in which the meetings might be held that would be more comfortable and warmer than the village hall. It was also decided that the full fee of £2 10s should be paid to the Village Hall Committee whether the hall was used or not.

In April 1942 it was resolved that either Mrs Wrinch or Mrs Procter should attend the annual meeting in London on 18 June organised by the National Federation of WIs, although the view expressed by Inkpen WI that the General Meeting should not take place on such a large scale in wartime was warmly supported by members. The following month the meeting was cancelled.

Meetings continued as normally as possible and, on 1 July 1943, Lady Willert (probably the wife of Arthur Willert, British journalist and diplomat) spoke at the monthly meeting. She gave an amusing and interesting talk on various aspects of American social life. She spoke about the high standard of living, the beautiful ready-made clothes and the multifarious labour-saving devices that helped the American housewife. This must have been very different from what Radley WI members were experiencing and it made one woman comment that ‘women over there never do any work’. Interestingly Lady Willert’s talk had to be approved by the Ministry of Information.

Although the village hall was the venue for the meetings it was not the best of buildings. On one occasion Mrs Hellard proposed that the WI should make representations to the appropriate authorities about the lamentable state of the outside of the hall. It was eventually decided that this was not a matter in which the WI as such could take action. However, those members who had husbands among the trustees were ‘urged to make their lives a misery until something was done to remove the danger of the roof collapsing on them’.

In December 1943 Mr A.A. Thomson gave a very amusing and delightful talk on ‘Laughter in Battledress’. The ladies almost forgot the cold in listening to his store of anecdotes from ‘the man in the street’. The social half-hour started with ‘Sir Roger de Coverley’ – the accompaniment provided by members’ hands and feet would, they hoped, ‘be successful in averting pneumonia’. The hall was eventually patched up, but it was to be many years before a new village hall was built.

Some of the WI members were invited to join in with others in singing at Didcot in December 1945. Mrs Shaw said a few words at the meeting about their experience. It was generally agreed that it had been most praiseworthy and noble of the seven singers to go in thick fog especially as it entailed waiting on Didcot station for 2½ hours for the return journey – Didcot not being one of the ‘brighter station resorts’.

Jam and Jerusalem
The WI has always been renowned for jam-making and the war made it imperative. The WI in general made an enormous amount of jam during the World War Two using surplus fruit from gardens, allotments and hedgerows. In order to do this, groups obtained extra sugar supplies from the Ministry of Food. In April 1940 names were taken at the Radley WI meeting of those wanting an allowance for jam making and, in June, names were taken of those wanting preserving bottles. Preserving centres were being set up. In 1941 Mrs Dockar-Drysdale, Mrs Hellard, Mrs Hutchins and Mrs Wrinch agreed to attend any meetings and demonstrations to be held in connection with them. In spite of a bad fruit year, 198 lbs of jam were made in 1941. On 25 June 1942 Mrs Wrinch reported that 44 lbs of gooseberry jam had been made at the preservation centre.

After the German invasion of northern European countries in 1940 supplies of fruit and vegetables from there were halted. It meant that onions from France were no longer available. It was not easy to grow them commercially in Britain at that time, so people were encouraged to grow their own. It seems that a target was set for each village and, in response to the appeal to grow more onions, it was decided that if each member of Radley WI contributed a few pounds the two hundredweight minimum could be reached. Oxfordshire WIs harvested 13 tons in 1942. The National Federation also distributed tomato seeds and seed potatoes to its members at a preferential rate.

In 1941 Radley WI was able to secure an allotment of 10 poles for an annual rent of 3s 6d and a man was found to dig it. The allotment was divided up between Mrs Harding, Mrs Hellard, Mrs Gardner, Mrs McKellar, Mrs Saunders, Mrs Wilkins and Mrs Wrinch.

The WI ran a produce stall in Abingdon for which they needed a permit. They received one in December 1941 but eggs, jam and fats had been deleted from the original permit.

A letter of thanks was received for the 3 lbs of honey for submarine crews sent by Radley WI in November 1942.

An appeal for nettles and medicinal herbs was received in June 1943. It prompted a lively discussion and eventually it was decided that some members should go to Wick Hall to start on Mrs Dockar-Drysdale’s nettles, which were reported to be plentiful.

Lantern lectures on the storage of vegetables could be applied for from Reading. There was some discussion on whether to apply for these and it was suggested that they should have an open meeting and invite their husbands. However, it was felt to be beyond the power of the most enthusiastic members to bring their husbands and so the whole subject was eventually left to those members attending the Kennington meeting to discover if Kennington WI was proposing to have such a lecture or if it would join with Radley.

Towards the end of the war, the national WI monthly newsletter urged mothers of the under-fives to take advantage of the cod liver oil and fruit juice offered by the Ministry of Health. Mrs Yeo, the Voluntary County Organiser, spoke of the urgent need for all householders to continue to produce the maximum possible from their gardens.

A considerable amount of time during the war was taken up by Radley WI with fund-raising. It started in December 1939 with a dance that raised money for the district nurses and the Red Cross Association, although it appears that the latter’s share was kept to buy materials for the WI’s own use in connection with that charity.

In 1940 members decided to give £2 towards a national scheme for a WI ambulance. A vote was taken in September of that year to decide whether the proceeds from the jumble sale following the meeting would be put towards a Spitfire Fund or a fund for the Radley Distressed. After a discussion, it was agreed that a fund started for the immediate relief of anyone local who might need it in the event of air raids was the best choice. A committee, open to the public and led by the vicar, was set up for ‘Radley War Distressed’.

A social was organised for 19 February 1942 and the vicar was asked to take the door and secure the local RAF dance band. However, the estimate for the band proved excessive and so it was decided to hold the dance from 9 pm until midnight instead of 9 pm to 1 am, as the hour after midnight meant extra charges.

A proposal was put before the meeting on 16 July 1942 that Radley WI might meet the appeal for hospitality to Women’s Services by organising a social evening for them. An emergency meeting was held at Mrs Paton’s house to discuss a social for the WAAF girls. It was decided to entertain the guests from 7.30 to 10 pm with progressive games followed by dancing and community singing. It was agreed to buy bread and cakes from WI funds, with members providing tea, milk, jam, butter, margarine and tomatoes. Prizes were promised by Mrs Wrinch (jam), Mrs Talboys (toilet soap), Mrs Paton (toilet soap), Mrs Hellard (cake), Miss Greening (book) and Mrs Drysdale (fruit). Cigarettes (to be handed round) were to be provided by members and not given as prizes. The WAAFs arrived at 7.30 pm. Twenty had been invited but only 15 could come owing to duties. The Flight Sergeant in a vote of thanks said that she had enjoyed the party very much as had all the girls and that ‘they would never falter until victory was won’.

In December 1942 members welcomed among the guests a party of RAF personnel from Nuneham Courtenay. This would be from Nuneham House, which was requisitioned during the war by the RAF. The evening was most enjoyably spent in games, competitions and dancing. Mr Furness of the RAF nobly bore the brunt of the piano-playing.

The profit from a dance in January was £10 8s 6d and it was decided that this should be given to the Warren Hospital as a contribution towards the new X-ray apparatus.

At the beginning of 1943 the Berkshire Federation – of which Radley was a member in those days – appealed for occupational parcels to be sent to wounded prisoners-of-war (POWs). It was decided that, because of the expense and the large number of members needed to provide occupational parcels that others outside the WI should be asked for their help. The first occupational parcel for a POW contained rug wool slippers. As a result of the work of the sub-committee for ‘occupational parcels for prisoners-of-war’, parcels had been sent off containing directions for, and samples of, tea cosies, fire screens and bags all done in tapestry work, and also those for dishcloths, gloves and belts for the less skilled prisoners to make. The balance in hand in December 1945 of the Occupational Parcels Fund was handed to the Radley Welcome Home Fund.

In October 1943 the treasurer explained that there was a large sum of money in the prisoners-of-war fund. It was therefore decided that local people who were prisoners-of-war and who had been left out of the last distribution of money to the local forces, should be sent an equivalent sum at once from the fund. It was also decided that the people to benefit from the Forces Fund would be men and women who had joined up from Radley and those who have no home except in Radley. Mrs Saunders reported she had received many letters of thanks from members of the Forces and put them on the table at one of the meetings for members to read. The committee suggested that members should each ‘adopt’ one of their guests for the Christmas party evening, that is, the soldiers billeted in Sugworth Lane.

At Easter 1944 an appeal was made for members to spare eggs for the Warren Hospital so that each patient could have one. It was found that more eggs were donated than had been the case in pre-war days. The custom of giving eggs to the hospital continued for several years after the war and Christine Wootton remembers them being collected when she first joined Radley WI in 1964. Members also undertook mending for the Warren Hospital during the war.

Mrs Gardner reported that she had sent off another parcel in July 1944 to the Merchant Navy Comfort Fund containing socks, scarves, gloves, mittens and sweaters.

There was rationing of practically every commodity during the war and afterwards. In 1945 Mrs Dockar-Drysdale asked members to remember the bombed-out people of Lewisham by giving gifts of household goods. That year Mrs Levetus gave a talk on dressmaking, particularly on ‘make do’ as she felt this was more useful that ‘mending’ of which she thought members would be sick of. She provided some good tips on how to  make over old clothes so that they could be worn again and showed members some children’s garments made from old clothes or couponless material.

As the war drew to a close, the local organiser of the Mid-European Relief Fund asked the president if members would volunteer to knit babies’ vests. There was no difficulty in getting offers.

Mrs Rhodes spoke about the plans for post-war relief in Europe. There was a crying need for help of all kinds and she ended with an appeal for English men and women to bear cheerfully with restrictions in food and clothing in order that the destitute of the continent could be helped.

Radley WI celebrated its 95th anniversary in 2020.