Although seen as a very British institution the WI started in Canada. Adelaide Hoodless and her businessman husband George had four children. Their youngest son, John, died from drinking contaminated milk. In those days milk was transported in open churns. Adelaide was convinced that if she and the farmer’s wife were more educated about food hygiene they could have prevented John’s and many more children’s deaths.
Adelaide campaigned to get Domestic Science onto the school curriculum. She was a good public speaker and was invited to speak at Farmer’s Institute ladies’ evening in Stoney Creek. Her ideas on education for women of all ages in home crafts were well received and it was suggested that they formed a sister institute and the Women’s Institute of Stoney Creek was formed in 1897. The government of Ontario encouraged the movement by giving a $10 dollar to each new institute formed. Their prime concern was education focusing on all aspects of the ‘household science’ – improving home design especially sanitation, understanding the hygiene and economics of using foods and fuels and the scientific care of children. The aim was to raise the general health of everyone.
In 1915 the first WI was formed in Britain on Anglesey. Others soon followed. When the German U–boats blockade of Britain began in 1917, food supplies in Britain were hit hard as Britain imported around half of its food. A very poor harvest that summer and so many farm workers away fighting there was a real prospect of the population being undernourished or starving. In October that year the National Federation of Women’s Institute was formed. Although invited by the government to co-operate with the Department of Agriculture they declined as they did not want to be considered a military tool. However, they declared the WI was “a group of women banded together to help their country and themselves”. The WI objectives came to help the country by freeing up men from the land, increasing the food supply, preventing waste, started war savings clubs and other initiatives to help individuals and to develop the well-being of the country. By the summer of 1918 there were thousands of rabbit clubs around the country producing “patriot rabbits” for meat and fur. Morale was improved with the increased amounts of fruit and vegetables produced. Some communities started pig clubs, where the pigs would feed on scraps saved by whole communities before being killed to share out the meat. They gave advice on cooking and on how not to waste food by preserving, canning, bottling and of course the use of soft fruits to make jam. They produced knitted socks etc for the front and raised money by producing crafts for sale.
The WI Shropshire Federation was formed in 1919.