Urban Women’s Institutes about more than just ‘Jam and Jerusalem’

West Hampstead Women's Institute. Pictured (from left) Dilys Hoffman, former headteacher of Beckford

West Hampstead Women's Institute. Pictured (from left) Dilys Hoffman, former headteacher of Beckford Primary School, Vicky Brown, president of West Hampstead WI, and Jane May, secretary of West Hampstead WI. Picture: Nigel Sutton - Credit: Nigel Sutton

Next month, Stroud Green Women’s Institute is hoping to welcome a forensic scientist to speak at its monthly meeting. The group has also hosted a class on beekeeping and one of its members taught the other women how to make gin.

For decades Women’s Institutes (WI) were thought of as the bastion of smiling housewives in country villages, showing off their freshly baked pies or homemade jam.

Now, the modern urban WI is enjoying an unexpected revival, with some branches in London having a six-months waiting list.

Within the first year of West Hampstead WI opening in 2011, it had 40 members and this year that pattern looks set to be repeated.

Vicky Brown, president and founder of West Hampstead WI, said the recent surge in popularity is due to the wide range of activities on offer, which fills a gap in the market.

“Women want to meet other women with a collection of different skills and interests rather than just pursuing a special hobby,” said the 62-year-old retired teacher, who lives in Inglewood Road, West Hampstead.

One-year-old Stroud Green WI also hit the ground running with speakers on state-of-the-art design and popular television programmes, including an audience with Mark Brandon, who was the technical mastermind behind Frozen Planet.

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Helen Parsons, a freelance design journalist and member of Stroud Green WI, thinks the resurgence in London is due to our fragmented lifestyle.

“People are less likely to have established family units in their area now,” said the 36-year-old, who lives in Stapleton Hall Road, Stroud Green.

“It’s part of the localism movement and not having friends and family nearby – it’s about wanting to be part of the community.

“I moved from Camden to Stroud Green and, like everyone who lives here, I had friends all over the city so I joined to hang out with people in the area.”

It’s a far cry from the ‘Jam and Jerusalem’ image of yore as the new wave of city-based WIs crop up across the country.

In March last year, a Women’s Institute specifically for Goths opened in Stroud Green, named Gothic Valley WI.

Its activities have included bat walks, putting the black in blackberry jam, and a visit to a dissection exhibition at the Royal College of Surgeons.

The group currently has more than 20 members who travel from all across the city to attend weekly meetings.

Stroud Green WI has a young membership with most women in their late 20s and early 30s.

Stroud Green and West Hampstead groups meet in the evenings because most members work full-time or are retired.

The National Federation of Women’s Institutes has also championed digital skills this year and has vowed to get each group across the country involved.

As Twitter replaces church notice boards and “saucy sewing” events at WIs like Gothic Valley become the new knitting workshops, it’s clear that the institution is very much alive and kicking and taking London by storm.