Buntingford W.I.

This year, Buntingford W.I. is celebrating its 94th Birthday (November 2012) and it must be one of the oldest clubs in the town which is still going strong.  It was one of several W.Is formed just after the first world war and followed the formation of the National Federation in October 1917.

A group of ladies got together at Layston Court on Tuesday November 5th 1918 and a committee was formed, comprising Mrs Ashford, Mrs Butler, Miss Boniwell, Mrs  Crofton, Mrs Howard, Mrs Jones, Miss Kenyon Stow, Mrs Marshall, Mrs Phillips, Mrs Thody and Miss Woods, the latter being one of the ladies who lived in Layston Court at the time.   Mrs Ashford was the wife of the then Master Tanner and Mrs Marshall’s husband was one half of the Marshall and Snelgrove store in London.

The early Minute books give a fascinating insight into the activities at the monthly meetings.   At the very first meeting there was a Lecture on the Women’s Vote and other subjects during the year included a demonstration of rabbit skin curing,  lantern lectures on New Zealand and Palestine, ‘Women as Empire Builders’ and the Battlefields of France and Belgium.   They also held something called ‘An American Sale’, which sounds like our present bring-and-buy.  It was suggested that any food left over after meetings should be sent to the inmates of The Union (Bridgefoot House, which was the Buntingford Workhouse).

Monthly meetings seem to have been held at various places:  the Technical Insititute, a “long school room” (which may have the URCH), the Forrester’s Hall (the hairdresser’s next to the Post Office) or the George (public house) room.  There were occasional afternoon meetings when members were allowed to bring their children “on condition that they were taken out if noisy” and also some meetings at Layston Court, the home of Miss Woods, when members had lessons in straw plaiting and raffia work.  They purchased some stools from a local builder which were strung by the members and sold to Marshall & Snelgrove (it helped that Mrs Marshall was a Committee Member!)  The proceeds were put towards building a hall or room for the Institute.

Other activities included the occasional whist drive, rummage sales held at the Court House  (now the Day Centre), a course of health lectures from the Red Cross and also the local doctor, Dr. Fell (whose wife was a committee member) and a singing class.  In 1923 it was agreed that “God Save the King” should be sung at the conclusion of meetings.

At the Annual Meeting in 1921 there were 92 members present but by 1922 membership had risen to 136, although only 80 had actually paid their subscriptions and only 58 attended the January meeting.  Committee members were asked to each take charge of 10 members and visit them to find out the cause of the apparent apathy!

By 1922 the Committee were actively looking at sites for the proposed Institute Hall they wanted to build and by the end of that year the Building Fund amounted to £10.00.  They took advice on plans etc. and at a meeting in October 1925 a plan of a wooden building was discussed and passed as suitable.  The cost of the building itself was £360.  However by January 1926, the Committee were discussing a more ambitious project, which would include a good committee room, and on 21st January 1926 it was agreed to accept new plans, with a building cost of £800.    No mention is made in the Minute Book of the actual building of the W.I. Hall but the Grand Opening was set for March 30th 1927.  It would have cost twenty five shillings to hire it for an evening (7 p.m. – midnight) plus an extra five shillings if you wanted heating and a further five shillings if you wanted the piano! 

It appears that a Coal Club was run alongside the WI for the benefit of its members, with a payment out at the end of each year plus some bonuses.

Meetings continued during the War years although the number of members seems to have diminished to 68 and some lectures and talks had to be cancelled owing to “the International situation”.  However, during the summer months Buntingford W.I. held some garden parties, either in the grounds of the Manor House, which was the home of the Hartnett family,  in the garden of Layston Cottage (owned by the Ashford family) or in the grounds of Layston House, owned by Mrs Cornes.  (Layston House disappeared when Snells Mead was developed).    It appears that the new W.I. Hall was taken over by the Military during the war for use as a recreation room for evacuees and therefore meetings had to be held elsewhere, frequently at the Welfare Centre or at Aylott’s Cafe.  However, in 1943 it was decided to let the Hall out for 25 shillings per week to a company called Quenby Brothers for the renewal of Radiolocation Valves

Meetings commenced with the singing of “England” or “Jerusalem” and speakers during the frugal War years included a demonstration by the Ministry of Food of various potato dishes, rug making from scraps of material, repairing upholstery and “Make Do and Mend”.  Members knitted small garments for the occupied countries and they also agreed, in April 1944, to invest money in War Savings during Salute the Soldier Week.  They also ran an “Aid to Comforts Fund” and  Prisoners of War fund and had monthly collections for the overseas Cigarette Fund.  At a meeting in January 1945 the girls from Hackney, who were evacuated to Buntingford,  entertained the W.I. with dancing and recitations. 

The renting out of the Hall to the same Company continued after the War for a further three years at a rent of £2 per week but it seems that the W.I. had some difficulty in reclaiming the Hall from them and had to resort to consulting a solicitor.   The Hall was eventually vacated early in 1948 and meetings were resumed there in September of that year.

Unfortunately, there is a gap in the W.I. Record Books, and we now jump to 1967 when the President was Mrs King and we are proud to say that Enid is still a member!  However in 1968 the Hall was in such a dilapidated condition that the income from letting it out dwindled and it was proving financially unviable. 

An amicable solution seemed to come from the vicar, the Rev. K. Blythe, when it was suggested that a joint agreement could be reached with St. Peter's Parochial Church Council which was in need of a Parish meeting place.   The P.C.C. would buy the Hall at the nominal price of £250.00  and if at any time in the future the church decided to sell it, the WI could have first refusal to buy it back at the same price.

The Charity Commissioners were informed, and they insisted that the building must be sold to the highest bidder and that the WI would have to pay for it to be valued before being put up for auction. The advice given was that it would reach a higher price if planning permission could be sought for a single house with garage.   The auction was held up for about eighteen months when, after the third planning application had been submitted, permission was granted for a house and garage.

Nine years later, in August 1977, after legal and financial complications, the
Hall was sold for the sum of £3,691 to Mr Derek Neil who used it for a furniture showroom.

Meetings continued in the same format but at different venues, including the Chequers room.  During 1977 meetings were held at the United Reformed Church Hall and have continued there ever since.  At the beginning of the 1970s there were 46 members and  it is interesting to note that new members had to be proposed and seconded at that time!  In addition to the monthly meetings, there were whist drives, outings, annual dinners and the W.I. always took an active part in the Carnivals.  There also seems to have been a W.I. darts team in 1973 and a discussion group was formed in 1975.

In 1982 Buntingford W.I. amalgamated with the W.I. from Aspenden, which was a good thing as far as Buntingford was concerned because numbers had started to dwindle.  The increased membership meant that a Choir and Drama Group could be formed.   The Choir won a cup at the County Music Festival and one of our members was accepted by the county Choir.

Buntingford W.I. today follows pretty much the same formula as it has done for the last ninety years except that nobody wears a hat these days!    We still enter (and win) the Carnivals, we still have interesting and varied speakers and we still take part in many other activities..  Many members have attended courses at Denman College in Oxfordshire, which is owned by the W.I. National Federation, and have had their fees subsidised by special bursaries.  We like to help out at local Buntingford events whenever we are asked and can always rely on our members to rally round and get baking.  We contributed to the millennium oak tree fund and our current project is knitting 90 woolly hats to be donated to a charity for seamen.

It is a shame that the W.I. Hall had to be sold – who knows what it would have been worth today.  You can still see it at the top of the High Street – it is now The Tile Shop.

We are now looking forward to the next ten years and our centenary!!  We wonder if anyone in Buntingford has any old photos relating to the W.I. in Buntingford  which we could borrow and copy for our archives?

If anyone would like to come along to see what we are all about, you are very welcome to come to the United Reformed Church Hall on the second Thursday of every month at 7.45 p.m.   Come and be part of one of the oldest organisations in Buntingford!

If you are new to Buntingford and would like further information, please contact our Secretary Pat Webb on 01763 271305

Below are some photographs of members enjoying being with the W.I.


lecture on dolls and teddy bears

Hot air ballooning

Up, Up and away


Having fun gliding

Making blouses at Denham College

We won the cup at the carnival 1998

Playing croquet

Enjoying the thunder down under!

Cooking Hospice Lunch

Leeds Castle

Day out in Kent

Trip to London

Having fun punting on the Cam

Stall at the Carnival

We won the cup at the Buntingford Carnival 2000

Pat Murray Playing Boules

Val Sievert enjoying playing boules with the W.I.


The National Federation of Women's Institutes