Women’s voices and laughter ripple through the opulent foyer of Woolwich Town Hall. I look up into the echo chamber that is watched over by Queen Victoria.
“Room 4” a male voice shouts from behind.
“WI?” I ask.
“Yes, up the stairs to the right” the security guard confirms.
It’s my first meeting. I’m not sure what to expect, other than assurances of homemade cake, tea and some yoga promised on a Tweet from theWoolwich and Plumstead Roses the day before.
My last encounter with the WI was their cake tent at a very wet Bestival on the Isle of White about 10 years ago. It was by far the best venue at the festival, followed closely by the rum shack and dance hall where I learned lindy hop in Wellington boots.
Back in Woolwich, there’s something reassuring about by the early formalities of the meeting where guests and new members are welcomed. This is followed by news from craft and food sub committees, announcements of a new book club, supper club and walking group. The Chair reads out a list of resolutions that have been put forward by WIs throughout the country including campaigns on promoting plant biosecurity, improving air quality and more women-focussed issues such as pelvic floor education and menstrual health. As someone with long suffering period and ovulation pain with no clear answers from inconclusive NHS investigations, its reassuring to hear this is on the agenda.
Whilst I’ve read about the WI being a progressive and modern organisation, smashing stereotypes of jam making and knitting circles, I’m pleasantly comforted by the pillars of tradition at the meeting. A celebration of homemade culture threads through: the display of mozaic tiles made by members; requests for jam jars to stuff full of goodies and make pretty as £1 raffle prizes for the next Plumstead Made Merry market; the cake making rota; future craft sessions to make macrami plant holders; cocktail stirers repurposed as stems for material tulips; more requests for jars and fruit for jam making.
I am reminded of my grandmas much sought after chutney recipe. I wonder if my well organised bead collection that is gathering dust might find a new lease of life through this forum.
After completing yoga (fuelled by cake), to close, theres a raffle, where one member has made a colourful bag out of her husband’s ties as a prize. The room chuckles as jokes are made about whether this now tie-less husband knew about the craft project.
This welcoming, diverse community of women have clearly developed close friendships, shared interests and don’t take themselves too seriously. They have purpose and agency, and I’d like to know them better.
I thank them for having me and as I leave the smiles behind the security guard is enjoying a slice of chocolate cake. I find my way back down the stairs, out the door and cross the road to the bus stop.
Echos of the meeting are carried with me all the way home.