Plan to save Midhurst women’s institutes

C111026-1_JPOS_mid_wirescue'W.I. president Judy Rich (front), with chairman Vanessa Blaber (right), and committee members, at Stedham Memorial Hall.
C111026-1_JPOS_mid_wirescue'W.I. president Judy Rich (front), with chairman Vanessa Blaber (right), and committee members, at Stedham Memorial Hall.
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One of the last surviving women’s institutes in the Midhurst area could join the ranks of those that have closed unless a revival plan succeeds.

Stedham WI has 25 members but, according to president Judy Rich, the average age is around the mid-70s and there is no one willing to take over from her when she retires after a four-year stint in November, or from secretary Tina Fenwick-Smith.

Without officers, the institute cannot continue.

Now, however, a small group has been formed to switch the WI on to a different track in a bid to ensure it has a future. Tea and cakes as an afternoon group would become wine and nibbles if their proposal to move its meeting time to the evening succeeds in winning supporters.

The Way Forward group, as it is called, is led by Mrs Rich and Vanessa Blaber, who joined Stedham WI just two years ago.

She said: “The membership is getting older and it is impossible for younger women with jobs, or children to collect from school, to get to meetings in the afternoon. But they might be more interested if the meetings were held in the evening.

“I could not join until I retired but it is not meant to be a retirement club.”

The Way Forward group is, however, conscious of not alienating the WI’s existing membership, and if the switch to the evening is made, the afternoon group would continue its monthly meetings as an informal associate of the main institute.

“It is somehow getting the balance right,” Mrs Rich said. “The village needs the WI. It is the third organisation in Stedham after the church and the parish council. It was started nearly 94 years ago and is one of the oldest institutes in the country.”

She added: “It contributes to village life. It is already down to do the teas when Stedham celebrates the Queen’s diamond jubilee next year - if we’re still here!”

The group’s recruitment drive for younger members and to make the switch to evening meetings is being tested with an open evening on Wednesday next week, June 29, at 7.30pm at Stedham Memorial Hall. It is hoped potential members from villages which have no longer have a WI, such as Milland, Easebourne, Harting and Rogate, may be interested in going along.

“We are open to suggestion about the best things to offer for an evening WI,” Mrs Blaber said. “WI resources can cover virtually anything people might want. If we get a good response we would aim to start the new system in the autumn.”

She added: “The WI’s slogan is ‘inspiring women’. That is what we should be able to do today.”