A new start for ex-WI group friends

CELIA WIGG A rebellion by one of the most vital of village organisations has swept across Norfolk with 11 WI branches quitting the national federation and setting up breakaway groups.

CELIA WIGG

A rebellion by one of the most vital of village organisations has swept across Norfolk with 11 WI branches quitting the national federation and setting up breakaway groups.

The dispute over a controversial increase in annual fees to £26 - to include the cost of a mandatory magazine - has resulted in the closure of 40 branches nationally. And in Norfolk, one of the heartlands of the Women's Insitute movement, the backlash has been keenly felt.

For the number of closures represents the highest ratio in the UK, and is about 10 times the national average which works out one per local federation.

Among the casualties are the self-styled Great Ellingham and Rocklands WI “rebels” who are celebrating the launch of their reformed ladies group. All 22 members have switched allegiance to join New Beginnings which has just celebrated its first meeting.

Chairman Pat Partridge said: “It was really upsetting. I've been a member of the WI for 40 years, and president for 15, and didn't want to break away, but the attitude of the national federation was so undemocratic. It was either pay up or you are no longer a member and that is what finished me totally. It was horrible the way it was done.

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“I am not blaming the Norfolk federation. They are within the executive and could have been stronger, but I think their hands were tied.

“Our branch was one of the first in Norfolk to decide to leave.

“Others have closed in Suffolk, but nationally they say it is a drop in the ocean. It is very sad, but we have got to move on.

“Our WI was always so friendly, not stiff and starchy, and at last we can support charities which we couldn't do in the past.

“We are just going to have fun. There was a lovely atmosphere at our first meeting and we now have at least 30 members,” added Mrs Partridge.

Cindy Brookes, branch secretary of the Norfolk federation, said she did not consider the loss of 11 local WIs to be anything out of the ordinary.

“I know that there are 11 that have chosen not to stay because of the WI Life magazine. It is not unusual, it does go in waves, and we have had this sort of thing happen before,” she stressed.

The rebellion had less impact in neighbouring east Suffolk. Denham and Hoxne WI, near Eye, were outraged by the magazine edict, and fought for the right to retain their treasured trophies on setting up a new group. Reydon, near Southwold also left the organisation, but the West Suffolk federation reported no losses, with four new branches opening last year.

Jana Osborne, general secretary for the national federation, said: “Only about 40 out of 6,800 branches have closed over the introduction of the magazine. It is a big thing for the branches to have the magazine, and we did have people against it and that's only to be expected.

“But we are getting so many wonderful letters and emails from members saying how much they like the WI Life.”

WIs wishing to leave over the issue had to notify the national federation by the end of December.