Fond recollections as Dereham WI members gather for 75th anniversary

Betty Howlett has baked a cake for Dereham WI's birthday every year for more than five decades, and although she may now need a little help lifting it out of the oven, today was no exception.

So it was fitting that 14 ladies with a combined total of 454 year's membership tucked into her fruitcake as they poured over vintage choir competition certificates, amateur dramatics programmes and photos from long-past carnivals to mark the group's 75th anniversary.

Membership originally cost Mrs Howlett three shillings, compared to more than �30 today, and reminiscing about the early days she said: 'I learned a lot at the WI with regards to cooking and other thing which was very handy because the war was just over and we were still in rationing.

'We had meetings and cookery and it helped me very much and I loved it very much.'

The group has made its mark on the town, installing a clock, since replaced, on the assembly rooms wall to honour the national organisation's golden jubilee in 1965, campaigning to save Dereham Hospital and lobbying for better pavements.

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Iris Craske, who is just a few weeks shy of her 90th birthday, has been attending the monthly meetings for more than 60 years, and recalled when it had about 150 members and a waiting list, compared to 16 members today.

For many women, the group offered a chance to make friends, and Edna Walpole, now 92, joined when she moved from Hull after marrying a Norfolk man.

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She said: 'I especially like it when we have speakers. They bring in slides and it's lovely to see them. I learned several things from the speakers.'

The Dereham group holds monthly afternoon meetings, while a larger branch in Toftwood offers evening meetings that better suit people who work.

Dereham president Patricia Wilkins said: 'Most of them are elderly but we have got a very friendly little group. You go to big WIs and a lot of them don't know each other, but we all know each other and get on with each other.

'It's about making friends as much as anything. When I moved to Dereham I did not know anyone and someone my husband worked with said why don't you come to the WI, and I made so many friends.

'I think we are expanding now. We are getting more members. I think getting a few younger ones is helping a lot.'

Many members bristled at the WI stereotypes, and Elsie Mason, who joined Dereham when the Shipdham group folded, said: 'It has got this very false image of being nothing but jam and Jerusalem and handicrafts, but we get a variety of speakers and interests. I think it's an old image that's very hard to squash.'

Christine Humphries is a member of the younger generation, and visits WI groups across Norfolk and Suffolk to talk about family history.

Speaking about the changes she has seen and the perceptions of younger non-members, she said: 'They enjoy themselves a lot more now. Before it was 'Do this and do that and vote for this', but it's much more relaxed now.

'There's a lot on offer if they would give it a chance.'

For information about the Dereham WI, contact secretary Patricia Barr on 01362 697697 or

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