The WI in World War II: How British women kept the countryside running

Now adapted into a major ITV drama, Home Fires, Jambusters: The Story of the Women’s Institute in the Second World War recounts the immensely important and often underrated role the Women’s Institute played in pulling Britain through the war.We spoke to its author, Julie Summers, about the women who kept Britain ticking and the incredible stories she uncovered along the way.

What kind of research went into writing Jambusters?

Quite a lot is the short answer! I started at the women’s library in the University of London, they have the archives from the national federation of the Women’s Institute. That gave me a very big overview of what the WI got up to over the six years of the war. I then went to the counties and looked at their records, then I went to village institutes – many of whom have kept their wartime records.

This gave me a really clear picture of what individual institutes in various counties were doing. After I’d done that I spent several months trying to meet people who’d either been wartime WI members or whose relatives had to give me the human side of the story.

How important was the WI during World War II? What kind of role did it play?

It was the largest voluntary women’s organization in the country that was non-military. At the outbreak of the war it had 328,000 members with institutes in one in three English and Welsh villages.

The most useful thing about that was that the government only needed to ring the general secretary in London to have the ears of a third of a million country women spread throughout England and Wales, and that was an incredibly powerful thing.

Because it was a pacifist organisation, it couldn’t do work that was directly connected to the military aspect of the war effort, but it could work on food production and any other voluntary work that needed doing to keep the countryside ticking like setting up markets, knitting, sewing and looking after evacuees.

Thousands of tons of fruit were boiled in WI preservation centres. © The National Federation of Women’s Institute.

You must have come across a lot of incredible stories while writing this book. Do any in particular stand out to you?

Some characters stood out to me. I think universally what impressed me was how women just got on with it without making a fuss. Whatever they were asked to do, it was no problem, they didn’t really draw the line at anything.

When they were asked to write a report on housing or evacuees – it happened , if they were asked to make jam – no problem, the government asked them to set up 200 preservation centres so people could make jam with surplus fruit and vegetables in 1939. The next year they asked them to set up 1,000 centres, by the end of 1940 they’d set up 2,600 – they were fantastically responsive.

Obviously during wartime Britain was plagued by shortages and rationing, what sort of difficulties did the WI have to face in regards to this? And how did they deal with it?

Their biggest difficulty was petrol rationing. Living in the countryside many of them were quite self-sustaining, they had, by and large, enough to eat and they grew enough to feed the rest of the villages. Because they were a pacifist organisation the government refused to give them bulk supplies of petrol so they had to beg, steal and borrow transport in order to get their goods to market.

The WI made potato baskets for the Ministry of Agriculture. © The National Federation of Women’s Institute.

WWII marked a huge change for the roles of women in society, do you think the WI played a role in this?

I would hesitate to say they played an active role as an organisation, but no doubt about it women were vastly empowered in many ways by World War II and WI members were no exception.

One thing to bear in mind, because they were a pacifist organisation, if a member became involved in a military force of any sort they couldn’t then carry on coming to WI meetings until after the war. So a lot of the women who were WI members during the war were either doing voluntary work or they worked in munitions factories, but you didn’t have Wrens [WRNS, the Women’s Royal Naval Service] in the WI.

They were more about empowerment in education as a background influence rather than being active politically.

How much input did you have into the making of the Home Fires TV series? 

Into the actual production nothing at all, however I was very lucky that the scriptwriter Simon Block involved me right from the beginning in his ideas for the storytelling.

I didn’t come up with any ideas as such, but I would comment on tone and colour of the history and I was very keen that Simon understood the mood of the country in the first years of the war. He would ask me questions about the role of the WI, he wanted to get a sense of how the WI was perceived in the village so all of that kind of background hue I could help with.

I read every single script several times and was able to say “no the WI didn’t do that until 1942.” Or “yes, that’s perfect.” And it was lovely to do that, very special indeed.

What can people expect from Home Fires?

It’s a sort of microcosm of life in rural Britain during World War II and shines a light on the role that women played in it. It’s a drama so it has all the ingredients a drama has to have – it’ll make people laugh, gasp, cry.

The women are so authentic and although they’re not based directly on the women in the book, I think if any of the women in my book had walked onto the set of Home Fires they would have recognised the type of women there.

30 lo-res
Among many other activities the WI collected herbs for medicinal purposes. © The National Federation of Women’s Institute.

You mentioned in the book that you got the chance to cameo in the show. That must have been pretty incredible?

It was, what was really special about it was that I hadn’t realised until I first went up on set the impact it would have for me on seeing the world that I know so well in black and white photographs come alive. It was very very moving, I did weep when I saw it.

All the women there were completely authentically 1940s, it was extraordinary, like walking back into history. When we saw the crew dressed in their 21st Century clothes it looked like they had come from a different planet, it was just bizarre, and magical.

Home Fires airs 9pm Sundays on ITV1 and Jambusters is available to buy right now. For more inspiring tales of wartime, pick up the new issue of All About History or subscribe now and save 25% off the cover price.