In 2015 it was West Moors Women’s Institute’s turn to send a delegate to the National Federation’s AGM. It was the centenary of the first ever WI being formed, so this was going to be a special AGM, and I was the very lucky person to be selected to go to represent West Moors. It was with great excitement that I arrived in Ringwood to catch the coach on 4th June.
Even leaving home at 5.30 am to get to the coach stop didn’t dampen my spirits. There was a bit of a kerfuffle: we’d been told we’d get our tickets for the actual AGM on the coach – except they had been left at someone’s house. So while the coach sped towards London, the organiser was being driven in the other direction to go home and get the tickets. We were to meet at Fleet services, where the coach was due to have a break for breakfast. We got to Fleet in good time, and then an anxious wait until the woman with the tickets finally arrived – but would we get to London in time?
We arrived at the disembarkation point in London with just ten minutes to spare. This would be tight timing anyway – but as the Queen, Princess Anne and the Countess of Wessex were all going to be at the AGM, we had been told to bring two forms of ID and that these would be carefully checked on arrival. And as we got closer to the Albert Hall, we could see a huge queue at one of the other doors. Luckily though, we walked past this huge queue to our door, and were waved through. Our seats were on the main floor of the Hall, and the Dorset Federation were seated together.
The day began with a number of reports, rather than singing Jerusalem because we were waiting for the Royal Party to arrive.
It was thrilling to be present when the Queen arrived, along with Princess Anne and the Countess of Wessex. We all sang God save the Queen: while I have sung this on many occasions, it was the first time I’d sung it with the Queen herself present. We also sung Jerusalem – it was great to sing it with 5000 other women. It is very different singing it as part of a huge crowd, compared to a few dozen at a typical West Moors meeting.
To start with the Queen and the other Royals were seated, and I was fascinated to see the Queen put her handbag on her lap: having heard that she uses her handbag to signal to her ladies-in-waiting, I was intrigued to know what this might signal. I soon realised that putting her handbag on her lap and searching through it meant “I’m looking for my spectacles, I’m sure I had them in here.”
Her speech was impressive, covering how the lives of women have changed over the last 100 years, including women getting the vote, the first British women Prime Minister and women climbing Everest, and that the Women’s Institute has made a real difference to many women’s lives. Not surprising with the many years of practise she has had, she is a very good public speaker.
The Queen was presented with flowers, beautifully handed over in what could have been a textbook example of ‘how to give flowers to Royalty’ by a well-practised primary school age child,. The younger child giving flowers to Princess Anne was overwhelmed by the occasion and had to be accompanied by her mother. The third flower-giver was a teenager: but she thrust her bunch at the Countess of Wessex and flounced off stage. The Countess’s surprised look and tiny gesture showed that while this was not how she normally expected to be given flowers, she was used to teenage moods.
I was really looking forward to the talk by historian Lucy Worseley. It covered the early history of the Women’s Institutes, and how many of the early WI members had been suffragettes. I found it particularly interesting that the order of a typical WI meeting had been designed to teach women who to run public meetings, with committee business to give women a chance to learn how to act in public office, an educational talk and a break for tea and cake so that the women attending had a chance to gossip without interrupting the main meeting. It was intriguing to learn that Jerusalem was a suffragette anthem before it was used by the WI.
The resolution – about removing the separation between nursing and personal care – provoked much discussion. It seemed that while the meeting agreed with the general spirit of the motion, the wording wasn’t right. After some discussion, it was proposed that the meeting moved on to further business: this passed, avoiding a vote on the main motion.
Then to lunch! I’d ordered a pack lunch from the Hall, and after collecting it, I went out into a glorious sunny June lunchtime. The Albert Memorial was surrounded by women in brightly coloured dresses, some in finery, some in less dressy outfits. But it was lovely to know that no matter who I was sitting next to, I had something in common.
There were two more talks, with Baroness Grey-Thomson describing her live as a para-olympic athlete and her elevation to the House of Lords. The other talk was from business woman Helena Morrissey, about her organisation which aims to get more woman at senior levels in business.
One thing that has clearly changed over the last few years is the use of technology. There were a number of venues with live streaming of the WI AGM, so as part of the day we had a video link with three of them.
We ended the AGM with the singing of Jerusalem and Land of my Fathers – we had Welsh Federation members behind us, and it was great to hear it being sung with proper Welsh pronunciations.
It was time to go to our coach and the drive home. We pulled into Ringwood at 9 o’clock: the end of a long day, but a very enjoyable one . Thank you to the members of West Moors Women’s Institute for selecting me to go.