All About Us….

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In the 1950s on WI nights village ladies could be seen making their way through the streets, each one carrying her own cup, saucer and plate.  One carried a Tilley lamp - there was no electricity in Marshgate in 1951!

Members met for the first time in the village schoolroom, then in a member’s farmhouse kitchen.  We still have a membership card from that time – the member paid 3/6d (about 15.5p in modern money) a year!


The members in 1951, taken on a coach trip to Ilfracombe which was one of our earliest outings. There is a wide range of ages here, with at least two little girls in the party, and all are happy and smiling.  Looks as though they had a nice day.

This precious first photograph is preserved in one of our albums.

Today around 20 members from the Marshgate area enjoy monthly meetings usually with a speaker, as well as organising events for the wider community and running stalls at village events.  Marshgate WI belongs to the Cornwall Federation of WIs, based in Truro, and ultimately through the NFWI to the Associated Countrywomen of the World, a global organisation.  But perhaps more importantly, we are a vital part of the village scene and of the community in this beautiful part of North Cornwall.



Marshgate WI History

From the recently unearthed minute and record books found at County House


Marshgate WI was formed at an inaugural meeting on Friday 20th April 1951, with Mrs Emily Harris in the chair – Emily was later elected first president of the new WI, which held its first proper meeting in the village schoolroom on 24th May.  Besides Emily, there were 22 ladies present, as well as a VCO (what we would now call a WI Adviser), who would have overseen the setting up of the institute and committee.  This VCO, a Miss K Smith, also attended the first committee meeting to help with procedure.

An enormous committee – 10 ladies – was elected!


Old record and minute books unearthed in the archives at Chy Noweth an Conteth offer some fascinating glimpses into the lives of the ladies in Marshgate and the work of the WI at that time.  Our own Jackie remarked on reading some of the books that they could have been written after any of today’s meetings – the matters being discussed are still very much the same.

The first secretary, Mrs Lilian Saunter, left us minutes in beautiful copperplate writing.  Unfortunately the records were not always kept as well as one could wish: at least one section is all but illegible because of the writing of the minutes secretary; others have pages that have been damaged by wear or sticky tape, and often the matters being recorded are referred to only very perfunctorily.  Still, it was a privilege to go through these records of our early days and see how similar things were then in so many ways.

Sometimes there are howlers:  in 1968 the minutes record that “Granfer Coombes is to celebrate his 95th birthday on the 22nd October, and Mrs Howling agreed to do something about it.”

A Mr B Saunter (perhaps Mrs Saunter’s husband) acted as Independent Financial Examiner from 1951 until at least 1976 – this would be frowned on today, when IFEs are expected to change after three years.


Those 1950s members were keen – some walked at least two miles to attend the meetings, with each member bringing with her a cup, saucer and plate for the refreshments, as well as food to share.  In the winter months they also brought a piece of coal each for the fire, and one member, Mrs Gladys Bray, brought a Tilley lamp, as there was no electricity in the village in those days.

Another member, Mrs Lewin, would dash to her cottage opposite the school at refreshment time, to fetch the kettle she had left heating on the hob to make tea.  Mrs Bray’s first membership card from May 1951 is preserved in our album.  She paid 3/6d (three shillings and sixpence, or 15.5p in decimal money) subscription fee!


The annual meeting was held in January in the first couple of years, then moved forward to December and then November.  It was moved to April in 1961 to comply with a CFWI directive, and finally to February in 1972.


Marshgate WI held their first outing – a coach trip to Ilfracombe – in September 1951, and this outing became a regular annual event, with trips to Torquay, Exeter and other places of interest.  They also organised a second trip, a mystery tour, every year.  They had a Christmas dinner for members and a party or celebration for both the children and the elderly in the village.  The tea for the elderly was discontinued after a few years, but gifts of tea and biscuits were still being given in the 1970s, while the children were given a Christmas party in December or January, or taken to the pantomime, for many years.


In 1952 Marshgate joined the Camelot Group and were members from then until CFWI discontinued the formal Groups scheme in 2012.  This same year our ladies started up the annual whist drive which has been held ever since, and by 1955 were organising a regular darts tournament as well.

An outing to London was planned for the Coronation the following year, but cancelled due to lack of interest.  No Coronation celebrations appear to have been staged by the WI!


The programme was full of interest and pretty similar to what we enjoy today, perhaps with slightly more emphasis on home cookery and preserving.  Talks and demonstrations included icing, silver work, smocking, raffia work, upholstery, quilting, jamming, paper flowers, a walk, a quiz and the work of the Post Office and the CID.  Competitions were also run: the prettiest Cornish sea-shell, best handwriting sample, largest number of words from “Jerusalem”, seed necklaces and decorated eggs.

Every single meeting started with the singing of “Jerusalem” and ended with “The Queen”.


By 1955 the institute also had a Music and Drama Sub-committee, which staged performances at local events as well as meetings.  By this stage every annual programme included a “Members’ Evening”, when the regular committee took the night off and a team of volunteers ran the monthly meeting.


In January 1961 meetings moved from the school to the new Otterham and St Juliot Hall.


Then as now, members were keen to support charity, and a proportion of the proceeds of many fundraising events were sent to the Spastics Society (now Scope), the Hostel (?) or some other local charity.  They also took a keen interest in local affairs, writing to the council over matters of concern such as the accident blackspot at the railway bridge at Otterham and the inadequacy of safety signing.


In 1965 there was great excitement as a ballot was held to choose a member to attend the garden party at Buckingham Palace.  The president Mrs Gladys Bray was the lucky one, and later that year gave a report on her trip.


In this period outings included a trip to the cinema (movie not specified) and visits to the Ambrosia Factory at Lifton and the Wonderloaf Bakery – with a supper laid on by the staff.  Food companies also sent speakers or demonstrators, including Quaker Oats, Allinson’s Flour and Cadbury’s, who were later recorded as sending boxes of chocolates to be used as prizes for the Autumn Fayre.


In the late sixties the committee was still set at 10 ladies – about half the attending membership – but in 1967 it rose to 11 because they did not want to disappoint one of 11 ladies nominated!


The WI minutes make regular references over the years to an Autumn Fayre held for funds, but more detailed minutes in 1968 reveal this was a large affair, a craft and produce show with five booked judges and classes for non-members and children.  Classes included cookery, preserves, garden produce, floral exhibits and handicrafts.


Membership and attendance had fallen steadily over the years, and in 1972 the institute discontinued one of its regular activities: the children’s Christmas outing to the pantomime, which was replaced by a small gift of pencils.  But the connection with the Old People’s Welfare Society continued, with gifts to the elderly at Christmas and the president sitting on this body as our representative.


Despite low membership numbers the WI continued to make a contribution to the local community, and in 1977 donated the name sign for Otterham & St Juliot Hall, the inscription being done at their instigation by a Mr Lewis.  The gift was made to mark the Queen’s Silver Jubilee and cost the princely sum – then – of £40.

In 1978 the institute organised a tea dance for the village, with a live band and bouncers on the door! Proceeds went to the police “safe house” at Launceston.


Some time in the 1990s the WI became dissatisfied with Otterham & St Juliot Hall, partly because they felt the hire charge was out of proportion to their membership.  Numbers had fallen drastically – at one point it was down to five.  Then in December 1993 the president Mrs Margaret Leftley suffered an accident when she slipped and fell in the hall while negotiating the dark interior to turn on the main light switch, which was then situated at the far end.  The committee wrote to the hall committee and complained, but were not satisfied with the answer they received, and from this time they began to consider an alternative venue.


For much of its history Marshgate WI had a relationship with St Lawrence Mental Hospital in Bodmin, an Edwardian hospital which closed in 2002 and is now due for demolition.  Regular tea parties with entertainment were held in the village hall, usually in March, for the hospital patients, who were bussed to Marshgate for the occasion.  In 1994 the WI books record that the party held in March 1994 was to be the last, due to low membership of the institute and also to falling patient numbers, probably due to new Government “Care in the Community” directives implemented around this time.


From June 1994 all WI meetings were held at a member’s home by turns, and I am told the membership also comprised the committee.  For some years the meetings were then held at Beryl Northcott’s home Church town Farm.


In 1996 the WI discussed suspending due to low membership.


In 2002 members voted to change their meeting venue to Tresparrett Sunday School Room, and meetings were held here from January 2003.


Not until 2003 did the minutes start to feature members’ Christian names – until then attendees were described as “Mrs Smyth” and “Mrs Wadey”!  By this stage the WI was growing in size, and by the following year the election of a committee of five  was being considered.

In February 2007 the meetings moved from the Tresparrett Methodist Sunday School Room to Otterham and St Juliot Hall, which had just improved its heating.  Meetings were held here from then on.  The time of meetings was also changed to an earlier 7pm by unanimous agreement.  Committee meetings continued to be held at members’ homes until 2010, when June Smyth became president and the custom changed to committee meetings being held at the president’s home.  The Four Corner Craft days were in full swing by this time.

In 2008 work began on the beautiful Marshgate banner, which was made as a craft project and presented to the membership in 2010.


Our website was launched on 27th July 2013.


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