Founding President Liz Hughes, describes the early months of Camberley WI:
I have always thought the WI was up my street, I like doing crafty type things, cooking, and belonging to a group. But I’ve been put off by the conception that WIs were for the elderly. How old would I have to be? 70? I really can’t wait that long. I kept reading about young girls starting them up in Kensington and places, I’m hardly in that demographic but it sounded fun. I began investigating local WIs, it seems there are plenty in the surrounding areas but not one in Camberley. How odd. Perhaps I could start one, and try to introduce a younger element, but with everyone welcome. I mentioned it at my Book Group and everyone was so enthusiastic it gave me the impetus to take it further. Never mind that my only experience of WIs has been Calendar Girls and Jam and Jerusalem!
Have eventually spoken to a WI Advisor who wants to come and talk to us before we start. In the interests of research, I visited three local WIs to see what they were like. All three were very different and helped shaped my ideas of what I'd like to achieve with a future Camberley WI. Next step was an enormous amount of research into halls for hire. So expensive! Am not sure how the finances square up, for the first year you can keep all your subs (and the WI will pay for the first two hall hires), the second year you have to give half your subs to the Federation and another percentage to the local Federation - there does seem to be lots of levels of hierarchy in the WI, wonder what they all do?. One of my new found committee of three friends pondered the idea of just starting our own group and not involving the WI at all! I need a treasurer as cannot work out the ratio of members to cost of hall hire to amount of fund raising required. No-one stepping forward for that role!
Have settled on a hall! Centrally located, holds 30 people (if we get 30 to the first meeting I would be delighted) has tea making facilities and its own cups! (not a given, I have discovered, in local hall hire). The date is the 2nd week of January, inconveniently the date of my daughter and grandson’s birthdays, hope their celebration is saved for the following weekend! Now for the publicity.
Things are rushing along. I’m promoting it as a 21st century WI, knitting is all the rage, baking is cool again etc. I’d love to do some events that traditional WIs wouldn’t consider. I want to include younger women, women with young children, women who go out to work, as well as people my own age. This WI wants to move forward from its reputation as a group of retired women. Ideally we want a good mix, young and old. We can all learn from each other. Posters in various shops that would allow it (those that wouldn’t now have a chalk mark outside!), Longacres was a bit of a triumph. All the parish magazines are covered. I am starting to get a few emails from people wanting to know more. I got in touch with the WI that Kirstie Allsopp supposedly joined for her Channel 4 ‘Home Made Britain’ TV series. I had such a helpful email back which gave me loads of advice which I shall follow (and a great raffle idea). What is so encouraging is people’s reaction to the concept, very positive. Now I’m worried. What if masses of people turn up to my room that holds 30! And more important, if we get a lot of members we need a proper hall for events such as dancing. Start re-researching halls!
Flyers are printed and handed out to anyone and everyone.
But everything stops for Christmas.
We’re on countdown to the first meeting! Am getting emails from people who have seen the poster or been on the Surrey Heath website, it’s growing. Am now very concerned that more people may turn up than the room can hold (hope so!) so am able to change the room to one that holds 50 people. For future meetings start seriously chasing around all the halls for rent that I viewed in November. My first choice has no availability, other two are possible but have drawbacks. Why is there such a shortage of hall availability in Camberley?
5 days to go: Hurray! From exasperation to exultation in one day! Council owned Ian Goodchild Centre can offer me the ideal venue on the nights we want. Provisionally book it just in case we get a good turn out on Wednesday. My search for free refreshments on the opening night finally comes up trumps. After complete failure in the small Sainsburys in the town centre, (the ‘manager’ didn’t know what a WI was and didn’t have the courtesy to phone me as promised), Waitrose managed an offer of some biscuits (this is a modern WI!) which I managed to convert to four bottles of wine, the lovely PR lady in the large out-of-town Sainsbury’s told me she was a modern woman too (after I’d given her my vision for the WI) and offered 12 bottles of wine (chilled!), cheese and biscuits and loan of glasses! Hurray for Sainsbury’s putting enlightened women in charge. Also we get a mention on front page of the Camberley News.
Pandemonium, chaos, mayhem, wonderfully invigorating and exciting. 170 people turned up to the meeting! Apparently the road outside was blocked with people trying to park, they were queuing up the road to get in. We had nowhere near enough space, even using both the rooms. They were standing, sitting on the floor, I’m sure half of them never even saw the wine. But what a turnout! And what a complete surprise. I was thrilled that so many were young, just what I had wanted. I gave my speech, and vision for the future twice, once in each room. The two WI Advisors who were there to help set us up stoically continued their tasks, but I don’t think they’d seen anything like it before.
Everyone was friendly and wanted to help, I think we all had the notion that this was something special and we were all in at the beginning. Let’s hope we can deliver. The Camberley News ran a piece headlined “Hall overrun with Women”!
A committee was quickly set up from volunteers and those that I noticed had shown initiative at the meeting, and we planned our schedule for the year. Completely bogged down with application forms and cheques and within a week we closed the books to new members at 150. I am keeping a Waiting List, though there is not a lot of point being on the waiting list until a year is up and we can see how many people sign up for the second year. My hope is that if it becomes long enough, someone brave will step forward and offer to open a second WI. Meanwhile our committee is so enthusiastic and can’t wait to get started on our first year. Our members are aged 28 to 78 and none of them realised they were searching for something until they found the WI!
Our first proper meeting. This hall we have now booked - the Ian Goodchild Centre - which looked vast when we went to see it, empty but for a few chairs, is now full up with over 130 chairs and looks TINY! Where has all the space gone?
We rush around organising the cakes, tables and chairs as people start arriving. Soon they are queuing up three deep to have their names checked on the register, hand in their £1 and write their name on a sticky label. It all takes so much longer than anticipated and we don’t start until 7.40pm. I grapple with microphone technique but at least people at the back can hear. My ‘talk’ seems to be greeted with amusement, happy to be the comedy turn of the evening!
Annie Hunt - so nervous she says she had 2 G&Ts before coming out - gives an excellent talk on How To Buy and Sell On eBay in spite of the power point being a blur and quite unreadable. She apparently buys and sells everything on eBay and delivers a confident and informative talk.
Elizabeth Cutting, who a year ago set up Camberley Mummies Facebook page which now has 1000 participants, is quivering with nerves before delivering a short instruction on how to find our Facebook page. Public speaking, in whatever form or length, is nerve wracking, but confidence grows with practice. We should all be having a go at it.
The interval/half time/refreshment period (what shall we call it?) goes swimmingly thanks to the wonderful supply of cakes that the committee has made. A hard act to follow!
Then we attempt to describe the concept of sub-groups.....time has marched on alarmingly, no one seems to quite understand what we had in mind. But it does get people talking to each other. Rethink for next month.
Everyone was so enthusiastic, so friendly, so appreciative. Someone described it as a great big reunion as they met people they hadn’t seen for years.
We may be far larger than we thought we would ever be, but it’s a great feeling to have created something that looks as though it will work.