Originally founded in Canada in 1897 for improving women's education in domestic science, the first Institute introduced into the UK was to Anglesey in 1915, and the first county federation (Sussex) in 1917. Written off as a wartime experiment that would not last, their determination to better the lives of rural communities led to rapid expansion.
The Yalding branch of the W.I. started life during the second world war and its early record books reflect the preoccupations of wartime life. The first meeting of Yalding, Benover and Laddingford Women's Institute was on May 20th 1943 at Lees Lodge, with president Rebecca St John Manser in the chair, and among the minutes is one on refreshments: “It was decided to ask members to bring one teaspoon of tea and one item of food and pool what was brought”.
Other notes from the first year include the need to make willow baskets for farmers harvesting potatoes, sewing soft toys for a Prisoner of War sale, and a suggestion that in writing to a WI `letter friend' in America `something about the Battle of Britain, of which Yalding saw so much' would be very interesting. In July 1944 £ 28 was allocated from funds - £ 15 invested in 3% Defence Bonds, £ 3 in National Savings Certificates and £ 10 given to the Yalding Fighting Force Fund. In 1945 the monthly competition was for `the best wartime cake'. The Produce Guild was active and an exchange visit was organised with Dutch women.
Rationing was still to the fore in January 1950: “Mrs Reeves had obtained a permit from the Food Office for tea, sugar, etc. Twopence a cup to cover the cost. Fats to be saved for special occasions and Mrs Reeves kindly offered to continue giving milk.....” Classes were offered in “make do and mend”.
Right from the early days, when as founder member Jean Cheesman still remembers everyone wore hats to meetings, the WI was prominent in the village. There were bring-and -buy sales at Cheveney “by kind permission of Air Vice Marshall and Mrs Borton”, produce stalls at village fetes, a clock presented to Cleaves Hall to mark the Queen's coronation in 1953 and new curtains for the village hall in 1966. The WI met mainly in Cleaves for many years, switching to the village hall in January 1958 when it was first built.
Drama was a major feature from the beginning, with plays staged in Laddingford as well as Yalding to raise funds and 12 members acting in a WI mega-pageant at Linton in 1950, where they presented “an interlude - hop-picking in the time of Charles II” written and produced by Mrs Ordish. The high spot dramatically was probably a one act version of Madam Butterfly produced by Greta Daniels in the 1980's that featured in the national press and on radio.
Down the years to the present day, Yalding WI has helped others. There were produce hampers filled with fruit and vegetables for the ophthalmology department at Maidstone Hospital, annual tea parties for a group of residents from an old people's home at Flimwell, “old folks parties” in Yalding and fund-raising for World Refugee Year and Freedom from Hunger.