Stuart Macbeth talks to a Women’s Institute stalwart who recently received an MBE

Barbara Gray was awarded an MBE in the 2016 New Year Honours list in recognition of her outstanding voluntary services to the community in Oxfordshire, achieved through tireless work in the Women’s Institute.

Now aged 84 and a resident of Summertown, Barbara has been a WI member for more than half a century, spending 40 years as an adviser and 30 as a trustee. She has chaired many WI committees in her time, as well as the Oxfordshire WI Federation, and has formed more than 20 new branches within the county.

Barbara has also helped to ensure that the WI meets the challenges of the 21st century, with exceptional achievements including the opening of WI branches in less privileged areas such as Blackbird Leys.

Barbara attended Summertown Primary School and St Juliana’s Convent in Begbroke after moving to Oxford from Birmingham at the age of six. Her family relocated when her father, who was previously employed in the coal trade, found work here. She went on to read geography at University College London in 1950, and gained teacher training qualifications at Liverpool University in 1954.

By 1961, she was married and working as a teacher at Begbroke Primary School.

A chance conversation led to her attending her first WI meeting.

“I had very recently moved back to Begbroke with my husband and daughters. The girl who lived opposite us went to the WI meetings, and one day she said ‘why don’t you come along?’. So I did.

“I liked meeting other locals from around the village. I enjoyed the companionship and all the fun we had. There were good talks and demonstrations, and I was really interested in cookery so all of the cookery classes at the WI really appealed to me.”

Barbara recalls that she was never the type to squander long hours in the village pub, or sign up for the village bowls team. By contrast, involvement with the WI seemed the ideal pursuit for a young, married mother living in a small community.

“At my very first meeting I was asked by the others what sort of activities I enjoyed. Being young and naive, I replied that I enjoyed doing everything!

“Not long after I went on to join the committee, and was made president. Then, while I was president a letter arrived from the county branch saying they needed committee members, so that’s how I came to be involved at county level.”

The WI celebrated its centenary in 2015, and remains the largest women’s organisation in the UK. At its peak, the institute’s members numbered almost half a million. But through the 1970s and 1980s membership was in sharp decline.

“I think the WI went through a period of being looked down on as being a little bit elderly and special,” Barbara admits. “But more recently, young people, who have missed out on things like cookery and crafts in school, are realising these are talents that they want to develop too. At the WI, we’re involved in anything which enriches education.

“You can get involved with crafts such as patchwork embroidery, painting, and silver jewellery making. You can enjoy cooking. We also offer classes in garden design, encourage the enjoyment of country houses, furniture and art, and run music appreciation courses.”

“Most of all,” she intones, “the WI gives women a chance to be themselves. When you come along you aren’t there to act as anybody’s wife, or mother. You are there for your own enjoyment, to make friends and have fun. I’m very proud of what the WI has to offer.”

In recent years there has been a huge resurgence in membership of the WI, thanks in part to the ongoing enthusiasm of volunteers like Barbara.

“Nationally, we are now approaching the quarter of a million mark,” she beams. “The WI still has a presence in rural areas, but now we’re also establishing ourselves with branches in urban communities too.”

There are currently more than 140 branches of the WI in Oxfordshire, including those established by Barbara herself, and membership covers all ages and backgrounds.

“Our youngest member in Oxfordshire is 16 and the eldest is a lady, originally from Dorchester-on-Thames, who has just turned 101.”

Barbara ranks her years as chairwoman of the Oxfordshire country branch among the highlights of her WI career. And she is also keen to highlight the WI’s less well known successes as a campaigning organisation.

“I’m not the marching type, but I have supported the WI when it speaks out on issues that affect women.

“In the earlier days it was opportunities in education, and equal pay. Other issues have been promoting regular breast cancer screening for women, opportunities for girls in school and for people in villages. The WI has success in anything it sets out to do.”

Barbara continued to work as a primary schoolteacher until her retirement in 1996. Her two daughters are now aged 57 and 52, and she also has twin boys, now at the grand old age of 47.

Barbara concedes that, half a century ago, she was lucky to be able to get actively involved, as her husband took time to look after their children while she went to meetings.

Barbara remains humble about her achievements, especially when discussing her recent MBE.

“I was really amazed, and very honoured,” she smiles bashfully. “I’m just so happy to be one of the few hundreds of people who have the opportunity to be rewarded with the medal.”

Although Barbara stepped down as a WI adviser at the end of last year, she keeps active as a member of the Wolvercote branch.

“I see a great future for the Women’s Institute,” she concludes proudly.

“I see a renewed interest in everything we have on offer for new members who join. There are the craft skills, there are the cookery skills. There is all the campaigning we do.

“We’ll enjoy another 100 years without any bother. I’m only sad that I won’t be here to enjoy it.”