Helen Carey OBE DL

Helen Carey

Helen Carey OBE DL

Early years

I was born in Cheshire and grew up with the WI. My mother was a founder member of Hartford WI and on moving to Weaverham a member of Weaverham WI until her death in 1984. My twin sister, Ruth, and I frequently went to the local WI drama group plays in Weaverham, produced by our mother and also the local WI Flower Show where she won the occasional prize for her flower arrangements.

I went to Trinity College, Dublin University in 1959 to study Ancient and Modern Literature and had four marvellous years living in Ireland, going to the theatre, listening to opera, playing lacrosse for Ireland, singing, going to the occasional lecture and writing the occasional essay!

Following my marriage to Nick in 1964 we went to live in Girton village, near Cambridge, while he did a PhD in chemistry.

When did you join the WI and what interests you most?

I joined my first WI, Girton WI, in 1965 and following two years in Cambridge, a year in Canada and a year in The Netherlands, we moved back to Cheshire and I joined Whitley WI, where I’ve been a member ever since. I’ve been Secretary, Assistant Treasurer and President.

You’ll see from the above that my mother was a keen WI member. She was on the CFWI Executive for many years and was the first Editor of Cheshire News (I followed in her footsteps and for about five years wrote the Round the Institutes column before becoming Editor in 1984.) Both my mother’s involvement in the WI and my father’s involvement with the Cheshire Wildlife Trust (he was Chairman from the early sixties to the mid seventies) strongly influenced me and I’ve always been passionate about our countryside, landscape and environment and the importance of being active in the local community.

The WI has provided an opportunity for me to follow these passions in, I hope, a proactive and productive way at local, county and national level. Without sounding too pompous, I’ve always thought of the WI as an organisation that, over the past 100 years, has educated (in the broadest sense of the word) women to enable them to play an active role in civil society.

Education in the WI is almost by osmosis and we absorb new skills and new facts almost without noticing. Although most craft skills still remain a mystery to me, I am full of admiration for the skills of fellow members and it is very important that we keep traditional craft skills alive and develop new ones for the 21st century.

If I was challenged as to what interests me most I would have to say that it is the opportunity the WI gives us, as women, to speak out and to use our collective voice, agreed through our democratic resolution process. I don’t know of any other organisation that can say, with certainty, which issues concern their members. We can. Our mandates give us the confidence to work together to make a difference in our local communities.

What offices have you held in Cheshire and Nationally?

In 1984 I was elected to the CFWI Executive (now called the Board of Trustees) and also became a Voluntary County Organiser (now called WI Adviser). I was elected a Vice President in 1985, Treasurer in 1986 and then Chairman of the Cheshire federation from 1991 – 1995. I was elected onto the NFWI Board in 1993 and was elected national chairman in 1999. I held this office for four years.

The WI opens doors. Over the years I’ve represented the WI as a Council member of the National Trust, been a Council member of the RSPB, a Director of The Waterways Trust and Vice Chairman of Keep Britain Tidy and this has given me many opportunities to promote the WI and to form new working partnerships with other national bodies. I’m a great believer in the importance of partnership working with similarly minded organisations at all levels – local, county and national as we can all benefit from each other.

2000 Prime Minister, Tony Blair with Helen Carey

2000 Prime Minister, Tony Blair with Helen Carey

What do you enjoy about being a member of the WI?

One of the leading characters in the film Calendar Girls says that the WI is all about “enlightenment, fun and friendship” and I enjoy all aspects of the WI whether it’s listening to a good speaker, working on a project with local primary school children, singing in the Weaver Valley WI Choir or enjoying a cup of tea with fellow members. The WI is also wonderfully supportive to fellow members both, in times of sorrow or joy.

Being a Chairman of any organisation always has its ups and downs. You have to appreciate that you can’t be all things to all people and you won’t always be popular. Your role is to fulfil the aims of the organisation in a financially viable way – but you have to try and do this internally, in a way that members will find interesting, stimulating and enjoyable and externally, as an ambassador for the organisation, promoting it in a way that attracts new members and new opportunities.

Being a WI Adviser has been, and still is, one of the most enjoyable roles, and forming and starting up new WIs is most exciting. It is wonderful to see so many new members in the county in both new WIs and long standing WIs.

When I was national chairman I liked the thought that wherever I went throughout England, Wales and the Islands there would be members – part of the WI family – who shared common goals, common values and common ideals. We might all be very different and the WI might mean different things to each of us but we would all have the WI – and what it stood for – in common.

What makes you cross?

I rarely get cross but I do get irritated with two phrases which are often said – as excuses for not making necessary changes to the way we do things in the WI. These are “Oh, we always do it like this” and “we tried that once and it didn’t work”. Although our constitution is as relevant today as it was when it was first written – and it has changed very little over the hundred years – it is important that we adapt to the changing lives of women without ‘throwing the baby out with the bath water’.

Is there one achievement you can look at during the last 100 years and think – we did that?

I can’t single out just one achievement that stands out over the 100 years and members should be proud of all that the WI has achieved, however perhaps several were very significant.

The formation of the first WI in Anglesey in 1915 during World War1, before women had the vote, was a tremendous achievement in itself.

Others include:

  • the formation of WI Markets in 1932 at a time of economic depression
  • the importance the government placed on the views of WI members responding to a consultation on Reconstruction after the War, during World War 11
  • the opening of Denman College in 1948
  • the formation of Keep Britain Tidy as a result of a WI resolution on litter in 1954
  • the amazing response to the Freedom from Hunger Campaign in the ‘60s

The events that I remember as particularly memorable over the past few years are:

The Prime Minister’s visit to our Triennial Meeting at Wembley. This resulted in major publicity for the organisation which provided us with the opportunity to remind people about what the aims and objectives of the organisation were.

  • The NFWI/Tatton Garden at the Royal Horticultural Show at Tatton in 2005 which was awarded a Gold Medal. This was due to the untiring efforts of Cheshire members, working with Tatton Head of Gardens, Sam Youd and his team, in very hot weather, pricking out plants, planting out, tying up and watering for hours on end in a very hot summer.
  • Singing in the Liverpool Echo Arena with the Weaver Valley WI Choir at the NFWI AGM in June 2008

Tell us about researching your book/s?

 As a trainee Voluntary County Organiser (WI Adviser) in 1984 I was encouraged to study the history of the WI and from then on I was hooked. Our story over the past hundred years is fascinating and inspirational.

I’m not sure why I wanted to write a book except that I felt that there was a gap to be filled with a small, affordable, accessible book about the WI that would be a useful promotional aid both to members and non-members.

So in the summer of 2003 I started reading every book I could find on the WI. I already had quite a few from my own and my mother’s collections and I begged, borrowed or bought the rest. I read through national annual reports and old copies of Home & Country (now WI Life) and asked federations for details from their past history. I wanted to make sure that every federation was included at least once in my book.

I could have gone on reading and making notes for ever. Each year had it’s own page(s) as I had decided to have a page for every year and that the book would be 144 pages of A5 size. In discussion with my friend, Jen Darling, who was going to publish the book for me, it was decided that each page could only contain 250 words so there was quite a lot of sifting to do.

The title proved a challenge until my daughter-in-law came up with the suggestion of Bows of Burning Gold. Then there was the question of the cover. I wanted it to be bright and cheerful and I wanted a pathway leading to a future which broadens our horizons and provides a wide range of opportunities for members. Before I’d even talked to him about what I wanted, a wonderful young man from Cheshire County Council Graphics Department looked at our national website and came up with what I thought was the perfect solution.

Bows of burning gold

I’m still fascinated by the social history that makes up the story of the WI and am looking through our national annual reports to highlight events for the archive section of the national website. I’ve reached 1970 – so still some years to go!

In 1995 I edited and compiled a book, published by the Cheshire Federation of Women’s Institutes and Jen Darling, called Orchards of Cheshire, written with partner organisations to celebrate the 75th anniversary of CFWI and as our contribution to European Nature Conservation Year.

What do you hope we will achieve in the next 100 years?

I hope the WI will continue to provide ‘enlightenment, fun and friendship’ for all its members and will continue to play a leading role in making a difference in our local communities and in the wider world, nationally and internationally, I hope the WI will continue to be regarded as the voice of reason, common sense and integrity.

Helen in one of the judges for the Great British Menu which is being shown on BBC TV later this month. 

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