Early Days

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Evelyn Suffield
Mary Burgess
Patricia Batty Shaw

Chairman Margaret Collingwood, with PlaqueEarly in 2021 the Golden Triangle Girls WI arranged a Zoom visit from the ladies of Rosie's Plaques. During the meeting, they actually made a plaque just for us! We are very grateful to Maggie (from GTG WI) who painted it so beautifully. Rosie’s Plaques were featured in the EDP when they were praised for the wonderful work they do in recognising and celebrating historic women, and below is a quote from their website https://rosiesplaques.com explaining how it all began:

"There are more than 300 heritage plaques in Norwich and only 25 recognise the lives and achievements of women.  We wanted to do something about that and so in May 2019, we staged a pop-up guerrilla art project. Undercover of darkness, and dressed as Rosie the Riveter, we erected alternative blue plaques on significant buildings in the city. The plaques remember and celebrate some of those women."

Blue Plaque PresentationFederation Chairman and Secretary were excited to meet representatives from the Golden Triangle Girls WI and Rosie’s Plaques who were honouring our first and only President of the Norfolk Federation, at our own Evelyn Suffield House.

The plaque is mounted right above the Federation sign, and hopefully will be there for all to see for many years to come.

Rosie's Blue Plaque

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Evelyn Suffield

First and last President of The Norfolk Federation of WIs
Norfolk Federation President 1919-1947
Norfolk Federation Chairman 1925-1945

There is nothing I care more for than the Women’s Institute. The more Institutes I visit the more I realise what a happy family we are’ (Lady Evelyn Suffield, Norfolk supplement to Home & Country) 

Photographed Christmas 1926

The early leaders of the WI movement were described as having outstanding talents, women of character and distinctive mind. Evelyn Suffield can certainly be included in this accolade.

Evelyn Louisa Wilson-Patten was born in London in 1870 and baptised in Westminster Abbey. She was the daughter of Capt. Hon. Eustace Wilson- Patten and Emily Constantia Taylor.

In 1896 Evelyn married Charles Harbord, 6thBaron Suffield, army officer and politician. The Morning Post reported: The bride wore a gown of the richest, ivory satin, with collar of Brussels lace, and a girdle of orange buds. A wreath of orange blossom and Brussels lace veil were worn. A wedding present of a silver centrepiece was received from the Queen.

Lady Suffield entered public life during the first World War as a member of the Women’s War Agricultural Committee helping to recruit women for the first Women’s Land Army. Through this committee, the Women’s Institute movement in Norfolk was born. Evelyn Suffield, with her outstanding personality, soon became one of the pioneers who guided the movement from small beginnings to the respected organisation that it continues to be in the 21stcentury.

A born leader, Evelyn took an interest in much of the social, and public life of North Norfolk. Described as ‘a large-hearted woman of great intellectual capacity’ she was the first woman to serve as a Norfolk County Counsellor, with a special interest in maternity and child care. Lady Suffield was County Commissioner, Norfolk Girl Guides and sat on innumerable committees including, Cromer & District Hospital and North Walsham High school. It’s hardly surprising then that the Eastern Daily Press reported that Evelyn Suffield was probably the best- known woman of her time in Norfolk.

Lady Suffield was an inspirational, and much-loved County President for nearly thirty years. As a V.C.O (WI Adviser) she travelled around the county lecturing on the WI and Public Health in the Villages. Encouraging members to work with her and with each other, and keen to bridge the class divide, as she described at the time, ‘between the labourer’s wife and the great lady’. Asking members to encourage younger women to join the WI she hoped they would be a little more tolerant if they missed a meeting or two and not be so prim and proper! Otherwise, she warned them, ‘it’ll only be us old ones left’! Known to have a great sense of humour, one member recalled Lady Suffield on a tour of inspection at the first WI Exhibition, on one stall the jam was running over an embroidered tablecloth! ‘Her eye caught sight of this unique mixture, and for the first time we heard that hearty laugh of hers, and we all joined in’!

Lady Suffield retired as the first and last President in March 1948, a resolution was passed that no further president be elected.

Dowager Lady Evelyn Suffield died at home, Harbord House, Cromer, in 1951 in her 81styear. Her two daughters, the Hon. Doris and Lettice Harbord survived her.

‘The amazing development of the movement under her guidance has confounded the prophets who, at its birth, gave it from three to five years life (By 1948 there were 225 institutes in Norfolk with 12000 member) Her wonderful powers of leadership will remain an inspiration for all time to those who loved her, and whose lives were enriched by her friendship’. (Mary L. Burgess, General Secretary, Norfolk Federation)

  • By Kim Reynolds Federation Trustee and Member of Mundesley WI January 2019
Evelyn Suffield with othersPHOTOGRAPH, date taken not known. written on reverse "Lady Suffield, Mrs Mahon, Mrs Burton Fanning"

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Mary Burgess

Federation Secretary 1918-1946

Mary Burgess in 1940

She was our first County Secretary - a position she held for thirty years. All that time she worked alongside Evelyn Suffield in an effective and harmonious partnership (as far as we know!). And yet the contrast between the two could not be greater.

Mary was the 2nd of 7 children of Edward Burgess, who was one of the colourful characters of nineteenth-century Norwich, as well as a fearless champion of the poor and oppressed. He edited and published Daylight, a weekly journal intended to expose villainy, humbug and fraud. He was often in court for libel, was publicly horsewhipped by an opponent, and another time spent 3 months in prison. He was hugely popular among the poor in Norwich and detested by his victims. Mary acted as his secretary, clerk and cashier until his death in 1911. Jam Making with Brooke WI 19th July 1930During the Great War, Mary worked as an organizer of the Women's Land Army, and in 1917 was asked by her employer, the Board of Agriculture, to inaugurate the WI in Norfolk. She and Madge Watt, over from Canada, formed the first Institute at East Runton in January 1918. Within a year there were 29 WIs and it was time to form a County Federation. Evelyn Suffield was appointed chairman, with Mary Burgess as full-time organiser and secretary.

Mary's efficiency and tireless hard work, combined with Lady Suffield's leadership and vision, were the forces that drove the remarkable expansion of the WI in Norfolk during the 1920s and right up to the second world war. She travelled ceaselessly around the county, usually in a car kindly provided by the vice-chairman's husband, Dr Burton-Fanning. We can perhaps see him as a forerunner of today's WI husbands; making himself useful, but not getting in the way.

Like Evelyn Suffield, Mary Burgess strongly believed in the comradeship between the labourer's wife and the lady of the manor, working together for the common good. In 1919 the Queen had asked her, at a meeting in Sandringham, about setting up a WI in the village and she herself became a member as soon as it was formed.

Visiting Swaffham WI in November 1946In retirement, Mary liked to remember those early days, the enthusiasm and excitement of beginning, when the newly formed WIs were filling a gap in village life, providing a place where everyone could meet on the same level, contributing whatever she could do best. She often quoted the words of Walt Whitman: I do not call one greater and one smaller; that which fills its period and place is equal to any.

Mrs Batty Shaw was a long time WI member in Norfolk Federation

A member of Barford, Wramplingham & District WI

Mrs Batty Shaw, when she was President of the Royal Norfolk Show in 1993

An extract from her obituary in the Telegraph on 17 June 2004

Later they moved to the village of Barford and it was here that Patricia Batty Shaw became involved in the Women's Institute, after attending a meeting at which she learned that the local branch, the Barford and Wramplingham Institute, was likely to close due to lack of volunteers. Spotting Patricia Batty Shaw in the audience, a visiting senior WI official took things in hand. "Here is Mrs Batty Shaw. She will be secretary.

With The Queen at Denman College Patricia Batty Shaw threw herself into the organisation with characteristic energy and verve. She served as treasurer of the Norfolk Federation and, in 1971, was appointed national treasurer. She went on to hold the posts of national chairman of education and vice-chairman, before taking over as national chairman in 1977.

Mrs Batty Shaw with the Queen at Denman College

Read more

Click here to download the History of Evelyn Suffield House

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