Comfortably in control

Amy Willcock is passionate about the Women’s Institute’s aims and objectives. So why has the WI not embraced her youth and enthusiasm? Rosalind Whistance meets the woman at the eye of a storm.

Amy Willcock is in her element. Microphone in hand, she is striding across the field of the Yarmouth Women’s Institute fete, geeing up the sauntering punters to roll the coin, race a ferret or throw an egg. She is comfortably in control. It is busy: despite the apocalyptic weather forecast people have turned out in high numbers. Perhaps they have come because of the unexpected sunshine, but could it be that some are here to glimpse a notorious woman?

Depending on your point of view, Amy Willcock is the most exciting thing to happen to the Women’s Institute since a group in Yorkshire got their kit off and sold calendars for charity: or she is a pariah, an infidel who holds in contempt everything the WI stands for. Since the screening of a television programme in June about the setting up in 2006 of the Yarmouth branch of the WI she has become notorious far beyond the Island’s perimeters. But it is Islanders who are her most vocal, and vicious, critics.

In the letters page of the local paper, one correspondent suggests she gets the next ferry off the Island and doesn’t come back. Another suggests her use of ‘the four-letter word’ was for shock value. “That’s part of my language. I am sorry if I offended, but I’m not going to apologise for using it.” As she reads, the president draws on her copious arsenal of facial expressions: amusement, incredulity, but essentially bafflement.

Amy Willcock is evangelical about the Women’s Institute. She is passionate about its objectives. Yet she has come smack bang up against women who are, yes, passionate about the Women’s Institute. “The reason I chose to start a WI rather than some other social group for women is its stated purpose, called the WI vision: to make an impact in their communities, to influence local, national and world issues, and to learn new and traditional skills. Out of that, friendships arise but that is not the core purpose. Slowly, over the years, what we’re left with is a group for older women to get together and have tea. That’s the problem with the WI now. There’s nothing wrong with tea and chat – but it’s not what the WI is about.

“That is what is forgotten about: I think that’s why people have taken umbrage about what I’ve said: because I’ve exploded their little cliques, maybe.”

And people have certainly taken umbrage. The BBC’s The Hissing of the Summer Lawns followed Amy’s foray into becoming part of this 90-year-old institution: for the whirlwind way in which she and her committee have found the practices of Island WIs wanting.

The Island’s WI members had formed opinions about the Yarmouth branch and its president long before the film went out, of course. It was reported that they had cancelled the forthcoming Christmas fair in Newport due to lack of response by the membership. “We needed 15 stalls in St Thomas’s church and it seemed we’d only manage six. If you walk in and see six stalls, it is not a Christmas fair! We changed the emphasis – it was to be a coffee morning with shopping opportunities. But once it was reported cancelled, the federation decided to take it over.”

Yarmouth branch had also seriously clashed with their ‘WI Adviser’, someone charged with overseeing a new branch and its activities.

So why did this young woman, a successful cookery writer, married to the proprietor of a well known hotel/restaurant, mother of two, choose of all things to start a WI branch? “Well certainly not just to be on television, as has been suggested” Amy says archly, adding: “People on the Island are weird!”

“I expected about 15 for the first meeting. We got over 50. At the formation meeting I thought, well, maybe half will turn up. And we got 60. It just snowballed from there. Which shows there’s a real need in our community for women to get together and form a group.”

Amy Willcock clearly likes to do things in the way she thinks best, but it is not that alone that has got her into trouble. Her unguarded remarks, filmed, about her fellow delegates’ hair and clothing – “natural colour and unnatural fibres” – and quips that she is the only delegate wearing a thong display a humorous tendency to open her mouth and put her foot in it.

But nobody could doubt her passion for the WI campaigns. “The WI was the first girl power, campaigning about venereal disease in 1922.” She praises the Federations’ organisation of the Great Milk Debate. “Sadly, less than 50 members turned up. Pure apathy. When we put on our own great milk debate it was standing room only.”

Amy insists Yarmouth branch has to be a “stickler when it comes to the WI constitution. We are lily white,” she says. Their meetings follow the traditional format, including a monthly competition and a speaker – the choice of which has not been without controversy.

“When we had a barrister talking on divorce some women didn’t come because their husbands didn’t want them to! This is 2006 for goodness sake! Why did we fight for the right to vote?!”

Yet for her critics that was one of a series of topics that just underlined the alien nature of Amy’s group. A top eye surgeon came to talk about eyelifts. A letter in the local press said “Cosmetic surgery costs a lot of money,” and suggests “if Mrs Willcock did her homework she would realise wages on the Island were not high”.

Money underlies the chasm between Amy and her committee and the organisation they have joined. On the film they visit neighbouring Headon Hill branch: the ladies who lunch visit the women that do. When she invites the group to pay £35 to attend Yarmouth’s fundraiser, the ladies of Headon Hill visibly blanch. That this funds a champagne reception and a sought-after speaker only compounds the impression that in the eyes of other branches, Amy’s crew might just as well have beamed down from Mars.

Good speakers cost money, something Amy is unrepentant about. “Knowledge is power, that’s the crux of what the WI is about.” And she deflects criticism of the venue for their meetings, the Yacht Club, which is considered elitist and presumed expensive. “I know we pay less than a group pays for a church hall in West Sussex. We pay the same rate as do the Country Dancing Club and the Wine Club, and quite a few members stay for supper afterwards, which is a spin-off for the club.”

But thinking in pounds not pence has some unsung benefits. When the Isle of Wight Federation was given £700 for the branch with most increased membership it opted to give each member £2. Amy looks baffled: “You can’t even buy a magazine with that!” she snorts, “and writing receipts for 140 members would practically be a rainforest! So we voted to give it to St Mary’s Applegate breast cancer nurses.”

When a speaker from Magimix donated four £800 machines they were raffled off, and the money raised, £83, paid the cost of sending 93 jumpers, knitted by members for Aids orphans, to Africa. They also raised over £1,000 in three weeks for a breast node probe for St Mary’s. “We don’t shout about giving to charity, we just get on with it.”

The fete has been a great success, a happy mix of old-fashioned stalls and games – including an egg-throwing competition which might give health ‘n’ safety the jitters – a band, colourful Irish dancers – and traditionally irresistible cakes. It raised £3,000.

Yet many grumble about paying £2 just to get in. One woman, watching her with her microphone, is heard to mutter “Oh keep your mouth shut for once!” Another openly refuses to believe her when she says it is not her car blocking others in. It is as if the recent publicity has deemed it open season on Mrs Willcock.

“I don’t have a small-minded mentality so I don’t understand how it happens,” she says, “but it hasn’t worried me. That sounds uncaring, but I am genuinely shocked at how people don’t listen to what you say and how judgemental they are. They are totally ill-informed. I have been attacked personally, but I never attacked anyone personally: I criticised the WI as an institution.”

She relishes that Yarmouth, the smallest town in Britain, now has the largest branch of the WI. “Our meetings are fun. The worst thing you can do at one of our meetings is be boring,” Amy says. “If they are we shout ‘boring!’”

Might not a shy person, new to the group, find this a bit much? Would she come again? “I don’t know. If you just pay up and come and sit there, well maybe that’s why you haven’t got any friends!” she jokes. “We always meet and greet people and introduce them to someone.”

The question is, can Yarmouth keep up its momentum when Amy steps down as president in November. “Oh, we’re big enough, and we’ve got great people on our committee.”

And despite it all, the televised clash between Amy’s fierce love of the WI and that of the rest of the Island, she has been asked to serve on the National Executive – to advise on growing membership. And this, surely, vindicates her in her belief “that we are the real WI enthusiasts, the reason the WI started”.