In researching the history of the Home Front in Pershore and the Vale, it has rapidly become clear that during World War One, the area suffered from what can only be termed… a confusion of committees!
Take, for example, the committee roster of Virginia, Viscountess Deerhurst, daughter in law to Lord Coventry of Croome. By the time she was appointed as the first Honorary President of Pershore Women’s Institute in November 1916, Virginia had been actively involved in the organisation of rural workers since the war began, as chair of the Women’s Farm Labour Sub-Committee of Worcestershire County Council. From 1918, as chair of the Central Horticultural Sub-Committee, she delegated people to encourage food production by small growers and also arranged instruction in fruit and vegetable preservation such as canning and bottling.
Her father-in-law, Lord Coventry had been appointed Lord Lieutenant of the county in 1891 and Honorary Colonel of the Worcestershire Regiment in 1900. As well as these military duties, he sat as chair on the Worcestershire War Agricultural Committee, as well as fulfilling his duties as a peer in the House of Lords. In his ‘spare’ time, he was Master of the Croome Hunt, President of the Worcestershire Rifle Club.
Membership of multiple committees was not confined to the nobility. Geoffrey Fielder Hooper was a pillar of the community in Pershore, a church warden and member of the Abbey Restoration Committee before the war. Brought up in London and educated at Marlborough, Hooper moved to Pershore in the 1890s to study fruit farming under Alderman Henry Masters of Benge Hill, Evesham. When the war broke out he, his wife and daughter lived at The Croft, on Station Road, surrounded by 28 acres of market garden.
Hooper had an eye for a business opportunity and became the inaugural President of the Co-Operative Market in 1907 until 1918. He was also Chairman of the Fruit Growers’ & Market Gardeners’ Association and on the Management Committee of the County Evening Instruction of Gardeners. He was a self-publicist seldom reluctant to put pen to paper on behalf of Pershore fruit growers. When he died in 1932, Hooper was described in the Cheltenham Chronicle on 28 May as ‘one of the largest and best employers of labour in the district’, a ‘pioneer of scientific fruit growing’ whose market garden was a model ‘of good husbandry and up-to-date methods of cultivation’. With his large house, domestic servants and agricultural employees, Hooper could be seen as representative of the wealthier market-gardeners in the district and, under his guidance, the Co-operative Market’s reputation grew:
Small growers in the district have felt the benefit. Many of them prefer to receive what they see their produce sold for (less 7½ per cent, commission) rather than to take the risks of sending to the big markets.
Cheltenham Chronicle, 29 April 1910.
And before you think that only the men were so busy creating connections, take a moment to consider the connections of the women who were elected as the first members of the Pershore WI…
Elected from the more middling, professional classes in the town, they represented a number of key groups, and included the wives of two doctors, a vet, the vicar and some of the wealthier fruit farmers. Many were already involved in civic and voluntary organisations in the town. The President, Mrs Rusher, lived with her doctor husband in a substantial house called The Paddocks on Worcester Street, whilst the role of Treasurer was allocated to the vet’s wife, Mrs Jenny Rae Lees, who lived on Bridge Street.
Committee member Mrs Phillips was the vicar’s wife and had for many years been a nurse at the Cottage Hospital. As well as helping with her husband’s ministry she was also heavily involved in running the Girl’s Friendly Society. Mrs Edith Hooper, Branch Secretary, was married to Geoffrey Hooper, mentioned above. Edith was herself involved with a number of charities including the Soldiers, Sailors and Families Association (SSAFA), which looked after the welfare of wives and families of those in the services.
We’re plan to examine this web of connections yet further over the coming months as we piece together the way in which middle class women in particular began to organise themselves towards the Vote.