Juanita used the WI to empower women

Honiton branch once had over 260 members.

Reports of a dramatic increase in membership of the Women’s Institute should come as no surprise to people in Honiton.

The WI has been a powerful force for good in the town since 1924 when former suffragette Juanita Maxwell Phillips help ed found it, becoming president and county chairman.

Decades later, in 1951, 100 WI members celebrated their success at a garden party in the grounds of Mrs Phillips’ home, Awliscombe House.

The event was recorded in an historic photograph, provided for a forthcoming book, on Juanita’s life by David Thomas, whose mother, Kathleen, appears in the picture.

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Viva Juanita! will be launched at Honiton’s Methodist Church on September 12 when the photograph, with other material, will be exhibited.

Author Dr Julia Neville told the Midweek Herald: “Honiton WI was established on Thursday, January 17, 1924, and soon became the biggest women’s organisation in East Devon .

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“Its spirit was one of sisterhood – bringing together women from all sections of local town and rural society to learn together and enjoy themselves.

“It was a hit, with over a hundred women joining immediately and membership rising to over 260 within the first two years, over half of whom attended an annual supper at the drill hall.

“This was remarkable for a town of only 3,000.

“The book mentions Mrs Joan Cox, one of those who still remembers Mrs Phillips.

“Joan was a junior member of Honiton WI . The Awliscombe House photo vividly captures the sisterhood and enthusiasm of 100 WI members celebrating with Juanita, who had just received the OBE.”

Dr Neville said: “Meetings of Honiton WI were often attended by more than 100 people and were a successful blend of education, fund-raising and fun; under Mrs Phillips’ leadership, Honiton had a strong emphasis on drama, song and dance.

“She also acted as Devon WI drama co-ordinator and, though she took a back seat when Honiton WI entered WI drama competitions, she regularly directed local WI members in plays, pageants and tableaux, including a large Victorian Cabaret at her Little Theatre in 1936 and an ambitious pageant in July 1937, when the WI (and friends) put on Scenes from Honiton’s History – with a particular emphasis on the role of women.

“Lady Evelyn Courtenay, daughter of the Rector and future Earl of Devon, played her ancestor, Isabella de Fortibus, in a scene re-enacting her settlement of boundaries between Gittisham and Farway at Ring-in-the Mire.

“There was also a scene of Nelson’s visit and his gift of his own medal to Mrs Westcott, the mother of Captain Westcott, who died in the battle of the Nile.

“Mrs Salter, Honiton’s oldest lace-maker, took part in a sketch showing Flemish refugee lacemakers teaching Honitonians the skills of lace-making and Juanita, herself, not only played Queen Elizabeth visiting her physician at Marwood House, but brought Honiton’s history right up-to-date in the final scene – her own election as the Westcountry’s first woman mayor.”

Honiton Senior Voice (formerly Honiton Senior Council), which is organising the coffee morning and book launch, plans to show Awliscombe pictures and images of pageants involving WI members in costumes ordered by Juanita, who also performed on the London stage.

Tony Simpson, who has researched Juanita’s life in Honiton, said: “When local people see these photos and the various costumes they may wonder whether such ambitious events could be staged today.’”

Devon historian and author Todd Gray has described Viva Juanita! as “a superb achievement”.

He said: “Mrs Phillips was denied the right to vote because of her gender and eventually played a leading role in the political life of Devon .

“Mrs Phillips now has , finally, the book she so richly deserves. This well-researched and lightly written biography will re-introduce this pioneering former suffragette to 21st century Devon .

“I recommend this book and congratulate Dr Neville on a superb achievement.”

The book will be launched at 10.30am on Wednesday, September 12, in the presence of the youngest ever Mayor of Honiton, Councillor David Foster.

Dr Neville will speak about writing the book at the event and will later sign copies at Honiton Library from 2.15pm.

Copies can be ordered from Honiton TIC.

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