Balcombe mansion recognised for its part in WI’s history

A village mansion in Balcombe has been ‘re-listed’ to celebrate its role in the history of the Women’s Institute which is currently marking its centenary.

Balcombe Place
Balcombe Place

The WI movement began in 1915 to encourage women to grow and preserve food in the face of wartime shortages and played an instrumental role in getting village halls built across the country.

And this week the Department for Culture, Media and Sport re-listed Balcombe Place in Balcombe - the home of the WI’s first chairman, Lady Gertrude Denman.

Also re-listed is the Fox Inn at Charlton, near Goodwood - the site of the first ever meeting of the WI in England - as being of historic interest - on the advice of Historic England.

The Fox Inn

Balcombe Place was home to Lady Gertrude (1884-1954), who held the post from the formation of the Federation of Women’s Institutes in 1917, until 1946.

Balcombe Place was Lady Denman’s home from 1905 until she died. The building, a country house designed by the architect Henry Clutton, was Grade II* listed for architectural reasons and has now been re-listed to reflect the strong historical association with Lady Denman.

During the Second World War, the house also became the administrative headquarters of the Women’s Land Army.

Lady Denman was active in many other areas of women’s welfare - in 1930 she helped found and became chairman of the National Birth Control - later the Family Planning Association - and from 1938 she co-ordinated the re-establishment of the Women’s Land Army, lending Balcombe Place for its use.

Balcombe Place, built in 1856 is now a care home, and has also been used as a boys’ school and hotel. It is one of four buildings which were already listed but now their historical connections to the WI have been researched and included in the list description on the National Heritage List for England.

The Fox pub hosted the first meeting of the Singleton and East Dean WI in the pub’s back room, now known as the Hat Rack Bar. The inn-keeper of The Fox was a woman and founder-member, Mrs Laishley, which may have helped make the pub a welcoming venue for Women’s Institute meetings.

The newly-opened village hall at Singleton, where the WI now meets, was at that time for the use of men only.

Now known as The Fox Goes Free, the Fox pub was listed at Grade II in 1986 but is now one of four buildings that have been re-listed to mark its historic special interest.

The Fox pub and Balcombe Place are among four buildings in England that have been re-listed. The list is managed by Historic England, on behalf of the Government. It affords special protection to the most important parts of England’s physical heritage, so that England’s history can be enjoyed by present and future generations.

Early WI meetings frequently took place in places such as schools, and private or public houses. After the war, the WI was instrumental in setting up village halls, for community activities, whilst many WIs established their own buildings, sometimes re-using existing structures; army surplus huts, for example, or Nonconformist chapels.

Culture, Media and Sport Minister, Baroness Neville-Rolfe said: “Since their first meeting in England in 1915 the WI has become a much loved British institution. I am very pleased to re-list these special places and preserve the historic significance of this extraordinary social movement. As a farmer’s daughter I am very aware that the WI was formed during the First World War encouraging women to grow and preserve food.”

Esther Godfrey, Listing Adviser at Historic England, said:”These four buildings tell the story of the formation and the development of the Women’s Institute in England from a small meeting in the back room of a pub to a thriving national institution. We are delighted to be able to celebrate the history of this significant movement on the National Heritage List for England.”

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