On a midweek afternoon every January, the late Queen could be found sitting around a card table in a village hall pouring tea for three other women of a certain age.
She was there as the President of the Sandringham branch of the Women’s Institute and this first meeting of the year was always a fixture on her calendar.
Elizabeth was following in the footsteps of her mother and grandmother, Queen Mary, who had founded the branch in 1919 for the local community, mostly the wives and daughters of Sandringham estate workers.
Queen Elizabeth and her mother joke with photographers as they join the ladies of the Sandringham WI in 1974 – and find the entrance surrounded by beer kegs and crates of empty bottles. ‘I hope you’re not taking pictures of us standing by the empties,’ said The Queen
Queen Elizabeth II, the Queen Mother and Princess Margaret arrive at Sandringham WI
Queen Elizabeth attends fete held by Hertfordshire Womens Institutes at Knebworth House in 1949
Elizabeth II then became the branch president having been a member since February 1943 when she accompanied her mother and sister to the WI.
They listened to Mrs Sam Peel give a talk called ‘Post-war Planning’ and looked at the entries in the ‘Something new, from something old’ competition.
As Princess Elizabeth and, later as monarch, Elizabeth paid her subscription fee, starting at a shilling a year.
A more useful financial aid came from her annual raffle prize.
Each year the Vice-President would write separate letters to Elizabeth and her mother asking if they would care to donate something.
They always sent something of quality – a cut glass decanter, a barometer, a clock or a set of silver spoons. The lucky winner not only received a gift from Sandringham House but an accompanying card proclaiming ‘given by The Queen.’
This helpfully added to the provenance and each year ticket sales went through the roof.
The meetings have usually held at West Newton Village Hall, a two-minute limousine drive from Sandringham House.
There was one notable exception in January 1974. Edward Heath’s government had rationed electricity following an industrial dispute with coal miners which would eventually bring about the downfall of his ministry.
With no power at the Village Hall, the Institute relocated to the nearby Sandringham Club, a bigger venue that would provide more natural light.
With an average age of 80 the members had enough trouble putting out chairs and table without also clearing the front of the club where a healthy supply of empty beer barrels and bottles in crates neatly framed the entrance.
The Queen and her mother took one look and roared with laughter. Turning to the photographers the younger Elizabeth joked: ‘I hope you’re not taking pictures of us standing by the empties,’ which, needless to say, they were.
In 2018 there was another power cut. The committee contacted the House to inform the Queen’s private secretary and he reported that if the meeting was able to go ahead, Her Majesty would still attend.
Once again she took it in good spirit and told the members she couldn’t really see them in the dark and that there was less light inside the hall than outside in the car park. King’s Lynn police came up trumps by providing urns of hot water so at least the traditional tea could go ahead.
Each of the royal meetings followed a traditional format. After the National Anthem the Queen would listen to the minutes of the last meeting and sign them off.
She then presented various prizes to competition winners and, occasionally pose for a group photograph if it was an anniversary year.
And then the fun started. The non-royal members usually performed a play, perhaps Cinderella or Dick Turpin, or something cobbled together by the ladies themselves.
The Queen Mother gives us an inkling of the royal guests’ delight in these performances in a wartime letter to her brother in law, the Duke of Kent.
The Institute put on a special patriotic tableaux.
‘If only you could see them,’ she wrote. ‘Dear Mrs Way, as Neptune, glaring furiously through a tangle of grey hair and seaweed, and Miss Burroughs (the Verger’s daughter) as Britannia were HEAVEN.
‘The words were spoken by Mrs Fuller’s cook, who was draped in the Union Jack, and it was all perfect.’
Then there was a talk given by a visitor. Many of the early ones verge the esoteric and there is no record of the Queen Mum’s reaction to Mrs Waddington’s lecture on herbs, Mrs Forman’s 40 minutes on ‘Haunted East Anglia, Mrs Thompson on members of her family who had become well known artists and writers, or Les Kershaw’s account of his struggles to become an actor which ended when he got a bit part in a West End show in 1938.
She did react positively to the talk by Mrs Love from Spalding on ‘how to make ornamental birds, lamps and jewellery out of shells.’
She apparently admired the latter’s Cutty Sark made out of crustaceans and, after a demonstration by Mrs Fell, said she’d found machine embroidery ‘most exciting’ and surely easier than the hand-done version.
As the decades passed, the committee upped its game and invited household names who would be a safe pair of hands in such an intimate setting.
Newsreader Robert Dougall was an early offering in 1970. Then there was celebrity gardener Alan Titchmarsh who spoke before the Queen in 1999. When they met again a few months later when she presented him with his MBE she recalled: ‘you’ve given a lot of ladies a lot of pleasure,’ which he’s often said he’d like on his gravestone.
In 2017, royal historian Lucy Worsley, gave a talk on Jane Austen to mark the bicentenary of the author’s death.
She later commented that she was going to begin her speech by saying that Austen was the first woman to be portrayed on a banknote, until she suddenly membered that Austen was the second woman and the first would be sitting on the front row.
Two years later the Queen took part in a live game based on the TV quiz show Pointless when presenter Alexander Armstrong visited the Sandringham branch.
The ladies were divided in to two teams with Her Majesty captaining one and Vice President Yvonne Brown heading the other.
The royal team won three out of five games and Armstrong later said the Queen answered some of the questions herself and had ‘some deft, silky Pointless skills.’
He also claimed she was a fan of the programme – ‘our most distinguished viewer’.
Without a doubt the most popular speaker was the Queen herself who, every few years, gave a talk on a subject close to her heart, usually the Commonwealth.
In January 1948 her mother had addressed the Sandringham branch on the highlights of the royal tour of South Africa.
In 1974 the Queen spoke about her forthcoming visit to the Commonwealth Games in New Zealand and in January 1983 she told the group about her recent visit to Australia, Papua New Guinea and Fiji.
In 2018 her WI address was released by Buckingham Palace. The Queen told her fellow members: ‘Of course, every generation faces fresh challenges and opportunities.
‘As we look for new answers in the modern age, I for one prefer the tried and tested recipes, like speaking well of each other and respecting different points of view; coming together to seek out the common ground; and never losing sight of the bigger picture.’
Her words were seen as a veiled reference to the Brexit debate which was becoming increasingly bitter.
Her timing was significant since it was just over a week since MPs in the House of Commons voted 432 to 202 against Teresa May’s draft withdrawal agreement.
It was regarded as no coincidence that the Queen’s words, ostensibly about the WI movement, but relevant to the wider picture of Britain as a whole, were made public.
Queen Elizabeth II and the Queen Mother Leave the Sandringham and West Newtown WI in a freezing cold January, 1975
HM Queen Elizabeth II attends the Women’s Institute meeting at West Newton, Norfolk
The village hall at West Newton, home to the Sandringham and West Newton Women’s Institute
Over the years Her Majesty watched the judging of a succession of competitions from ‘face flannels’ in 1944 to the ‘best decorated coat hanger’ in 1988, and has witnessed several incarnations of the knitted tea (and occasionally egg) cosies.
The three queens never entered the competitions but did take part in the exhibitions.
In 1975 the Queen Mother brought with her two china figures for an exhibition of members’ favourite china pieces.
Other years the late Queen also sent various pieces from Sandringham House. For instance in 1985 she added her own contribution to an ‘exhibition of unusual candlesticks’ and three years later for ‘favourite jugs’ brought three small ones while her mother brought an antique one.
The royal items are always discreet and fitting for the occasion, more Crown Derby than Fabergé.
Towards the end of the meeting the ladies enjoy a tea party. The sit in groups of four around card table. The Queen presides at hers and pours the tea and hands round the cakes for the other three ladies.
There are usually ginger cake – a favourite of Elizabeth II – profiteroles, cheese scones, fruit cakes and meringues.
The tea time chat was an opportunity for her to find out what is happening in the local community, all the births, marriages and deaths, who is having a Golden Wedding, another grandchild, a hip replacement or all three.
The Queen told them what was happening in her own family. For instance in January 1994 she had arrived wearing a plaster cast on her left arm having fractured a bone in her wrist when she fell from her horse over the Christmas holiday.
She told one member: ‘I threw myself over the horse’s neck to prevent it getting up’ while they both waited for help. The ladies expressed concern that a young man had fired blanks from a starting pistol at Prince Charles in Australia and the Queen told them: ‘yes he rang me later to tell me all about it and to say he’s alright’.
At one time of day, the meeting concluded with community singing. In 1955 the 29 year old Elizabeth sang along as a barrel organ played ‘Daisy, Daisy’ and ‘Goodbye Dolly I Must Leave You.’
Younger members of the family have also followed in the Queen’s W.I. Footsteps. Queen Camilla is a member of Tetbury WI, Sophie Edinburgh is a member of Bagshot WI and Princess Anne is an Associate member.
Catherine, Princess of Wales has been invited to join the Anmer branch, just down the road from Sandringham.
The late Queen Elizabeth with gardening presenter Alan Titchmarsh. They met on her visit to the New Forest Show, Hampshire, in July 2012 during her Diamond Jubilee tour of the country
Pointless presenter Alexander Armstrong was another visitor to the Sandringham WI
At the time her office wrote back to say she was interested in joining, but she has yet to take up the offer.
Even some of the royal men have been involved on the sidelines.
Charles regularly donated raffle prizes while his late father attended an otherwise all-female gathering of the Women’s Institute at a special Buckingham Palace garden party to mark the Institute’s Golden Jubilee.
According to the Daily Mirror, Philip found himself mobbed by ‘the largest crush of women ever seen on the Palace lawns,’ eliciting a typical ducal quip: ‘Jam makers eh? Well you’re in a proper jam today!”
- Ian Lloyd is the author of The Queen: A Life in 70 Chapters (the History Press)