The Old Town Belles are making a lot of noise in Swindon. SUE BRADLEY finds out more about this ‘new wave’ WI.

ARGENTINIAN tango, tai chi and murder mystery evenings: meetings of the Old Town Belles Women’s Institute bear little resemblance to the old fashioned image of jam and Jerusalem.

Members of the 60-strong Swindon group enjoy a varied programme that offers something for everybody, nevertheless there are some things that don’t change, particularly an emphasis on community, campaigning and cake.

“Definitely cake,” laughs social media officer Ali Stump. “There is always cake thanks to the lovely volunteers on our cake rota. We describe ourselves as modern and enthusiastic and we have a really varied programme. The joy of WI is that it can be whatever you want it to be.

“It seems to be working as we are currently fully subscribed. We do sing Jerusalem but only once a year at our annual meeting.”

The community aspect of the group includes charity quizzes, a walking challenge, collections for Swindon Women’s Aid and support for the Swindon and Wiltshire Pride family festival, celebrating lesbian, gay, bi-sexual and transgender people, with a cake stall, face painting and glitter tattoos.

Meanwhile its campaigning work was in evidence during International Women’s Day celebrations at Swindon Central Library, when the ‘belles’ set up a stall at Swindon Library to collect sanitary products for women in crisis.

“We started the collection before Christmas and we’re very passionate about it,” says Ali. “Our members were so generous that we have continued it this year and are asking members of the public to donate.

“We were spurred into action when we discovered that while homeless men have access to free razors, homeless women don’t have the same provision for sanitary products.

“We also discovered that food banks have reported a big increase in female users requesting these items along with their groceries.

“We thought this was a terrible predicament for any woman to be in so we asked our members to donate sanitary items which we then distributed between the Swindon Foodbank and Christmas Care.”

As well as collecting sanitary products, the women asked people to tell them what modern feminism meant to them with their mottos, slogans and positive affirmations. All of these responses are destined to be embroidered into a quilt.

The Old Town Belles is what’s described as a “new wave” WI, one of a growing number of such groups that have been springing up in towns and villages in recent years.

It was formed in 2012, at which time it was called The Swindon WI, but changed its name on its fifth anniversary to better reflect its location in the town and represent how it sees itself as a group.

“I think it’s really nice to have a slightly more unusual name,” says its president Kim Missen, who was a founding member.

“Our previous name, The Swindon WI, was problematic really. In the directory we were listed under the letter T, and it used to confuse people because they thought we were in charge of the other Swindon WIs.

“Our old name gave people a certain perception of what we do, but with our new one they are more likely to think that we are something a little bit different.”

Kim joined up after spotting an item on Facebook and says she wouldn’t have minded if she had found herself the youngest member there.

“I thought it would be a really nice hobby and a great way to meet people,” explains Kim. “I moved away from Swindon for university and before joining the WI I didn’t know many people outside of those I met at work.

“It’s brilliant that we have a wide range of ages and women doing all sorts of different jobs: our number includes a hairdresser and a GP.”

The ages of members of the Old Town Belles range from 20 to 80 and meetings cover a variety of interests. There are even additional special interest activities, including a stitch club and a brand new book groups focusing on female authors.

The programme for this year’s meetings will include talks on photography and costume, as well as an insight on local history from Frances Bevan, co-founder of Swindon Heritage magazine. There will be an opportunity to have a go at Argentine Tango, along with a paper cutting workshop and murder mystery evening.

Past years have seen members tackling crafts ranging from crochet to calligraphy, and fondant flowers to tea cup flower arranging. There have been workshops offering the opportunity to try jiving, tap dancing, community choir singing and circus skills, and the ‘belles’ have listened to talks on community gardening – complete with a seed bomb-making session; nuclear fusion and the life and times of suffragette Edith New, who was born in Swindon’s North Street and went on to be imprisoned several times for acts of vandalism in her efforts to promote the right of women to vote.

The talk proved to be so inspirational that some members joined a local project highlighting Edith’s work by taking part in a recreation of a suffragette march and rally in Swindon.

Some might even say that Edith would have found a lot to her liking had the Old Town Belles existed when she was around.

“During the talk we discovered that some of the early WI members were suffragettes,” says Kim.

Find out more about the group by visiting: A new Old Town Belles website is under construction but information can still be found at: