For 70 years, Denman has provided a safe haven for women and men to learn new skills, make new friends and have restful breaks.
Empowerment through education
Education has been at the heart of the WI since its very beginnings. The constitution of the first Women’s Institute in Canada stated that ‘the object of this Institute shall be to promote knowledge of household science… with a view of raising the general standard of health of our people’.
In 1960, Denman offered 159 different courses. In 2017, it offers over 600. Every year, Denman continues to improve its facilities and its programme. Every year, Denman welcomes over 10,000 students who visit for a few hours, learn for a day, enjoy the overnight experience, or stay for weekends. The relaxing environment is a perfect place to experience the range of courses on offer, fitted in the three main themes of cookery, craft and lifestyle. There truly is something for everyone, from more advanced sewing courses to beginners baking to historical lectures.
Although the courses continue to change over the years, reflecting the changing nature of our lives, the vision of the founders remains the same and true today; that Denman will always offer the best in adult liberal education, inspiring women and men alike, from the UK and beyond.
Visit the Women’s Institutes website here: https://www.thewi.org.uk/
Education at the heart
In 1943, Sir Richard Livingstone, President of Corpus Christi College at the University of Oxford and an enthusiastic advocate of adult education, addressed an NFWI Summer School at Radbrook College in Shropshire. As people looked forward to the hoped-for peace there was a wave of enthusiasm for education, and many adult colleges were being established around the country. Sir Richard argued that the WI should establish its own college.
In 1945 a resolution, proposed by Lady Elizabeth Brunner on behalf of the Oxfordshire Federation, was passed at the AGM to bring the ‘WI College’ into being, and the search for suitable premises began. A reasonably central location and good transport connections were important criteria (though sadly Abingdon lost its railway station in 1963). Marcham Park, its house and 100 acres of land, was purchased in 1947 for £16,000 and the college was opened – by Sir Richard Livingstone – on 24 September 1948.
The college was named after Lady Denman, who had recently retired after 30 years as (the first) Chairman of the NFWI. The first warden was Miss Elizabeth (Betty) Christmas, who lived in the small cottage opposite the main house which now bears her name.
County Federations helped to furnish and equip Denman, and they still sponsor and look after all the residential rooms, which therefore each have their own unique feel. There is a dedicated cookery school which has been named one of the top 10 in the UK, and it’s situated in a purpose-built facility in the grounds, beautifully equipped and running a variety of courses.
The programme at Denman has always reflected the ever changing interests of members. Craft courses still fill about half of the programme, but we now have a roster of niche courses not available elsewhere such as Mountmellick and Elizabethan embroidery. The WI Cookery School continues to be the jewel in the crown, with tutors coming from across the country to teach our students. Denman’s lifestyle courses keep expanding with more unique subjects such as dance circle, fashion history, Tai Chi and yoga.
For its first students – initially around 1,500 a year – Denman offered a broadening of their horizons that many of them could never have dreamed of experiencing, including sometimes thir first ever stay away from home. It is now open to all comers, men and women both, and Denman’s success over the years is a tribute to the vision of the founders and now welcomes over 10,000 students a year. In 2018, Denman will celebrate 70 years with a variety of special workshops and events inspired by its Platinum year.
Denman still offers Lady Brunner’s vision at the WI’s AGM in 1945 – a place where women can come to escape their everyday lives to learn, to laugh and to spend time with like-minded people. Lifelong learning grows and continues to inspire all those who come here.
Denman remains a flourishing centre for residential adult education, widely respected, valued by its thousands of visitors, and looking forward with optimism to the future!
"I had a fabulous three days with my mum at Denman on the fantastic patisserie course with our tutor Kelly Mauger. We enjoyed every moment of the course itself as well as the beautiful Georgian mansion and picture perfect grounds and gardens. From the moment we arrived until we sadly said goodbye we were looked after by all the staff, with friendly hosts, helpful reception staff, kind bar staff and the chefs and servers who fed us up, and ensured we enjoyed our two evening meals. I would thoroughly reccomend my friends and family to visit the WI Cookery School to learn new skills and improve current techniques. I didn't want to come home but I am looking forward to returning with my mum for another course and perhaps a craft course too. It has been utterly fantastic so much so I did not want to come home."
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