Fury as Women's Institute college is set to be shut after 72 years

Save our Jerusalem! Fury as grade II-listed Women’s Institute college is set to be shut and sold after 72 years

  • Women’s Institute college where up to 10,000 a year attend courses may close
  • Denman College could be closed permanently and sold to the highest bidder 
  • Generations have gathered at the site in Marcham Park, Oxfordshire since 1948 

For more than 70 years, it has been the jewel in the crown of the Women’s Institute – an educational retreat where the ladies of middle England could learn new skills or finesse old ones.

But now grade II-listed Denman College – where generations have gathered since 1948 – could be closed permanently and sold to the highest bidder.

The proposals have provoked a furious backlash, with members accusing the WI – whose anthem is famously the hymn Jerusalem – of being ‘London-centric’.

Grade II-listed Denman College – where generations have gathered since 1948 – could be closed permanently and sold to the highest bidder

Denham, a Georgian house based at Marcham Park, Abingdon, Oxfordshire, boasts a teaching centre as well as residential blocks all set in 17 acres.

Every year up to 10,000 members and non-members – and even men – attend courses on a diverse range of subjects, from more traditional WI pursuits such as baking and gardening to far more surprising ones, such as … burlesque dancing.

But trustees this week announced plans to close Denman permanently, leaving staff and tutors at risk of redundancy.

They insisted that it was only a proposal and a consultation period would follow before a final decision was taken in the autumn. 

But in a statement sent to branches across the country, the National Federation of Women’s Institutes (NFWI) board said Denman would not be reopening after it was closed in lockdown.

Members accused trustees of using the pandemic as an ‘excuse’ and called on them to sell their multi-million pound head office in London’s Parsons Green and relocate to Denman to save cash.

Retired teacher Christine Hounslow, 84, who helped raise £700,000 when Denman first faced closure in 2016, said she was ‘devastated’.

Mrs Hounslow, from Swindon, who first joined the WI aged 24, added: ‘The WI is quite an old-fashioned and inflexible organisation and that’s coming from an 84-year-old.’

For more than 70 years, it has been the jewel in the crown of the Women’s Institute – an educational retreat where the ladies of middle England could learn new skills or finesse old ones. Women are pictured above at the college in 1953

Sue Catlett, of West Sussex, a member since the 1990s, and former president of three branches, has attended courses on retro aerobics, burlesque dancing, quilting and cheese making.

She said: ‘In my opinion, it would be far better to sell the London office and make more use of the wonderful resource that is Denman.’

The board’s recommendation was to ‘sell the college and for it to be placed on the market immediately’. 

New ‘Denman at Home’ online courses will be offered and anyone booked on to a traditional programme will be refunded.

Melissa Green, of the NFWI, said: ‘Denman is a very special and much-loved place, and this decision was not taken lightly.’

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