Woman and Home went behind the scenes to meet the real women behind the new period drama, Home Fires, about the Women’s Institute in wartime…
Author and historian Julie Summers’ book Jambusters, the story of the WI during the Second World War, inspired Home Fires. Julie, 54, who acted as an advisor on the set, lives in Oxford with her husband.
When I read the TV script of Home Fires I was so impressed, I wept. The world I’d become familiar with through researching and writing my book about the role of the WI in the Second World War had been captured so perfectly by scriptwriter Simon Block.
I went on set on the second day of filming and when I saw them shooting an early scene, which involves a dairy herd, and saw cows moving and heard them mooing, I realised this world I’d known in black and white, was now alive, smelling and making a noise! It was one of the most magical experiences of my life and, because it is TV, it happened three times.
The drama was never going to be a straight adaptation of my book. Simon describes the book as the “DNA” of the series, but the stories I included have not been translated on to the screen.
The Second World War was the WI’s finest hour. They ran canteens for troops, collected tons of herbs for the pharmaceutical industry and knitted millions of garments to keep soldiers and refugees warm. Most notable was their jam preservation scheme. When war broke out, the autumn crops were ripening and word reached them that fruit was going to waste all over the country.
The WI’s general secretary Dame Frances Farrer ordered 430 tons of sugar and women set to preserving the fruit and making it into jam. Eventually, the Ministry of Food cottoned on to this and it became a government initiative in November 1939.
WI members were also so brave. One of my favourite stories is of a WI in the village of Hawkinge, Kent, which had four members. They made jam during the Battle of Britain and one day, there were planes flying over head. When it became too risky, the youngest of the women told the others to go down to the shelter while she stayed and stirred the jam. When they asked her why she’d offered, she said it was because they had children and she didn’t.
I also drew on personal stories for my book. Edith Jones was the wife of a tenant farmer in Shropshire and I was given access to her wartime diaries by her niece. Her poignant notes said things like ‘Italy surrenders, I put new flowers in my hat’ and ‘Hitler confirmed dead, Jack plants Marigolds’. Just a few words but they managed to make me laugh and cry.
When I finished the book, I decided to go on a drama-writing course and one of the tutors was a scriptwriter Simon Block, who introduced me to executive producer Catherine Oldfield. I immediately warmed to her so when she said she was interested in buying the rights to the book and turning it into a drama, I knew she was the right person for the job.
People laugh when I say this but the WI, which celebrates its centenary this year, was a feminist movement. It was led primarily by suffragettes in the early days and, during the war, it empowered women in the countryside in a way that nothing had ever done before.