The very first posh dinner I ever attended when I became a trainee journalist more than 50 years ago was one organised by a women’s group in Dewsbury with the unusual name of the Soroptimists.
It was held in the town hall, and I was only 17 and didn’t possess an evening gown. Not even a piece of jewellery.
I wore a plain cotton dress and to say I was under-dressed was the under-statement of the year.
It was a baptism of fire for a young lass who had never dined out apart from school dinners and fish and chips at Dewsbury Snack Bar.
But I was lucky enough to be seated next to a lovely lady called Joan Cave who guided me through the intricacies of fine dining. In short, which knives and forks to use.
I was reminded of this particular evening when talking the other day to a friend about all the women’s organisations which once existed in Dewsbury, like the Townswomen’s Guild and the Inner Wheel, to name but two, which are no longer with us.
I’m afraid like all the shops and other amenities which are fast disappearing from Dewsbury, so too are many, many voluntary organisations, particularly those run by women.
However, I am glad to say that at least one of my favourites, the Dewsbury Soroptimists, is still surviving and continues to raise the profile of women as well as support charities at home and abroad and also raise lots of money for a variety of worthwhile causes.
Alas, also gone are many women’s church organisations which closed down when the churches with which they were connected closed. Organisations like Mothers’ Unions, Sisterhoods, Women’s Fellowships, and the Bright Hour, to name but a few.
Literally hundreds of them have disappeared over the years, and what they did for the local communities they served was incalculable.
They were a guiding light, a support system for women and their families, a shoulder to cry on in difficult situations, and they were always there to share each other’s burdens.
My mother was in both the Mothers’ Union at St Paulinus and St Joseph’s churches, and I remember going with her on many occasions to the homes of fellow members whose husbands had passed away, to give comfort and offer practical help.
Women didn’t have to go to counsellors when tragedy struck in those days because there weren’t any, but they had their women friends to lean on, whether it was their neighbours in the street where they lived, the church where they worshipped or the women’s organisation they attended.
In recent weeks I have been very involved in baking for a number of bring and buy sales, coffee days, and spring fayres with churches with which I’m connected.
And, it is at events like these that you realise the wonderful camaraderie which exists among women when they are working together for the same cause, usually raising money for charities.
All the ladies turned up with beautiful home-made cakes and scones, jars of jam and marmalade, plants they’d grown in their gardens and homes, and the baby clothes they’d knitted through the long winter nights.
The ingenuity of these ladies knows no bounds, as I soon discovered while looking round the stalls. One lady from Longcauseway Church had crocheted toilet bags from plastic Asda carrier bags she’d ut into strips. They were brilliant and were selling for little more than coppers.
There were as many men as women helping on the day, setting ups stalls, buttering bread, making sandwiches and serving on stalls.
Most people have no idea of the staggering amounts of money this particular church raises for charities both at home and abroad.
Over the years it must have been well over £100,000. I know because my charity, Dewsbury Women’s Health Group, has benefitted greatly from their generosity to the tune of more than £2,000, and I know lots of other local charities have benefitted the same.
And they do it with no banging of drums, no publicity, and look upon it as something they must do if they are to help their fellow men and women.
Tomorrow members of this church and other churches in Dewsbury will be manning stalls all day outside Longcauseway Church as part of Christian Aid Week, so please pop down there to support them.
And be proud that although Dewsbury may have lost many of its shops and services, it still has wonderful people whose spirit remains undaunted and they battle on helping those in need. Hats off to them all!
Back to the Soroptimists of Dewsbury, the women’s charity I mentioned above. Here are a few details to give you some idea what this particular woman’s charity is about and what it’s name means. I always thought it was Greek for “Sisterhood”, but I was wrong.
The name Soroptimist was taken from the Latin “Soror” meaning ”Sister” and “Optima” meaning “Best” and has thus been interpreted as “Women at their best – helping others to be at their best.”
The first Soroptimist club was launched in Oakland, California in 1921, and three years later, the first club in Britain was formed in London, followed by Manchester in 1926, Glasgow and Edinburgh in 1927, and Birmingham in 1928. The Dewsbury club was formed in 1942.
Soroptimist International became a worldwide organisation for women in management and the professions, a global voice for women long before equal opportunities was talked about.
The objects they worked towards were the advancement of the status of women; high ethical standards; human rights for all; equality, development and peace through international goodwill, understanding and friendship.
The Dewsbury club was presented with its Charter in the Playhouse Cafe in 1942, and it was in the Playhouse Boardroom where they were to hold their meetings for the next 18 years.
Since then they have met in various venues, including the Temperance Hall, the Library, Victoria Centre, Dewsbury Town hall, the Marmaville in Mirfield, Dewsbury Baptist Church, Dewsbury District Golf Club and Ossett Community Centre.
They currently meet twice a month in the Oakwell Centre in Dewsbury District Hospital.
It is impossible to mention all the worthwhile projects they have been involved in both at local and international levels over the years, or the money they have raised for charity, or the organisations they have supported, or the hospitals and hospices.
But I doubt if there is any aspect of local life which they haven’t touched upon, which they haven’t been involved with or which they haven’t supported.
One member of Dewsbury Soroptimists who will always stand out for me is Joan Cave, the stunning brunette pictured second from the right on the picture above, wearing her well deserved president’s chain of office.
I had known her from being a little girl because she had a hairdresser’s shop in Halifax Road, opposite the Shoulder of Mutton, just at the top of the road from my school in Batley Carr.
Just as I had gone to my first dinner dance not wearing a suitable evening dress, Joan Cave turned up at her first meeting of the Soroptimists in the Playhouse Cafe in 1952 not wearing a hat.
All the other ladies were sitting there in their hats and furs. No wonder Joan felt she’d arrived at a very “upper-crust” meeting.
All the members addressed one another formally in those days, first names never being used, and at first Joan didn’t think it was the place for her.
But she was wrong. Once she had settled in, she felt at home and became an important part of the organisation, eventually becoming President in 1961 and 1962.
A war widow, Joan received the MBE in the 1998 Queen’s Birthday Honours for her work with the War Widows Association of which she was founder member and a past chairman.