The Land Girls of Lincolnshire
Keeping the country well-fed in the 1940s, the Women’s Land Army proved to be a resilient, hardy bunch with a strong work ethic and a sense of fun…!
November is, of course, a chance to pause and consider the sacrifices made by those who fought in the First World War, the Second World War and subsequent conflicts from the Falklands to conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan. A dignified silence observed by the nation represents a poignant moment of reflection so far removed from the noise and chaos experienced by those at war.
At home, too, a rather different battle was raging. ‘Women can’t possibly do the work of men,’ said the sceptics. Until they did. At the outbreak of WWI, the British Army numbered about 250,000 regular recruits and similar numbers of both reservists and territorials. By November 2018 the British Army numbered about 3.8m men (the population of England and Wales was about 20m), many of whom had vacated roles back home in industries like farming, food production and engineering.
The Origins of the Land Army
When Britain declared war on Germany on 4th August 2014, it was erroneously believed that the war would be short-lived; over and done with perhaps by Christmas. Already 100,000 men had joined the Army, many leaving land work temporarily to do their duty. The farming profession almost immediately felt the loss of such a large amount of labour, but in the early years of the war, at peak times such as harvest, the Army granted men leave to assist with gathering in crops. Soon though, a better solution was needed.
There were some precursory organisations such as the Women’s Defence Relief Corps founded in September 1914 and the Women’s Branch of the Board of Agriculture, both of which served to pre-empt the creation of the Women’s Land Army in February/March 1917. Women were encouraged to join the Women’s Land Army originally for the duration of the war but later for a six or 12-month commitment. Candidates had to be over 21, single and they had to have their parents’ consent. Initially, 30,000 women responded to the recruitment drive. Their pay was 20 shillings a week, which increased to 22 shillings in March 1918 and 25 shillings in April 1919.
There were three branches of the WLA, with the Agricultural Section’s recruiting leaflet stating that ‘our soldiers must have food,’ and describing duties such as milking, hoeing, harvesting, ploughing, plus the care of livestock and horses, along with general farm work and tree planting.
The Forage Section’s motto declared that ‘our soldiers’ horses must have hay’ and the Timber Section’s statement that ‘our soldiers need timber for their railways, their shelters and aeroplanes’ saw women seconded to the role of felling trees, sawing them into lengths. These women, incidentally, were known as lumber-Jills, as opposed to lumberjacks.
The Land Army in the First World War
At its peak in 1918 there were 113,000 Women’s Land Army recruits working on the land, and prisoners of war were also recruited to work alongside land girls. In January 1918, incidentally, the WLA and the Women’s Institution – founded in 1915 – co-launched their own magazine, The Landswoman, priced at 2d and available by subscription or from WH Smith. Content included health tips, agricultural news and knitting/needlework patterns describing how to make clothes suitable for keeping girls warm whilst working outdoors.
Despite ongoing encouragement by Muriel Talbot, Director of the Women’s Branch of the Food Production Department in 1919, the population of Women’s Land Army Recruits fell to just 8,000 members and so the WLA was disbanded on 30th November.
The WLA returns in 1938
By 1938 it was apparent that war was once again likely. The Ministry of Agriculture held early discussions and appointed the Lady Gertrude Denman as the head of the Women’s Branch of the Ministry; she had previously held the title of Honorary Assistant Director of the Women’s Branch in 1917 and had the responsibility then for the recruitment of WLA volunteers. The WLA was reformed in June 1939, headquartered at Lady Denman’s 3,000-acre country estate of Balcombe Place, in Sussex.
Recruitment was painfully slow given the severe winter of 1939/1940 and by the middle of 1940 there were just 6,000 or so members of the service, although that did double by the following year. In December 1941 only single women between 20 and 30 were considered but it soon became necessary to open up the criteria.
A minimum wage of 28 shillings was established but this was about a quarter of the wage that girls in office jobs in cities could expect to be paid, and around 14 shillings was taken out of the girls’ wages to pay for accommodation.
Some Jobs Were Better Than Others
Ethel Cannon was one of 40 girls who came from Yorkshire, eventually ending up near Skegness. “One job we got was a smile,” she recalls. “Once a week, we each had to take turns running around the field, just clapping, to scare the birds.”
Whilst that at least enabled Ethel to retain her fitness levels, Iris Noor recalls that “I was the truck driver and having learned to drive in an old Rover, I now also drove the tractor; a John Deere.”
“One job I didn’t like though was dipping sheep, it was horrible. One time I tripped and ended up falling head-long into the dip!”
Rita Saunders was a little more keen on rural life: “The winter of 1940 was bitterly cold with lots of snow and the only place warm enough to eat my sandwiches was in the chicken house with about 2,000 hens around me. I was sent to take charge of a small home farm owned by the Duke and Duchess of Kent and had four cows to milk, pigs to feed and chickens, ducks and turkeys to care for as well as four beehives to manage.”
“It was a lovely job, but the saddest days were when pigs had to go to market and turkeys had to be killed for Christmas. Plucking turkeys was a ticklish job as the feathers got up your nose and made you sneeze!”
Meanwhile, born in Derbyshire and helping out in Lincolnshire, Hilda Bailey says that she made one of her lifelong friends, Audrey, during harvest: “Audrey used to drive us out to the farm and four men used to come with the threshing machines. Everybody hated threshing time as it was always us – the land girls – who got stuck in the chaff hole, collecting the chaff in big sacks and taking it away to the store. It got down your clothes, and we were always itchy and getting rashes. There were about 40 girls at our hostel where we lived and we only had three baths between us… imagine!”
Here Come the City Girls
Many Women’s Land Army girls were brought into the county from more urban areas. By December 1940 244 girls were recruited into the WLA from larger towns and cities, and by March 1945, 2,004 such recruits were working on Lincolnshire farms, which led to the creation of hostels in which the girls could bunk down, working and living together.
Lillian Woolfitt moved to Lincoln upon joining the WLA at 19 and recalls her hostel, which housed 50 girls: “I was shy but the WLA brought me out of myself. At first many farmers didn’t like the idea of girls working on farms but once you were accepted, and proved your mettle, you were alright.”
“Some of the girls learned to plough, the machinery was powered by steam, but we all agreed that the worst job was picking potatoes and gathering vegetables: stooping that near ground was a real cause of backache.”
“The hostel was like a cow shed, with double bunks flanking the concrete floors. There was a chest of drawers, and a wardrobe between the two, three baths, two showers and several basins. We were only allowed four inches of water in the bath!”
“We worked hard, played hard and girlish pranks were rife. Once we tied a girl to a chair and left her out in the snow because she said that she loved the snow!”
Jean Jones, meanwhile, arrived in Lincolnshire from London and recalls: “Our destination was a remote farm two and a half miles from the nearest village. We were lucky as we shared a comfortable old-fashioned bedroom in a small cottage and we were catered for by the farm foreman’s wife.”
“Breakfast was served at 6am and we reported for work at the foreman’s house at 7am, dressed in breeches, thick socks, heavy boots, light shirts and thick green jumpers with felt hats. No concessions were made for a girl’s hitherto easy life as we were expected to undertake the same work as a male farm labourer.”
“We lugged hay bales to feed the stock, picked, riddled and bagged potatoes, and hand-hoed acres of young wheat, barley and oats. Two of us even ran an entire pig farm for weeks when the farmer was seriously ill. We helped the vets with insemination, TB testing of cows, we helped with milking and even delivered lambs.”
“I was transferred to a WLA-run hostel, though and life was very different. I developed a new-found social life with nights spent in the hostel singing around the piano or dancing to records played on an old wind-up gramophone.”
“My departure from the land came in 1947, very sadly in some ways. For me, life in the city was never the same again!”
Marian Draper has similar recollections: “I joined the WLA in July 1942 and travelled from Doncaster railway station, changing trains at Lincoln where I met other girls on their way to Surfleet station. We were met by the driver of an open lorry who helped us into the wagon where we all sat on the floor with our luggage on our knees.”
“We were taken to Spalding, our hair blowing all over the place not feeling very happy about it. We arrived at Holland House in the High Street and were showed to our rooms. The next morning we got up at 5.30pm and had a breakfast of cereal and toast. We had a packed lunch in a tin box given to us, which consisted of a cheese sandwich, corned beef and an apple, plus a flask of tea. We were then allocated out to various farms.”
“The farmer sent transport for us at 7.30am and on the farm to which I was sent we would be picking raspberries, getting back at 4pm ready for a cooked meal at 5pm.”
“The evening was free but if we went out we had to be back by 10pm. Finally the huts at Surfleet – where we should have been – were ready, so we were taken there that night. Oh dear! There was no heat, concrete floors, bunk beds, then a tap outside for water – no hot water – and a dining hut for breakfast.”
“We did have a lovely warden though; Mrs Valentine. We went to The Mermaid pub for a bath (9d) or to a house just down the road. We then moved to Bank House in Gosberton when it became too cold, and it was quite a change. Still no carpets on the floor or stairs but a fire in the sitting room, six armchairs and sing-songs around the piano in the evening.”
A Little Help & Advice…
From city girl to life in the WLA, some girls found the transition to life in the country a little tricky. Fortunately, in recognising this the author W. E. Shelwell-Cooper published The Land Girl: A Manual for Volunteers in the Women’s Land Army in 1941. The book provided lots of, er, invaluable advice…
“The town girl does not often find it easy to live in the country. She naturally misses all the amenities that she is used to. She cannot pop to the local cinema when she feels inclined. She cannot even go round to the local fish and chip shop or to a snack bar if she wants a quick meal in the evening.”
“She is not able to stroll down the High Street and have a look at the shops and see the latest fashions. And there are not, of course, the number of men about to go to dances with at the local Palais de Dance.”
“Some town people are apt to look upon country folk as country bumpkins. They have an idea that it is only the town folk who know anything, and because people in the country are not so slick, or not so well-dressed or perhaps not up to the latest fashion, they are apt to be labelled old-fashioned and rather a back number.”
“Actually, country folk usually know far more than those who are bred and born in towns and cities. They may not know all of the names of the film stars and pictures in which they have appeared, but they do know the names of the birds and their habits. They are able to tell whether it is going to be wet or fine the next day. They know which herbs are useful and all about the ways of wild animals. They have a different kind of knowledge, that is all.”
“The Land Army Volunteer, therefore, who is going to work on a farm and live in a village must be prepared to see ‘the other fellow’s’ point of view. She will never be a success if she goes into her new surroundings determined to show them a thing or two.”
“It does need a little effort at first to fit in with new surroundings. It is necessary to consider the farmer and his family. The volunteer should be punctual in her hours, she must not smoke about the place and in farm buildings and she should shut farm gates behind her. She should put back tools properly so that the next person who wants them can find them, and she should never leave a job half done just because she finds it difficult.”
The book’s advice also extends to sartorial guidance: “She will only be stared at if she wears the latest Bond Street creation at the local social or ‘hop.’ Town girls on the whole use far more makeup than country girls.”
“The WLA volunteer should therefore be prepared to ‘tone down’ her lips, complexion and nails considerably.”
“A certain amount of makeup may be used at parties and local village dances, but long nails are quite unsuited to work on the farm and as the other girls from the village do not use makeup, the volunteer will soon prefer not to use it herself so as not to look conspicuous.”
Working with the Enemy…
Needs must, and with Britain short on food, even POWs were used to fill up our wartime tummies. Eileen Caddoo was raised in Leeds but joined the WLA and recalls her time working on a farm in South Lincolnshire among some amorous colleagues.
“There were about 40 girls. The farmer was a nasty piece of work and we were always hungry. We got bread, margarine, some sort of cheese and a flask of tea but we were out up to 14 hours a day.”
“We had to work with Italian POWs and there was one there who wouldn’t give me a moment’s peace. ‘Oh mamma mia, mamma mia,’ he used to shout and this went on every time I saw him because I had rather a big bosom!”
Meanwhile, Margaret Bennett of Eltham in South London found herself working on a farm in Spalding and says “We had some German POWs working with us. We paired up and I worked with a German called Edgar, he was very nice. One day we were cleaning bulbs and to stop them from falling throughout the chitting trays we had to put a newspaper in the bottom of them.”
“One of the girls saw a picture of the King and Queen and stapled it to the wall. When the Germans came in one of them ripped it down and was cursing in German… I could only guess what he was saying!”
A Lucky Escape…
Working away from the front line may have been considerably safer, but life as a WLA volunteer was sometimes still dangerous, as Iris Noor, originally from Carrington in Nottingham recalls: “When I lived in Carrington I worked at Nottingham General Hospital (now demolished) and when I was 16, I saw a poster advertising the WLA. I was impressed and volunteered very quickly.”
“Very soon after, a big parcel arrived by horse and dray delivery; it was my uniform, together with a train ticket to Cleethorpes. I went to the farm of J K Measures where we were potato picking.”
“When we went on leave we were allowed to take a 1cwt (a hundred weight, about 50kg) for free. We were out picking one day when German fighter planes came over with some bombers.”
“Bombs started dropping everywhere and we all made a dive under a tunnel; everywhere was shaking. I think they were after Grimsby. We went back to the house on the seafront afterwards to discover it had gone, bombed. Three land girls, the landlady and a dog were killed in the attack.”
“Another time we were weighing up potatoes in the field. I was carrying a hundredweight when the whistle blew; that was a warning of danger. I saw the fighter come over and I swear I could see the German’s face. I dropped the bag and dived under the scales for cover as he turned his machine guns on us.”
A Learning Experience…
It remains impossible to overstate just how much the WLA and the efforts of women on the home front contributed to keeping the country going whilst the men were fighting abroad. Arguably, too, it’s probable that their efforts proved the worth of women working, rather than just remaining at home as housewives. For the WLA girls, too, life in the countryside was an adventure and a learning experience.
“I was sent to a hostel called Mere House, near Grantham,” recalls Marie, who was originally from Lancashire. “When I first went to Mere, the first week I was really worried. I was told that I had to take the horse to the village to be shot. It bothered me all week and eventually one of the girls asked me what the trouble was.”
“I told her that I had never seen anything being killed before… you can imagine my relief when she explained to me that I had misheard. The horse was to be shod… and not in fact ‘shot!’”
Tales from the Land
Heighington publisher’s book on the Land Girls of Lincolnshire…
Our anecdotes have been taken from author John Ward’s book Beetroot for Breakfast, which is published by Tucann Design & Print, based in Washingborough. It has over 200 pages and images throughout including correspondence and memories from those who served in the area working on the land during WWII. £12, to order a copy, call 01522 790009 or see www.tucann.co.uk.