By the end of the war, more than 80,000 women had been part of the Land Army and it would seem even in the most turbulent of times, the Land Girls spirit could not be deterred. Emily Ashworth takes a look back in time at the movement which became the backbone of farming.
There are undeniable traits among all the women who became Land Girls – a strong-will and resilience being two defining characteristics which undoubtedly helped them keep the farming world afloat.
Ask any former member and their answer echoes the same defiant sentiment – they had to do their bit for the cause.
Having helped Britain beat the threat of famine in WW1, the government refounded the Women’s Land Army (WLA) in 1939.
Britain had to be fed.
Women from all walks of life rallied together to tackle a duty which was fundamental to the country, to the people and to the farms – filling the gap left by all those at war.
The organisation was originally voluntary and even though conscription was introduced in 1941, many continued to offer their services.
For little more than £1.85 per week, their days were set to become endlessly long, working outside from sunrise to sunset, enduring the seasons as they came.
And although it was hard work, many former Land Girls say that signing up was the beginning of countless happy and unforgettable memories.
Britain reled on the WLA
Many learnt on the job, ploughing, haymaking and hoeing, while others became Lumber Jills, chopping down trees to provide the army with vital materials to build railways and telegraph poles. Whatever the task, the Land Army seemed to conquer the adversity which appeared when women suddenly began mastering traditionally-male jobs.
Times were changing. With masculine work came masculine uniforms and the need for stockings and heels was inevitably sporadic – unless you were invited to a local army dance, that is.
For the women of the Land Army it was now corduroy breeches, shirts, ties and gum boots, and although this turn around was received with mixed feelings, many women became much appreciated assets to their farms.
In 2010, Terry Chairman, senior historian at the Imperial War Museum, said: “At the beginning of the war, 70 per cent of our food was imported. By 1943, this figure was reversed, in no small measure due to the Land Army.
“There was resentment from farmers about taking their jobs away, but as the war grew darker and France fell, people recognised how vital they were.”
Life was tough, but the fondness which was born from these inevitable circumstances is evident.
From the hardships of war came lifelong friendships and, in many cases, marriage, yet it is the overwhelming feeling of nostalgic affinity which strikes you most, particularly when you think of how these women from such diverse backgrounds came together as one.
Dorothy was just 16 when she decided to follow in the footsteps of her sister and join the Land Army.
Dorothy still attends local shows to educate others on the work of the Land Girls
She was posted to Hertfordshire in 1944, before being relocated to Bridlington where she remains today.
“I wasn’t scared,” she recalls. “As my sister was already a Land Girl I knew what to expect and, put it this way, my Mother moved sixteen times so I was used to relocating.”
She was training as a shorthand typist at the time, merrily admitting she wasn’t the best and, after finishing her job on the Friday, she began work the following Sunday.
"Joining up made you grow up. You had too."
Her main job was to milk cows and deliver it to the local customers and schools. Once finished, Dorothy would return to wash all the empty bottles she’d collected that morning.
There was a time, she says, during her first few weeks as a Land Girl when the cook from one of the schools asked her in to the kitchen for help.
“They had seen a mouse and wanted me to try and find it to get rid of it. I hadn’t been here long and I didn’t know what to do. I found its babies in a barrel of flour and I think they thought that because I was a Land Girl, I’d be good at that sort of thing.
“Joining up made you grow up. You had too. You went from living at home with your mother telling you what to do, to being in charge of money and becoming your own person.”
Dorothy is happy that WLA’s work is becoming increasingly recognised, but feels strongly for age's unsung heroes.
“There are people we don’t know about. I once met a girl who spent all day, every day screwing about 3,000 rivets on to planes – she said she dreamt of rivets in her sleep. It’s those types of jobs you don’t think about.”
The warmth she has for her experiences as a Land Girl and those she sees at reunions is clear.
“Undoubtedly, 90 per cent of Land Girls will say the same. We would, without hesitation, do it all again if we had to.”
Clare Arnold says she wouldn't change her time in the Land Army
Clare Arnold is the definition of positivity.
At 91 she radiates optimism, a lesson of life which she has learnt along the way saying: “It’s easy to see the negative in situations but it’s just as easy to see the good things too.”
Speaking of the moment she decided to join the Land Army in 1942, Clare remembers the feeling of thrill which came along with it.
“I was cycling home from work when I passed the WLA office. It had the recruitment poster in the window and it just suited me. I went home and said, 'by the way I’ve joined the Land Army’, but my parents were not happy. I was their youngest and was expected to stay at home, but I just couldn’t. I had to do something for the war and anyway, it was an adventure.”
Clare was posted to a farm in Stafford, three miles from her home. She says she takes pleasure in the memories she holds and tells of her fondness for the ‘warmth of the animals on a winter morning’.
"We worked all hours, whatever the weather, but it is the best thing I have ever done."
“It was the making of me – not only physically but mentally.
I was slight when I joined, 5ft 4.5in, I remember. Although rationed, you ate better on-farm as you had hens and, of course, the cream on top of the milk.
“I worked hard all day, milking and out in the fields with the men and, after three months, I had put on two and a half stone and some muscle. I was healthy. I even split my breeches one morning when I jumped back in to the milk float.”
Early mornings came hand in hand with the job, but this did not stop her from enjoying her youth to the fullest.
“I used to finish at the farm, get washed, put a dress on and go dancing until 11. I was only 18 – I wanted to have fun.”
Clare’s lust for life still resonates in her voice with much of who she is today derived from her time as a Land Girl.
“It was very, very hard and we worked all hours in all weather, but it is the best thing I have ever done.”
As she tells the many tales of her time in the Land Army, Vera’s eyes are alive with history and mischief, recalling how her Land Girl days began with a bump.
Vera's experience changed the course of her life
“We all slept in bunk beds and I was on the top bunk. I wasn’t used to it and I completely forgot. When we were shaken awake with a candle at 5am on the first morning, I just turned over to get up and rolled right out. I landed with my foot in an old rat hole someone had tried to cover up.”
It was 1944 and Vera, 18 at the time, had just finished her apprenticeship to be a fashion buyer in Liverpool.
"If I'd stayed in fashion my life might not have been as colourful"
“I got sent to Somerset. I was upset at first but I think if I’d stayed in fashion, my journey might not have been as colourful.
I got to see life on the farm. I’ve always made the best of situations.”
Vera spent her days milking, haymaking and spreading muck with a horse and cart, and although she enjoyed the fresh air, relishing in how she was ‘as thin as a lat but hard as iron’, Vera remembers others who found it more difficult.
“We were out chopping kale on a cold and frosty November morning and the girl I was with began to wail, ‘I can’t do this Vera’. I had to give her my gloves and overcoat and carry on chopping. I actually enjoyed it and found myself quite toasty once I’d finished.”
Two years later, Vera’s younger sister sadly died and she asked to be posted nearer home. Her new farm was in Clitheroe, but before making her way there, she made a quick trip back to Liverpool after having a strange and perhaps fated dream.
“I dreamt I’d never go back home to Liverpool. I had to go and see my mother who told me not to be so silly and was more worried about me being late for the farm. When I finally arrived, I saw Jim.
“I knew I liked him, but I was keen to just keep going and do my job. It was only when I overheard a rather heated conversation I knew how he felt towards me – my dream was becoming real life. ‘I’m going to marry Vera and that’s that’, he was shouting to his father. And, I guess, that really was that.”
It was the beginning of the rest of Vera’s life. On the farm. And in Clitheroe.
After repeated requests as to when a memorial for the Women’s Land Army might appear, The National Memorial Arboretum approached the Staffordshire branch of the Women’s Food and Farming Union (WFU) to take on the project in 2009.
Julie Scott, the project’s co-ordinator, says they are immensely proud of what has been achieved. As a team, they and all who donated, achieved something which represents how hard these women worked.
They started by organising events and wrote to all the agricultural societies asking for donations and stands at local shows. The process was slow, but there were two significant moments which really spurred the project forward.
The first was thanks to Michael Bale, chairman of the South Derbyshire district council. In 2012, he donated £5,000 to the project as his wife, June, had eight Land Girls working on her farm as a child.
Sadly, Michael passed away earlier this year but his donation was incentive enough to push forward and really start picking up momentum.
The NFU also gave the project £10,000. Such generosity enabled the team to start bringing the memorial to life and £90,000 has been raised to date.
The remaining Land Girls were invited to a tea party to discuss what the statue may entail, and were presented with a modern design.
There was a resounding answer: it was too futuristic. The ladies wanted something more realistic, more human, and began the hunt for a sculptor; someone who could really capture the girls and their spirit.
Taking on the task, Denise Dutton began by photographing the chosen girls – Izzy Wright, the granddaughter of former land girl Mary Wright, and Sarah Martin, the daughter of the SWFU’s chairman – in traditional uniforms and measuring them meticulously.
In order to represent both Land Girls and Lumber Jills, ears of corn and apples lie behind their feet along with a trap as a salute to the rat catchers and an axe for those who worked in the Timber Corps.
Five years after the project began, 400 Land Girls and Lumber Jills, plus some from Australia and the USA, braved the windiest day of last year to see the long-awaited testament to the work they did for our country.
Former Land Girl Mary Wright and her Granddaughter, Izzy
The Land Girls are undoubtedly heroes in their own right with the majority stating it was the best time of their lives