Husband and wife team Paul and Linda Britchford have been sharing the story of The Women’s Land Army for years and, such is their received enthusiasm to know more, have opened their farm gate to invite people to their on site museum. Kate Chapman visits Lincolnshire to find out more.
The Women’s Land Army remains a poignant part of agriculture’s rich history. Such was its contribution in boosting the nation’s food production during World War II and the creation of an iconic culture, its members are once again being celebrated via a new museum built on Lincolnshire farmland.
World War II enthusiasts Paul and Linda Britchford have amassed thousands of items relating to the era, including Land Army uniforms and a host of farming implements, which they have been taking into schools for the past seven years to help educate children.
Thanks to a £200,000 Government grant and their own personal resources, the couple have realised a long-held dream by creating the We’ll Meet Again Museum on farmland at Freiston Shore, Boston, Lincolnshire.
It is here they are showcasing their collection and opening their gates to the wider public to raise awareness of the women and girls behind one of agriculture’s toughest times.
Their educational work only came about by chance after they noticed how fascinated youngsters were by their collection. Spurred by their interest, they decided to take it into schools to help pupils learn about life during the 1940s and have since travelled the country with their mobile museum.
Paul, whose interest in the period was sparked by his grandfather’s ARP badges, says: “I’ve been collecting World War II memorabilia since I was eight.
“My grandfather dedicated his life to the St John’s Ambulance and this struck a chord with me even then. I started collecting other things. I’d go excavating air crash sites near my home and it just grew and grew.
“When Linda and I used to take our collection to 1940s events, the youngsters would spend the whole day with us.
They were fascinated by the all the items we had, and it was from there we came up with the idea of going into schools.
“I used to work with blind children and know how successful tactile learning is. We incorporated this into what we do, so the children can touch, hold and wear our pieces; it puts able-bodied and disabled youngsters on a level footing.
“We started the mobile museum as we wanted to educate people of all ages about World War II and a teacher friend organised our first visit to a secondary school. The reaction we received was amazing and it’s just gone from there.”
The couple’s static museum, which officially opened in August, is split into two sections, with one building dedicated to life on the front while the other explores what it was like for those left behind.
It’s here examples of the distinctive Land Army uniform, with its brown corduroy breeches and woollen, green V-necked jumper, is on show alongside the tools its wearer would have used as well as photographs and propaganda posters encouraging women to ‘Dig for Victory’.
Linda teaches about this and draws on her own experiences of growing up on a farm where her parents kept pigs.
During the war, Lincolnshire was a key area for the Land Army, which was originally set up during the First World War, but disbanded when it ended.
Prior to World War II, Britain imported much of its food and when war broke out again in 1939 it became necessary to grow more at home and increase the amount of land in cultivation.
With many male agricultural workers joining the armed forces, women were called on to form the rural workforce. At its peak there were 80,000 Land Army members working a wide variety of jobs in all conditions across the country.
Linda says: “Their efforts were vital to the country’s survival and I was delighted to recently discover one of Lincolnshire’s Land Army leaders actually lived in a house neighbouring the museum site.
“The Land was vital to the war effort. These girls came out of the towns and cities, many aged about 14, and they didn’t know what a cow was, never mind what to do with it. They were literally trained on the farms,” she says.
“And this is where many of them stayed. They got married and didn’t return to the cities as they found living in the country so much nicer.
“It was hard work and long hours, but the outcome of the war would have been a very different had it not been for the Land Army. These girls needed to come in to keep food production going and had it not been for them we would not have survived. It really was down to them that the nation was fed.”
The farm also has other exhibitions on rationing, evacuation and the Home Guard, while in an adjacent building there are decommissioned weapons, uniforms and a unique Blitz experience. The couple’s Anderson air raid shelter is also on show.
The museum is ideally located, sitting next to the existing World War II defences lining Lincolnshire’s east coast. Paul and Linda have previously held living history days at the site and say the defences, which include pill boxes and gun emplacements, are a significant part of local history.
Paul says: “This is a really important site and one of the few remaining in the country. It was originally set up in the 1940s to protect the port of Boston against coastal attack.
“These defences are among the rarest and best examples of their kind and our aim is to use the impressive surroundings to teach future generations.”
In its 19th century heyday, Freiston Shore was a fashionable location for sea bathing, renowned for its excellent hotels, and horse racing was held on the beaches four times a year. But coastal erosion led to the creation of a salt marsh and the tourist trade declined as a result. From the middle of the 20th century, more marsh was enclosed by the sea banks and used as arable land. Following the outbreak of war, the area became a key defence.
“It was called a World War II examination battery. There were two big six-inch guns in place down there, plus several bunkers, ammunitions stores and anti-tank barriers, all to protect Boston from possible Nazi attack. The gun emplacements are still there, as are the gun rings.
“During the war the site was disguised. As the Germans were flying over they would have seen things such as ‘ice-cream’ and other signs painted on the tops of the buildings, to make them think they were flying over the arcades further along the coast,” adds Paul.
As well as educating children, Paul and Linda use their items in memory recognition sessions with the elderly and community integration workshops and they also plan to host charity events.
“We’ve been absolutely blown away by the feedback we’ve received since opening the museum and we can’t wait to welcome more people to see what we are doing here,” says Paul.