February 21, 2010

The Women’s Land Army

Posted in England, Farm, Home Front, Land Army, WWII at 12:14 am by catsinboxes

The Women’s Land Army was formed June 1st, 1939.  Its purpose was “to increase the amount of food grown within Britain.”   After Britain declared war against Germany on September 3rd, the Land Army insured that British agriculture did not suffer from a shortage of laborers.

All British women from the ages of 18 to 50 had to register for National Service and were liable to be drafted.  Many, however, voluntarily joined the Land Army, entering at the minimum age, 17.  Reasons for joining varied.  Some loved the country, some loved animals, and some didn’t fancy getting a “desk” job or working in a munitions factory.  According to statistics, about a third of the Land Army girls were from large cities.  Many had no farming experience and were in for some surprises.

After joining, girls were given a uniform consisting of a pair of corduroy breeches, several cream blouses, a green “jumper” (sweater), a green tie, woolen socks, an overcoat, and a pair of brogues as well as a pork pie hat.   It was hardly a flattering uniform, one mother’s response, upon learning that her daughter had joined the Land Army was, “Why not join the WRNS [Women’s Royal Naval Service] and get a decent uniform?”  But as one Land Girl philosophically wrote afterwards, “The uniform was not what you would call glamorous, but in keeping with the work.”

Women's Land Army recruits ~notice the recruitment poster

Most new recruits then went through a series of classes, preparing them for their work.  Girls were given the choice of animal husbandry, with the possibility of specializing in dairy, poultry, etc., while other fields included horticulture and forestry.

Beginners at the Devon War Agricultural Executive Committee Training Centre, Whimple, learning the points of a cow from Miss Smithson, the Instructress. Land Girls had a month here before going on to Farms in Devon.

After a period of training, often in excellent, modern agricultural conditions, reality set in.

If farmers were in need of labor they would apply for some “Land Girls.”  Usually the girls worked together, at least two per farm.  Based upon recollections, many girls were given the choice of living with a farming family, in their own quarters near their farm, or in a hostel with other Land Girls.  Many enjoyed the social life of a hostel, though for some girls, who until now had lived at home, it took a bit of getting used to.  For those who stayed on farms, conditions widely varied.  Some were treated as part of the family.

But, above housing, the greatest adjustment for Land Girls was the work itself; hard manual labor.  Work started early in the morning.  Some girls’ tasks shifted every several days, but for others it stayed consistent.  In this and following posts I will explore the different jobs of Land Girls, beginning with …

Dairy:  While some farms had electric milkers, many still depended upon hand-milking.  Given the choice between hand milking and machinery, most girls preferred the former.  That is, those girls who braved the dairy.  It is quite interesting reading the different accounts of girls’ experiences with cows.

For Marjorie Pearson, after finishing her training milking a model “wooden” cow, hand milking was, “Utter bliss by comparison with the wooden cow, although that didn’t have a tail to swish and catch one’s face a stinging blow …”

The tail was one thing that many girls recalled, one recollecting, “I, like many of the Land Girls, learned to stay clear of the cow’s tail as it swished away at the flies. It really stung when it hit you in the face.”

Land girls milking at Carpenders Park Farm, Hertfordshire

Some girls truly enjoyed the animals they worked with, Catherine Henman remembered that, “Each cow knew just where to go in the milking shed and if another one got in the way, she would bump it out the way. Very intelligent animals, and we knew them all.  I didn’t like rounding the animals up on a Saturday to go to Bedford market, because we made friends of them.”

Mavis Young, gives a very thorough description of dairy training,

“I was soon to learn that there was much more to milking a cow than sticking a bucket underneath it. Before we were even allowed near a cow we had to learn the skills of hand milking from charts and diagrams, and even a model cow. We had to learn how to calculate the milk yield and enter it on the Government forms. Buckets and equipment had to be scrubbed and sterilised, and as machine milking was also taught, I would get a mental block trying to assemble the machine, and I always had a few pieces left over!

We had to be shown how to soothe a recalcitrant beast and to tie a downright bad tempered one. We were also to learn that feeding played an enormous part, which included carrying the heavy sacks of fodder, bales of hay, and buckets of sliced mangolds into the cow sheds. Mucking out had to be accomplished to such a standard according to our tutor that one could eat off the floor. The cows themselves were rather a mixed bag, as they were long past their best as high yield milkers, and, therefore, all getting on a bit. As a cow will not willingly give its milk to an inexperienced operator, nobody could blame those in authority for not letting us loose on valuable cattle.

I shall never forget the first time I milked a cow though, the feel of her hairy warmth and I dug my head into her side, the soft crunch of her munching hay, and the occasional low or belch and the sweet smell of the warm milk as it hissed into the bucket. When I had finished, the cow looked round at me as if to say ‘Not bad’, then promptly had an ‘accident’ down my milking smock!”

Oh, the joys of milking!

Resources used:

Home Sweet Homefront: The Women’s Land Army (Recruitment poster)

http://www.homesweethomefront.co.uk/web_pages/hshf_wla_pg.htm

Lawson, Don.  An Album of World War II Home Fronts. New York:  Franklin Watts,  1980.

Mere Museum (Land Girls group picture):

http://www.meremuseum.org.uk/galleries/wla.php

National Archives:

http://www.nationalarchives.gov.uk/records/looking-for-person/womenslandarmy.htm?WT.lp=rg-3157

Reading University Museum of Rural Life (1st two dairy photographs, excellent website)

http://www.reading.ac.uk/merl/research/countrysideimages/merl-list.aspx

http://landarmy.org.uk/home.html#link3 (Last picture, not very informative site)

World War2 People’s War:  (All Land Army recollections)

http://www.bbc.co.uk/ww2peopleswar/categories/

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1 Comment »

  1. Kristen said,

    What an interesting read! It is amazing overall to see how the role of women changed (in Britain and even America, for that matter) during WWII. I enjoyed the pictures you included as well. Looking forward to the continuation and hearing about the fascinating things you learn!


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