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15 October 2014
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Land Army training

by Susan Barsby

Contributed by 
Susan Barsby
People in story: 
Patricia Joan Strange
Location of story: 
Midland Agricultural College, Sutton Bonington
Background to story: 
Civilian Force
Article ID: 
Contributed on: 
07 June 2005

My grandmother, Patricia (Pat) Strange signed up for the Land Army during the crisis of 1938 but appeasement meant that her training was not until August/ September of the following year. Her story of training and her first postings come from letters to her sister and parents, back at home in Haringay.
Her mother's response to her joining the Land Army was, "Why not join the WRNS and get a decent uniform?" But Pat felt that she was better suited to outdoor work and liked the idea of a less disciplined contribution to war work. Her Land Army training was at the Midland Agricultural College at Sutton Bonington.
"My dears, I arrived quite safely... had to walk from the station but it is only 10 minutes walk. The college is a marvellous place and I've got a dear little room to myself. 1 single bed which looks quite comfortable, 1 table, 1 chair, 1 washstand, 1 chest of drawers, 1 curtained off area with lots of hooks in. I said little room but it's really quite big. Tea is at 4. There are 4 very long tables in the dining room. The bread was very new, white and brown cut thick. You butter it yourself with as much butter as you want. Jam is in huge dishes and home made buns with sugar on are jolly nice. Supper is at 7.30. I sat next to a "girl" at tea who was a land girl in the last war. Her room is next to mine and she's awfully sweet. We've got a lecture at 6, till 7. Apparently you have a choice of about 5 courses. I'm going to do dairy farming I think. Will write again soon, best love Pat."
"My dears, such a lot has happened since I posted your letter this afternoon that I felt I must write again. I went for a stroll with one of the girls, incidentally they seem quite a nice lot, and we returned at 6 for a lecture by one of the most charming men you can imagine. That lasted until about 7.15. I was then interviewed by the principal, who happened to be the charming man who lectured us. He has placed me in class B which is Dairy Farming and the Care of Livestock. We then adjourned to supper, which consisted of meat patties, like Ma makes, piles more new bread and our own dairy butter. Great hunks of cheese, lovely crisp apples just off the trees and jugs and jugs of milk. After that I had a glorious wash (H and C indoor Sanit). The lights in our rooms are pretty foul, they are a horrible purple colour, and don't throw out a single ray, so we congregate either in the reading room or common room where the lights are only pale blue. Goodnight, Pat xx"
To help with the training, about 12 male students were kept on while the girls got into the swing of things. It seems that the rougher tougher girls were placed into forestry whereas other girls from better classes went into horticulture. Pat was in livestock and there was a rotation system - cows for 5 days, pigs for 5 days, sheep and horses for 5 days. The shifts were early and late by turns for milking, feeding etc and the girls took it in turn to have the weekend off. Also there were lectures for the theory side but most of the training seems to have been hands-on.
"Saturday 9th Sept, 1939.
Dear All,
It's a very tired little Patricia that's writing to you now. I spent the morning sweeping and washing down the cowsheds and piling up the "mook" as they call it. I fed and cleaned out 3 cows sheds. One of them is a dear old thing, he's George, but Jack and Bill are miserable old things.... I was so good at my second lot of milking today that the cowman asked me if I'd done it before, and my two cows yielded more milk."
"It's quite an afternoon's work to prepare the cows for milking here. We have to brush and comb their rears and wash their udders in some solution. Then each cow has just a tiny drop drained from it. After all that, we proceed to milk. It's been on machines today, it's not half as nice as hand milking."
Pat's letters home were quite frequent it is apparent from them that her work was clearly quite varied and that she got stuck in.
"I drove a hay cart several miles on my own this morning, filled it with hay, and brought it back and unloaded it all on my own.
I've heard of some funny jobs on farms but I reckon I did the funniest of all yesterday. I had to clean all the windows in the pig sheds. they sparkle so much now that all the pigs' tails have got an extra curl in.
I started on sheep this morning and had a glorious job before lunch. We discovered a sheep with maggots. All its shoulder and half its back was eaten away, and two of us had to scrape the maggots off. They had eatedn right under its fleece, and all wriggled about in bunches of hundreds. It was the worst case of maggots they've ever had here. There wasn't anything to do this afternoon so I've been painting gateposts white for the blackout."
Pat's letters are full of descriptions of the food as well as her work.
"We had a very nice lunch, boiled mutton, beans, potatoes and onion sauce. Plums and custard. Everything except the meat is put on the table for you to help yourself and you can have as many helpings as you like. After lunch 4 of us went with Frank the head cowman, and I washed and steilized all the electric milking gadgets. We milk by electricity and hand. After all that, we walked to a place called Kegworth and it took 4 of us and the cowman about half an hour to drive 8 heifers out of a field. We walked them miles to another field, then I fed 4 bulls and 11 little tiny calves. We had bread and jam and very nice fruit cake, and quarts of tea at 4 o'clock. After tea I went for a short walk with another girl and returned to a glorious hot bath. We can have one whenever we want it. At 5.30, we had another lecture until 6.45, then we had supper at 7.30. Macaroni cheese, bread and butter, and 2 or 3 kinds of of cheese, oranges and more quarts of milk. By the way I forgot breakfast. We had porridge and sausages."
And that was just one day! A funny subplot through the letters is that after a while Pat becomes worried about the amount of weight she is putting on - although she would be burning up a lot in the work, her muscles would be toning up too. One letter finishes "10 st 10 lbs,(still going up) What does one do about it?"
Pat's letters often mention the social side of life at MAC - it sounds fun although you do get the sense that it was probably like an Enid Blyton style boarding school.
"I've made 2 very nice pals here. one is Joan, she's nearly 20, with ginger hair, and the other is Helen, she's married and she's got leave to go home this weekend to see her old man. He's got to go to India next week. The poor girl is awfully upset about it.
We've got a piano and jazz band in the common room and we kick up Hell's own delight in the evening.
I'm sitting in a haystack writing this. It's such a glorious morning that 6 of us, armed with knitting and books tramped across the farm and parked ourselves in a stack.
Ginger and I spent a nice afternoon in Loughborough yesterday with 2 students. We didn't get home till 10.30 and consequently got locked out. We knocked up the caretaker and he let us in without a word.
It was my pal's birthday yesterday and we had a party in my room. We bought "booze" and some bsicuits and potato crisps and had a glorious sing-song until about 11.30. 2 of the students got to hear of it and dressed up in a cow skin and head. They knowcked at the door and when the damn great thing walked in I jumped so much I dropped my glass and it broke in thousands of pieces.
Pat only mentions the country's situation briefly in her letters - the rest of the time she's quite wrapped up in work at the farm.
"It's very funny, but although I have a paper every day, I still can't realise there's a war on. We have hundreds of aeroplanes over here, and troop trains are going backwards and forwards all night.
I'm just waiting for the air raid signal, so I thought I would start your letter. we're having air raid drill tonight and the bell is about to ring any minute. The shelters are in the cheese cellars under the diary. I've got my mask and coat already, so i can dive out of the door. I've got about 3 minutes walk before I get there. I've had a tiring day and shall be glad to get to bed early. Today is the forst bad day we've had, it's been raining all day. The siren conveniently waited until I reached the bottom of the page. Masks will be needed even if there's no gas, the smell of cheese is terrific."
The only occasional gripes in Pat's letters were about the Land Army uniforms.
"We were all dished out with marvellous top boots today. That's the first installments of our uniforms. I was going to ask you to send some things, but I'll make do with what I've got because I shall never get them all home. We should have our dungarees and smocks any day now... We had part 2 of our uniforms today, cow gowns. They're awfully good. Going on at this rate, of 1 thing per week, my uniform will be complete about 3 weeks after my training has finished...
Well our dungarees arrived yesterday and now our working uniform is complete.We've been told we've got to give them back when we leave so we're all going to protest and hang on. There is no sign of our dress uniforms yet and everybody's mad about it. We look very smart all dressed alike. The silly moo of a warden gave me a pair of WX dungarees and wouldn't change them and said I wasn't to alter them but I bored some holes with my penknife and moved the buttons. They look quite good."
Pat's training ended after a month in Sutton Bonington. She was asked to work a temporary job at Bourne, Lincs, on the recommendation of her teachers at the college. She spent several months there, with just one weekend home on leave in October. When she arrived home at the station carrying a sack of apples, a breace of pheasants and a huge bunch of chrysanthemums, her father and brother there to meet her didn't recognise her as she had put on so much weight - about 1 stone in 3 months!

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