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15 October 2014
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Women's Land Armyicon for Recommended story

by Thanet_Libraries

Contributed by 
People in story: 
Emily Braidwood
Location of story: 
Clacton on Sea
Background to story: 
Civilian Force
Article ID: 
Contributed on: 
04 August 2004

I volunteered for the women's Land Army aged nineteen. I had read in the newspaper ten thousand women were urgently needed to work on the land. I wrote off. I was suprised to find I had to go to Oxford street for my interview. I sat in front of this lady, with what I called five pound note voice. She wore a beautiful silk dress, a silk scarf and she twirled a gold pencil continuosly in her long fingers, as she fired a barrage of questions at me. She wanted to know if I thought it was all feeding chickens with lovely weather. I responded, 'I have been hop picking you know, since the age of three'. She jumped back as if I had fleas. That did not impress her at all. I left the interview thinking, 'Thats that'. I felt elated when i recieved a letter to say I has been accepted and I had to go from Liverpool Street Station to Clacton-on-Sea, Essex.

Now the next worrying hurdle was to tell mum and dad this news. dad hit the ceiling in anger, asked what i was thinking of doing leaving the family? In those days nobody left home. Families looked after each other. I said 'But there's a war on Dad, I want to go'. I explained, for a 48 hour week I would get one shilling (5p) per hour. Money was always important to my dad, because money was very thin on the ground, always. I continued, out of that I would pay twenty five shillings for my billet. Another explosion from Dad. Mum looked very unhappy.

So, with misery on the one hand and a feeling of quiet excitement on the other I looked forward to going to Clacton-on-Sea, my first visit ever. A big change, having spent most of my life living in one room with my mum, dad and brothers.

The start for me in october 1941 was the beginning of a chapter recalled as the happiest days of my life because there was a purpose served, growing food for Great Britain, where food was rationed, to two onces of cheese per week.

Some twelve young women turned up at the station in Clacton. We came from Wapping, Manchester, Hull and Southwark. We were met by a Women's Institute lady with a clip board. Four of us were billeted with Mrs wagstaff, at little Clacton, a nice little village. I was in the same billet all the time. Billets were peoples homes, they volunteered to have us and we paid for our keep. Mrs Wagstaff was a very genteel lady, a widow, with three sons. There was a kind of hostility in the village, servicemen were accepted, not the landgirls. So it was very brave of people like Mrs Wagstaff who took us in.

The general opinion held that land girls wore too much in the winter and too little in the summer! My uniform consisted of cordrouy breeched, strong brown leather shoes, long woollen socks, fawn cotton aertex T shirts, fine cotton long sleeved fawn shirts and a tap tie band at the waist, fawn felt hat with a Women's Land Army Badge, dark green tie with WLA letters and a dark green woollen jumper. One pair gumboots, two overall coats in light khaki and one long dark green oilskin. The servicemens requirements came first without a question.

Reality hit me the first morning when we were told to meet a lorry at 6.30am in the village. it was dark, very dark. I felt cold and tired. I was convinced the village clocks had been tampered with. I had to break the ice in the water jug before washing. My oilskin crackled. It smelled of disinfectant. I wore umpteen layers of everything I could lay my hands on. I could hardly walk.

Altogether some fourteen girls were picked up in a lorry. We travelled fast along a dark country lane, it seemed to be a long journey. At the farm we all staggered out of the lorry slipping in the mud and somehow stood facing an enourmous sugar beet field. We had to clear it! No one had any work experience, no training.

The foreman heaved up a sugar-beet in each hand clutching the leaves. the beets were as big as our heads. the idea was to bang them together, toss them neatly in a row minus soil. We set off, we nearly all sunk without trace. My oilskin crackled.

Having staggered to the end of our two rows I stood up with difficulty. I knew my back wa broken, would never mend, my dad was right, I should not have left home!

There was more. we all had to handle a bill-hook, a strong wooden handle supporting a short, curved blade with which we had to decpaitate the beet. we all moaned and groaned and said 'Blow this for a lark'.

One girl said, 'This is disgusting, let's go on strike.' My heart sank deeper - strike? How could I face my dad?
Some said, 'Theres a was on', and the revolution floundered.

Mercifully we had a short break, just sat in a dry spot and ate packed sandwiches every day, for five years, two months and one day and enjoyed every one - delicious bread, wholesome cheese. No hot drink this time becasue we has to wait for the red tape to untangle in order to claim an agricultural voucher to purchase a flask.

Back at the billet in the evening, no hot water, an outside toilet, very basic indeed. And now, horrors, we knew the score for the second day...

Some three weeks on we had cleared the field, and expertly tossed the sugar-beet into a small horse-drawn wagon. then we bagged the beet for market.

Meanwhile I wrote home to say everything was lovely. We all started to laugh easily, had enormous appetites. I was going to bed early, yet I could now stand up straight, no back ache, could admire the marvellous views. Locals who treated us with suspicionor contempt gradually came to have respect for how hard we worked.

Land clearance job next. Brambles, blackthorn, whitehorn. We used a cross-cut saw to clear the tress which were then burned. Springtime saw us still clearing acres of land.

Wheat, oats and barley were grown. At harvest time I was on of four girls directed to work on a threshing machine. A lorry was not available for only four girls so we each had a WLA bicycle delivered. it was my first bicycle. Threshing for a farmer at Colchester, sixteen miles away. We had to start work at 7am. No bicycle lights, no batteries.

The threshing machine functioned with a steam engine or tractor with a huge belt. Bert, who travelled to each farm hiring out his engine, smoked a pipe upside down, wearning a felt trilby older than himself. he stood on top of a platform and we fed the sheaves of corn to him. It still rankles me to hear the term 'farm labourer' to describe a man who can build a five bar gate or use a horse-drawn plough and who has to touch his cap and say 'sir' to the farmer.

Another job, digging ditches in order to lay clay pipes for land drainage. We stood in a ditch with water up to our wellingtons, shovelling out muck and rubbish.

One day, as our first Christmaswas approaching, one farmer asked us to volunteer plucking turkeys. We were shown into a room within the farm buildings. we watched farm labourers as they bought in the live turkeys. Expertly, with amazing dexterity, this man wrung the turkeys necks. having got the kanck we soon went into the pens. we clutched a turkey, held it firmly and rushed into the plucking room. On average 60lb turkeys. Feathers were now waist high. No extra drink was laid on but we did recieve extra pay. The turkeys were destined for the Navy base at harwich.

When leave came we soon learned to fight our way onto packed trains to get a seat. I was loking forward to Christmas leave and started to write home more frequently asking if they would like me to bring home a small turkey for our Christmas dinner. 'No, dont bring a turkey, we dont like turkey.'

As I walked along Newington Butts on my way home i saw the local butchers table outside his shop, scrubbed white, displaying just half a scraggy chicken. My stomach knotted, I had slipped up. After happy smiles and happy Christmas greetings, my dad asked what I had bought home for Christmas dinner. he was expecting a chicken or a rabbit! Every Christmans from then on I staggered home with six medium chickens and every kind of edible items. Immediate neighbours called in to enjoy grand suppers. Perhaps it was because in those days people didnt have turkey and it didnt feel right to my dad.

After two years of working happily through the four seasons men had virtually disappeared from the land into the services. A car arrived on the filed on day as we were threshing and sweating and a delightful officer outlined to us one months crash course at the Essex Institute of Agriculture, Writtle, Chelmsford. Should we pass, we would be called 'Leaders', qualified to teach the basics to new WLA recruits. It was 1943, I was 21. Altogether, from all around, some 21 girls volunteered and we set off with our travel vouchers for Writtle, a short train journey. The summer weather was fantastic, we were shown into a classroom with elevated seats as in my school days. I had never met a tutor before.

Out came books. I sketched threshing machines, and hand-controlled ploughs used to cut furrows in the soil. Our tutor said three hundred wild grasses grew locally, and we had to identify them. Adopting an intelligent look, we borrowed heavy hard-backed books and wlaked around the immediate fileds during the evening.

Each weekend, the glorious weather continuing, only four girls remained at the college. So we had the responsibility of fire fighting should the college get hit in an air-raid. We had helmets and stirrups pupms at the ready. We were in a local dance hall and the air-raid siren sounded. We dashed ou to 'protect the college'. the locals thought we were frightened but we were duty bound. Off we dashed in the dark to the college trying to find our fire fighting equipment. We were out of breath, but organised at last when suddenly the 'all clear' sounded.

Arriving at the farm for potato lifting, we started work in a ten acre field in heavy mist. The tractor turned the soil ahead of us and we were stretcehd along the field with bent over backs to clear every potato intoa bucket, ten tip themcarefully into waiting sacks. During our midday break, sitting in the potato, we chatted to several home dwellers (farm workers in tied cottages). They wondered why we put up with a shilling (5p) an hour. we decided we wanted a go at piece work.

The farmer arrived. he touched his hat to me, understood he shoul have met us 'gels' earlier to ask if everything was alright. he considered our request and offered us 5d a hundredweight. One women snorted with disgust, told the farmer what he could do with his 5d. I felt I was on a nasty sticky wicket. Then, 'Sixpence it shall be' said the farmer and quickly rode off.

Then it became serious business. We were in for 18 weeks of potato lifting. Arriving at each farm, I looked at the sample. the yield was fantastic, excellent large potatos. I stated terms and always got it agreed. We were in clover - some of us making 25 shillings a day, that meant lifting 50 hundreweight.

Other jobs included carting, hoeing, odd jobs in the barn on wet days, weeding veg etc. We could deftly plant cabbages at 300 per hour. We pruned acres of fruit trees.

And, there was Betty, who suddenly decided to go on a ratcatchers course. outcome? She rode all around, on her bicycle and strapped on the carrier was a ten inch tin painted red with one word on it 'ARSENIC'. She could have knocked out all essex.

We all loved the life we had discoverd. Some six girls cycled from the village to Clacton on our WLA bicycles virtually every weekend to swim in the sea, especially in a storm. we also learned to serve refreshments to servicemen at a canteen supervised by the Women's Institute.

Someone, having recieved a letter from her brother in the RAF abroad asked if we could write a penpal letter. I agreed, sent parcels, it was all great fun. One was serious. she met her pen-pal on demob. we all travelled to Rhyll, North Wales for their wedding.

We went dancing at Clacton to great bands. On one occasion the air raid sirens sounded. Lights out, we left the dance hall on the sea front and follishly watched the dog fights. Spitfires and Germanplanes were caught in the search lights. Shrapnel fell at my feet. i realised later, that that was a narrow squeak.

I went home in january 1947 to wallow in depression, apathy and a loss of appetite. The special sparkling companionship had gone forever. they were the happiest days of my life, really and truly.

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