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15 October 2014
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Tractor Driver Betty - Part 2 (1943-1949)icon for Recommended story

by BBC Southern Counties Radio

Contributed by 
BBC Southern Counties Radio
People in story: 
Betty Merritt
Location of story: 
Sussex
Background to story: 
Civilian Force
Article ID: 
A4972061
Contributed on: 
11 August 2005

With my Tractor

“This story was submitted to the People’s War site by Bob Davis from the Burgess Hill Adult Education Centre and has been added to the website on behalf of Betty Merritt with her permission and she fully understands the site’s terms and conditions”

My early service with the Land Army was at Todhurst in Sussex from 1941-1943 and this is described in Part 1 of my story (of the same title).

In March 1943 I got a transfer to a pretty little village called Thakeham, and the place was called "Chesswood Nurseries", where 265 people were employed, many of them Land Girls.

My first task there was to drive an old Fordson tractor, complete with a binder, on which a man sat, and I had to cut a ten acre field of wheat. The wheat was then put into stooks to dry out before being gathered, and was made into a huge corn stack.

It was a wonderful sight to see on a late summer morning, the field of golden waving corn stretching out before me, and then in late afternoon to see it transformed into a field of neatly lined stooks - it was so rewarding. I loved that job.

The different work I did with tractors is too numerous to mention. I did a lot of specialised work, such as row crop hoeing, when I would carefully drive between rows of crops less than a foot apart, and make sure that I did not cut any small plants out on the way. It always made me nervous when my boss would come and stand at the end of the rows and watch my performance - I'm sure I must have cut one or two out on those occasions!

I always had to do my own maintenance, such as point the plugs, clean out the carburettor, grease a dozen or so nipples, empty the dirty engine oil from the sump, and renew it periodically, and see that the tyres had the right pressure in them and so on. It was a very difficult task when I had to crank the old tractor on a frosty morning in winter, as the Fordson had no self starter, and when it had been standing out in an open field all night, it certainly took a lot of muscle to get it going again. I flopped over it and cried more than once. Sometimes I was given a Ferguson to drive, which was a joy after the others, as it had a self-starter! My jobs with a tractor were many, and varied, but I enjoyed being in the open air all the time, and was never bored. I was a great sun worshiper, and used to strip off to the minimum - in fact, at one stage I was asked to wear more clothes!

One day I was carting a huge trailer-load of cow dung, with another girl to help me. It was getting near lunchtime, and we were rushing to get the load off, when all of a sudden I moved the wrong way, and she stabbed my leg with the dirty manure spikes. I didn't even report it, and three months later it festered, and the Doctor said that if I had not been in very good health, I could have died from tetanus - I still carry my wound now!

Sometimes I had to carry pipes for building new greenhouses on my big trailer, and at other times collect dozens of boxes of vegetables and take them from the fields to the packing sheds, where they would be sorted to be sent to Covent Garden. - I had a 'mate' for these occasions - one of the lorry-load of German prisoners of war who would arrive every morning to do agricultural work. At first we were all reluctant to go near them. But soon we found that they were not difficult to get on with, and I usually had one of these men helping me every day. We got along fine together, in fact I picked up quite a bit of the German language at that time. My land Army wage was 52 shillings a week - I was paid ten shillings more than the other girls, as my work was considered a key position. I also got 'dirt' money for row crop spraying, which was a few shillings more. We worked 52 hours a week in spring and summer, from 7.30am to 5.30pm, and in winter 48 hours from 8am till 5pm, with an hour for lunch, from 1 to 2pm. I was living in Worthing for five years at this time, and it was not always easy to reach a lorry pick-up point at 7.30 on dark mornings, especially if one had been dancing until midnight the previous evening! Sometimes I would get there too late, so in desperation I would be forced to thumb a lift - sometimes in a car, sometimes in a huge lorry - and once a Colonel told his driver to stop for me! I always had some tale of adventure to tell when I finally got to work, but it did not happen very often.

I sometimes worked with a coloured man at this place - his name was Jumo Kenyatta', and he later became President of Kenya. When I knew him he was working on manure piles, but he always looked so smart in his blue and orange short-sleeved shirts and khaki shorts, and at first I wondered who he could be. I used to talk to him a lot for he spoke such good English. Apparently, he had been a university lecturer, and when the war came, he was forced to stay in England, and was put into agricultural work until the war ended, when he was allowed to return to Kenya.

The last two years of my Land Army days I was transferred to East Sussex and employed by the East Sussex War Agricultural Committee as a tractor driver again, and was attached to a Machinery Depot at Robertsbridge, 11 miles from Hastings. I was now doing contract tractor work, which I also enjoyed very much.

The tractors and machinery were stored at the Depot, and any farmer in East Sussex who needed work done by a tractor would phone in and make an appointment to have a tractor and driver sent to his farm for a specific job to be done. I rather enjoyed this, as some mornings I would be setting off to the Rye or Hastings areas, and at other times to Burwash, Peasmarsh, Battle - places like that. I would be ploughing or disking, harrowing, or mowing a field of peas, rye or barley. For many weeks in the Autumn I would be spinning potatoes - I must have been the chief potato spinner in East Sussex, for I harvested acres of them! A lorry load of German and Italian prisoners would be brought to the field where the potatoes were, I would spin them out of the ground, and they would bag them up - a very backbreaking job it was too! I used to like knitting, and used to take my knitting along with me. When the men were picking up the potatoes I would sit and knit, whilst waiting to spin out another row.

People from London and other City areas would take agricultural working holidays to aid the war effort, and I would find myself having to deal with grannies, aunties and children, which made a fair change! The summer work was lovely, and one day I did a job for a farmer, and when I had finished he asked me if I would stay on for a couple of hours, as he didn't want to put his sow and pigs in their house yet - would I keep an eye on them! Off he went, and I decided to have a sun bathe. When he came back, he was amused to find all the little piglets lying down with me, whilst their poor old mum was all on her own by the fence.

As I have said earlier, the summers were very hard sometimes, but I would never have swapped my job for work under cover, like so many had to. I was a country girl, and the country was for me. In my Land army years I had covered a lot of the Sussex landscape, and decided that I would see the summer of 1949 through - but not another winter. I was married in May 1949, on a beautiful Sunday afternoon. I was early for the ceremony, so my driver drove me all along Hastings Sea-front, and I felt like a queen, as many holiday-makers spotted me, and waved. I was married in St Clements Church in the Old Town of Hastings - that beautiful old church holds many happy memories for me, for during that summer the vicar who conducted the wedding ceremony asked me if I would do him a favour.

The very big stained glass window over the altar had been completely bombed out during the war, and they were going to dedicate the new one to the war services. He asked me if I would represent the Land Army in it. I felt very honoured, and naturally said I would. This meant a few trips to the artist who was making the stained glass window. I had to kneel in a posed position for half hourly sessions for this.

The window is in beautiful colours, and represents the Navy, the Air Force, the Army, the Nursing Service, and myself - the Land army. It is still there for all to see, and I hope it will be for many years to come!

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