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My Life in the Land Army

by Isle of Wight Libraries

You are browsing in:

Archive List > Childhood and Evacuation

Contributed by 
Isle of Wight Libraries
People in story: 
Sybil Hammond (nee Phelps); Betty Butcher
Location of story: 
Anglesey, North Wales
Background to story: 
Civilian Force
Article ID: 
Contributed on: 
21 January 2006

The girls from the Land Army after the Victory Day Parade. (L to R) Back: Gladys, Violet, Minnie, Phyllis, Joyce, Dorothy. Front: Ida, Megan, Winnie, Sybil Hammond

This story was submitted to the People’s War site by Bernie Hawkins and has been added to the website on behalf of Sybil Hammond with her permission and she fully understands the site’s terms and conditions.

When World War Two was declared I was still attending Bangor County School for Girls, having been born in 1924 in Penmaenmawr, North Wales. Our headmistress had made us all very aware of the very serious situation we were in, the fact that Adolf Hitler would try to invade Britain and all the implications of his terrible plans for the British people. It was instilled into us that we all had to play our part, however small, in fighting for our very existence.

I left school that year and started my hairdressing apprenticeship in Colwyn Bay, at the same time joining the Red Cross and in my spare moments obtaining certificates in first aid, home nursing and child welfare.

As soon as I was 17½ years of age I volunteered for the WAAF but unfortunately did not pass the medical exam. However, not to be put off doing my bit for the war effort, I enlisted in the Land Army. My first job was in market gardening but some months later I was sent to a dairy farm where I learnt to milk cows etc. As we were a team of four and I was not as big and strong as the other three land girls, I had a hard time and found I could not cope with the farmer’s demands, especially lifting the heavy milk churns. So after a few months I was posted to the Menai Bridge Hostel on Anglesey. Due to my parents having moved to Surrey, I requested a posting nearer to them but was in fact sent further away.

After a day long journey on a crowded train without food or drink, I arrived at Menai Bridge in complete darkness on a wild and windy January night, with no signposts to guide me or anyone to help with my luggage. Crossing the Menai Bridge was a scary experience. On arrival at the Hostel I was very cold, hungry and homesick, and when I saw the dormitory with the wooden beds, stone floors and one combustion stove in the middle, my heart sank and I thought I would never be able to deal with it.

There were 66 girls living at the Hostel, comprising teams of rat catchers, threshers, dairy farmers, tractor drivers and some reclaiming the land from the sea for farming. Our work rotas were displayed on the notice-board daily and we were transported to our different locations in a variety of trucks driven by land girls. Field work consisted of lifting or planting potatoes for days and weeks on end. We followed the horses, picking up potatoes in big galvanised buckets in all weathers. Our truck would pick us up at the end of a long day, feeling very dirty and tired. Our first aim was to get out of our dirty clothes and queue for a bath. There were only two bathrooms between us all and facilities for washing our clothes were very limited. No washing machines or tumble dryers in those days — just a couple of big sinks and a large, dusty boiler room for drying. It was all very basic and very difficult to keep clean, but we managed somehow. After a plain and simple meal, we would don our best dress and be off to a dance or the pictures, so we managed to keep happy and cheerful most of the time.

Spring would arrive and the planting and weeding season brought more back-aching work. Summer was of course the popular season. We all loved haymaking, stooking the corn and loading the horse-drawn carts. Then came the threshing: the heavy lifting and the dirty and dusty old threshing machines. There was only one modern threshing machine on the Island, which a farmer hired out, so it was in great demand.

The lifting and sorting of potatoes and other crops made the autumn a very hard time. When we arrived at a farm we jumped out of the truck to survey the size of the field and the task ahead. The bigger the field, the more our hearts sank. However, we always managed to complete the task in hand. We sometimes had a short break for a cup of water. One very mean farmer used to bring a large bucket filled with cocoa without milk or sugar. They gave their animals better than they gave us girls!

Alas we often had to work alongside Italian prisoners of war, who would stop work at the slightest sign of rain, a puff of wind or the heat of the sun. They were very work-shy and very cheeky too. Even their living conditions were better than hours.

Later my friend Betty Butcher and I were given the job of soil-testing. We were supplied with the addresses of the farms to be tested, a map of the fields, an auger and a belt-load of tiny sacks into which we put samples from various parts of the fields. The farmer had to give us particulars of crops he had grown and intended to grow that year. We then took our samples to Bangor University where they were analysed. The farmers would be informed about the condition of the soil, what it lacked in nutrients and what fertilisers to use.

After settling down to all the hard work, poor living conditions and the poor allocation of our food rations — always hungry, always dirty and tired — there was a big plus in the friendships I had never before experienced.

A lot of the girls came from the big cities of Liverpool, London, Manchester and Leeds, Apart from a few locals they had never seen a horse in a field before. We all helped each other and never let each other down — girls like Minnie, Phyllis, Joyce, Betty, Jean, Kath, Edith, Joan and Kathleen to name but a few. (If by chance any of you are still out there, please get in touch.)

Our hostel became a happy local centre for servicemen and locals living nearby. We organised dances, whist drives, plays, etc. for our benevolent fund or “Wings for Victory” week. We also entertained young sailors from the training ship HMS Conway for a Sunday tea, which usually consisted of kippers and bread, but the very young homesick cadets enjoyed our hospitality. There was also an Air Sea Rescue station at Menai Bridge and these brave men also came to our dances.

The American Army arrived at the estate of Lord Anglesey and we were entertained there — the “gals” in green as they used to call us. Imagine what a treat that was! The food was something we only dreamed about. Such luxuries we thought we would never see again. The Americans were very kind to us.

Of course we had our happy times — lots of romances to keep us busy. We once had a wonderful fancy dress ball. We were told of a wonderful magical barn, high up in the Snowdonia Mountains, where the BBC (which had evacuated to Bangor) stored all their props and costumes. It was like an Aladdin’s Cave, we discovered, full of beautiful things hidden there for safety reasons for the duration of the war. We were allowed to hire the costumes for a small sum of money, so it was worth the long trek up into the hills and we found it very exciting, an unforgettable experience. For this dance we decorated the hall at Llangefni with any greenery and bunting we could lay our hands on, all adding up to a memorable evening!

We carried on bravely working and playing hard until the news announcing the end of the War came over the radio, but after a brief period of celebration it was back to work. It was not the end of the Land Army as we all did at least another year before our release, as did all the services.

Upon my release I was given a greatcoat, a pair of breeches, a shirt and a pullover — just part of my uniform. I also received a letter from Queen Elizabeth, our patron, a travel warrant home and that was it! We were not given any gratuity or even any clothing coupons. Indeed I was penniless and my parents had to give me money to buy some clothes.

We had done all we could to keep the nation from starvation on pay that was a pittance and hard to exist on, but at least we were proud to say we had “done our bit” for our country’s survival and liberty — a fact that was never really recognised until recent years when the Women’s Land Army were allowed to parade in Whitehall on Remembrance Sunday.

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