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15 October 2014
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The Land Army: New Bikes and Good Friendsicon for Recommended story

by Leeds Libraries

Contributed by 
Leeds Libraries
People in story: 
Irene Johnson nee Mitchell, Mr and Mrs Cluitt, Vera Petty
Location of story: 
Dorset and Leeds
Background to story: 
Civilian Force
Article ID: 
A3862479
Contributed on: 
05 April 2005

Irene Johnson (nee Mitchell) in the Land Army, Dorset.

As told to Amy Russell of Leeds Libraries.

The Land Army

I served in the Land Army for a total of five years and four months.

An American soldier who was leaving Weymouth gave me pearls so whenever I heard the song 'String of Pearls' I'd be reminded of him. We all called him 'pop' because he was older than us. The Americans used to say, "Irene find yourself a yank and come back with us," when they chatted to me at dances.

I was in the land army during the war, aged 21. The jobs were mostly hedging and ditching in Dorset. We had to clear the ditches so the land would drain. The ditches were full of brambles and were last cleared in WW1 by German prisoners of war. We stood in ditches in the cold, in February, wearing wellies!

I worked with a woman called Vera Petty. We worked together hedging and ditching. We were given bread and cheese for lunch and despite not liking cheese I was so hungry that I ate it and over time I got to like it.

We were given a big heavy black kettle for making tea, two of us had to carry it when it was full of water it was so heavy. We would go to the cottage nearby to ask for water. Then we made a bonfire out of branches and made 'gypsy' tea. We would boil the kettle, put the tealeaves in and put the kettle back on the fire and then leave it to settle. The leaves settled on the bottom and the tea poured clear! I've never had tea like it since.

Mr and Mrs Cluitt

One of the houses near by was lived in by an older couple, Mr and Mrs Cluitt, who had three sons. One had been killed in the war and the other 2 were in the forces. They had trees full of apples but felt they were too old to climb the ladders. When they told me this I offered to climb the ladders and pick the apples on my day off and asked them if I could bring a friend with me.

We were told the apples were cider apples and wouldn't be nice if we ate them. Mr and Mrs Cluitt laid out sheets on the floor and we simply threw the apples down from the tree and then dragged the sheets full of apples to the press. The apples were put into open weave canvas bags and crushed by the press, the juice ran from them like a tap and made a lovely cider. I came back to their house another day to try the cider, Mr Cluitt suggested he see me off on my bike to check I was ok to cycle home!

As it came up to the first Christmas in the Land Army the Cluitts offered me a goose to take home for Christmas. I offered to pay them for it and they suggested £3 with it all ready for the oven. Winnie, the girl who I brought to help pick the apples, said she would like one too and they agreed. Then Winnie's boyfriend was on a reserved occupation and was bored and lonely so she applied to go home early and they agreed. She asked me to take her goose back to Morley with me as she was from Barnsley and could send her boyfriend to get it.

The Cluitts said they would help me by putting the geese in a suitcase and taking them on a bike to the station to meet me. But when I met Mrs Cluitt at the train station I could hardly lift the case! I also had a case of my own things to take home as well. I got on the train and travelled home. I could have got off at Morley station but next to the station was empty ground with an air raid shelter. I'd been told that tramps were staying in the shelter. It was total blackout when I got to Leeds and I didn't fancy walking across this ground alone with a heavy case.

Instead I got off at Leeds, it didn't even cross my mind to get a taxi, despite how heavy the case was! I walked for long time to get to the bus stop and had to put the case down regularly, I got really worried the handle would break.

My parents lived on a street up the side of Morley town hall, at 41 Corporation Street. When I got home and opened the case it contained 2 geese and 2 large flagons of cider! Mrs Cluitt must have thought it would be nice for me to take some home for my family! I couldn't believe I'd carried all that such a long way!

Christmas

The Christmas we were at the dairy I invited Sylvia to come home with me to Leeds for Christmas. There was no leave left and we only got holidays once a year but the girls had decided that if you "don't ask, you don't get". We asked and the warden said yes because we couldn't work the land in the frost anyway but we had to pay our own train fare home. I rang my neighbour and asked her to ask my mum if me and Sylvia could come home. My mum wrote back and said that she was welcome.

Sylvia was friends with a farmer's boy and I asked her if she could get anything to take home. The next time we saw him, at the last dance before Christmas, he brought us a pheasant: with tail and feathers intact! I put it in my suitcase and the tail stuck out of the end! All the lads on the train were making jokes and offering to buy it from me.

Bike

I had always longed for a 'fairy' bike as a little girl. I would beg for rides of other kids promising them rides in return when I had my own bike but my Dad wouldn't let me have one. Every year at Christmas I would get a girls annual, a selection box, slippers and a jigsaw. I would always ask dad if I couldn't have a bike instead. But Dad said that he was worried that I would ride on the pavement and knock someone down and when I got older I would ride on the road and he'd seen too many accidents.

I grew up seeing Beryl Burton, the famous female cyclist, training in Morley where we both lived. I remember Beryl flying past me on her racer on the way to work every day.

When war broke out I received notice I had been accepted into the Land Army. I was sent a train ticket and went to Leeds Train station. I'd been sent my Land Army badge and put it on my coat. When I got to the station I saw a group of girls on the platform and walked past them hoping to see a badge. They saw mine and called me over as they were all waiting for the same train to Sturminster Newton in Dorset. The train journey took all day and there was no toilet on the train. Every now and again we would pull into the sidings and let trains filled with troops pass us.

There were WVS drivers waiting at the station for us. They took us to a hostel, and we were all tired and hungry and sat in silence. When we arrived at the hostel, we saw a shed full of bikes. No one had spoken for the journey but I couldn't contain myself, "Who are these bikes for?" I asked. The woman replied, "One's for you." At last, I thought, I got me a bike!

The warden came in after breakfast the next morning and asked us 30 girls who couldn't ride a bike. Only 2 people put up their hands. I wasn't going to in case they took my new bike off me! The bikes were all alike but each had its own number and we were told to pick a bike and stick with it. All the girls rushed out and grabbed bikes.

All the girls rushed off on their bikes. But I went slowly, I got on mine and wobbled across the yard on it. The other girls were getting out of sight and I couldn't see where they were going. There was a steep hill and they had to get off to push the bikes up so I began pedalling hard to catch them up but when they got to the top they disappeared. I was about to go whizzing down the hill quickly to catch them up when I heard someone call me, they'd ducked into a field at the top of the hill! We cycled back to the hostel together and I felt very proud of myself.

Life in the Land Army

There were 30 girls in the hostel and not a wrong word between any of them. We worked all week and until dinnertime on a Saturday. In our time off a gang of us would go into Blandford. I didn't go in pubs but some of the girls did, usually the rest of us would go into tearooms.

At the hostel me and Vera had top bunks next to each other. There were 2 bathrooms between all 30 girls, which meant queues for the baths when we all wanted to get ready to go out. None of us used showers because we weren't used to them, but there were a row provided made of galvanised steel and divided into cubicles. In the end me and Vera got tired of waiting and went into the showers. The water was lovely and we really enjoyed them. When we returned with wet hair the other girls asked us where we had been and didn't know how we had managed to have a wash without waiting for the baths. After we told them the showers were great everyone began to use them.

The village was a mile away from the hostel. Arm in arm the girls would walk home singing songs. We wore woolly sock and small shoes and on the way home took them off and walked in our stockings. The villagers complained about the noise from the singing so we had to quieten down!

There was a copse just below the hostel, on the other side of the road was a house with a high privet hedge, you could just see the roof. A boy lived there who was 10 or 11, he used to deliver the papers and magazines. I had no time to read, I spent my free time writing letters, me and my mum wrote all the time.

One night I woke up to the sound of someone whistling, it didn't sound like a bird it was different, not like anything I'd ever heard before. No one else was awake. The next day I asked the girls if they had heard the noise and none of them had. They asked me if it was an owl or if I thought I'd been dreaming, but I hadn't. The next night it woke me again, it whistled and sang for a long time and then stopped only to start again soon after.

The next day I asked the warden and everyone tried to make suggestions: like a squeaky gate! While we were waiting for a farmer to come with work we began to dig up the land around the hostel to grow our own vegetables. While I was in the drive one day I saw the post boy and called him over. I asked him if he knew what the noise was as he lived near by, I told him I'd "never heard a sound like it". He said I was very lucky, as I'd heard the nightingale! It came every year about that time to the copse by the hostel and stays only for a few nights.

They used to put the song of the nightingale on the radio at midnight when the programs ended but it was nothing like the lovely sound of the real thing.

See also Dairy Work - Irene Johnson (nee Mitchell) and Working in the Women's Land Army - Irene Johnson, for alternative photos.

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