- Contributed by
- People in story:
- Rita Smith
- Location of story:
- Gulval, Cornwall
- Background to story:
- Civilian Force
- Article ID:
- Contributed on:
- 25 July 2005
Rita’s Wartime Tale as a Land Army Girl submitted to the website by Joan Pearce who understands the site's terms and conditions.
The main thing about the Land Army was that the girls were “town girls”
Who knew nothing at all about country matters who suddenly got thrown in at the deep end?
Rita was born in Oldham, Lancashire lass. Lancashire at the time had hardly any countryside except on the outskirts…we had a piece of ground at the back of us; they used to call them brews (this was a local word and Rita thinks they were browse or burroughs). A piece of ground that had no buildings upon it. It was always black because of the mining there in the old days. Rita volunteered for the Land Army not realising how little she knew about growing things. Where she lived they did not have a garden but a back yard.
Rita explains that what a collection of girls there were in the Land Army from a cross section of the community. Rita joined the Land Army in 1941.
Rita expressed the fact that what no one ever seems to mention is “What a difference the war made to peoples lives” The life that was before and the life that was after, and we are talking about a five-year gap. Before there was such poverty not in the London area and such places but where Rita lived there was such a lot of unemployment. My memories as a child of seeing these men standing at Flavelstone Road corner not knowing what to do. All those Lancashire towns relied almost entirely on cotton. Between my house and the school Rita passed two mills there was hardly a street without a mill in it. It is hard to picture but Rita thinks that it is these facts that SHOULD be remembered because there was absolutely no money. Rita remembers once going to a house and the lady had washed her husband’s wages in the tub in his trousers pocket without knowing it was there and she was panic stricken and she had two pound notes clipped on a wire and she had three children and that was what she had to manage on for the week. She was worried that she had wrecked them but Rita assured her that because there was a number on them she would be all right.
Once war started, suddenly there was bags of employment because we weren’t prepared for war, I don’t know how we managed to survive.
All the industry got going, “Where did all that money come from to get it all going when just before there had been so much poverty?” At the time Rita was only sixteen at the start of the war and very naïve she suddenly realised that there was loads of money to make ammunition but there was no money to keep all these poor people and at sixteen she questioned this. Rita realises that this country has had it’s slumps but that poverty has never happened since, nothing like it. When she first came to Cornwall as Land Army girls she suddenly found what struck her as even more poverty than what she had experienced in Lancashire. The men in Cornwall worked so hard and for all their hard work they got three pound a week.
Prior to joining the Land Army at eighteen Rita had worked in a shop and worked as a Nanny. When she left school at fourteen, it was very difficult to get a job. Her parents wanted her to go on to College to study music. She didn’t, as she wanted to leave school. Although her parents were well off compared to some, they were not well off enough to pay for education.
She worked in a shop at weekends for pocket money. Once she had started working in the shop the owner said that she was too valuable in the shop and decided to keep her there working instead of looking after the owner’s child. She was the window dresser, a job at which she enjoyed very much. She left for a short period. She was very patriotic and is still very proud to say that she still is. Rita wanted to “do her bit” for the war. Unfortunately she was female and could not volunteer. There were advertisements for machinists to make men’s battledress. She can sew now but at the time wanders why she volunteered to go and work as a machinist she doesn’t really know. She worked on a post-felling machine. A machine, which made a French seam with two needles on it and a lip, which curled the material in under. Eventually she was doing buttonholes and worked on many different machines assembling battledress.
Rita returned to work in the shop and one of the girls who also worked there in the gown department came in to see Rita and announced that she was going to volunteer for The Forestry that afternoon. This interested Rita who discovered that the job released the men and in fact entailed checking trees for disease and whether they needed felling. It was made to sound most attractive. They were recruiting that afternoon in Manchester and the two girls went off together. At this stage Rita had never heard of The Land Army. At the recruitment centre Rita was interviewed by a lady who chatted away to her and eventually she told Rita that she did not think that she would be suitable to join the Forestry but persuaded her that she would be more suitable to join The Land Army and she would no doubt stationed in Yorkshire and stressed that this nearer her home and that it was important that she should be able to visit her Mother regularly and would be able to do so if stationed close by. She advised Rita that it would be hard work and that she would only get perhaps one half day off each fortnight. In those days eighteen was considered to be very young. The interviewer did her level best to put Rita off joining but she stubbornly decided that she would join and did so. In the space of a few hours from the morning not knowing of it’s existence, by the afternoon she had joined the Land Army. Rita had visions of farm work involving cows and other animals and had a romantic vision of herself strolling along country lanes herding the cows along. Rita always thought that whatever anybody else could do she could do also. She assumed that she would get training on how to milk cows etc. She signed on the dotted line, arrived home and told her Mother that she had joined the Land Army and of course her Mother had never heard about them before either. They were anxious days waiting for her papers to arrive and she remembers her mother being so distracted about it all that one day her mother carried a shovel into the pantry to fetch coal instead of going to the coal shed. When her papers finally arrived they said that there were going to be two hostels, one at St. Hilary and one at St. Buryan. They had no idea whatsoever where these places were. Her ticket on the train was to St. Erth and the train left Manchester at midnight and to get there she had to catch a bus to Manchester and had to walk a couple of miles to the train during the blackout and bombs.
The train arrived at St. Erth station at around three in the afternoon making the journey over fifteen hours. When the fifty Land Army girls travelling on that journey arrived at St. Erth her first impressions were how clean the station was and that there were flowers. Compared to the Oldham stations that were black and covered in soot. They had been informed that transport would be meeting the girls from the train to take them either to St. Hilary or St. Buryan. After an hour of waiting around at the station all of them very tired as they had had little sleep on the journey down some of the more experience women became irate and went to the station master to ask for information. He in turn made a phone call and the transport was waiting at Penzance. The girls all then had to catch the next train to Penzance and pay there own fare as their original tickets took the only as far as St. Erth. They felt like lost sheep just landed what seemed to them in the middle of nowhere. Rita was the only girl not in uniform, as hers had not arrived. Dressed in civilian clothes with an armband that said “W.L.A”. Finally they arrived at Penzance where army trucks were waiting for them. In those days Rita was shy and found herself at the back of the group. There was room on the transport for all except three and Rita was one of these three. Rita remembers their names so well, Eva, Gloria and herself. They had to walk to the hostel, which was situated at Eastern Green. They were devastated as they were so tired they had no idea how far they had to walk. It was a brand new hostel it was a wooden hut which was on the site where Tesco’s stands at this moment in time. There were fifty girls in that one hostel they were all new. The following morning a man came and allocated the farms on which the girls would be working.
The farmers for different seasonal work, i.e. Potatoes, cauliflowers, carrots, turnips etc, hired the girls. When they needed the help, the farmers would hire the girls in “gangs”. Some of the girls were drivers. Again the Eva, Gloria and Rita were the last ones to be allocated and so they were farmed out locally to Eastern Green. They were all sent to a farmer called Fred Jelbert. This was the first time Land Girls had been in the area. It was said at the time that this particular farmer “worked his women like men and his men like horses”. After hearing this Rita was wandering what on earth she had let herself in for. May 1st beginning of the potato season which were not quite ready. Onions were just sprouting up through the ground. The first job Rita ever did was picking up anemone corms. At the time she did not know anemones’ grew as corms. Next came weeding the onions and again Rita had no idea what she was looking for and the only way she could tell the difference between the onion sprouts and grass was to feel them and if the blade felt round it was an onion and if it was flat it was grass and she pulled it out. She was wondering where on earth the cows that she had been anticipating looking after were kept. Of course it was not a beef or dairy farming. Mr Jelbert was so pleased with her work that he told Rita that she could choose any friend she wanted and that he wanted them both to stay on his farm until the end of the war. When Rita first came to Cornwall she thought the locals were speaking a foreign language and the further West you went the more Cornish peoples speech became especially in 1941 prior to which there had not been this invasion of different dialects. In more recent years I have met through various organisations people from around Gulval who are not truly Cornish and even Rita resents the “invasion” of “foreigners”. Rita says, “Cornish people were my people”. She wonders what the people who have always lived in Gulval feel because she feels that the village has been completely taken over.
Rita and her friend Lillian who both worked for Mr. Jelbert were transferred from the hostel at Eastern Green to Kenneggie by the administrator who was not pleased that they had made arrangements to live in the village nearer the farm because when they got wet during working hours it was much closer to walk back to the village to get into dry clothing than to walk back to Kenneggie and then reverse the process to get back to the farm. Rita then went to Truro to see someone in authority and explained that with the delay in getting to and from the farm they spent as much as up to an hour in the process and therefore were not working as many hours as they could have done.
The young lady who argued with her at Truro said to Rita “You have to remember that there is a war on” and Rita was aghast because this young lady sat at a desk all dressed up and in the warmth whilst Rita and the rest of the Land Army girls were out in all winds and weathers getting soaked more than once in a day working in really bad conditions and working extremely hard. Seedlings had to be planted out in wet weather. Rita looked upon the farm as “One big garden”. All the produce that came from the farm was taken daily to Penzance station where each farmer had his own railway carriage, which was filled with all fresh vegetables and sent up each day to London and other big cities. All the Land Army Girls knew that they were doing a good job because they were feeding everybody in the country. Despite all this The Land Army were still not recognised.
The hostel at Eastern Green was owned by the Y.W.C.A to whom the Land Army girls paid rent. Their wages would have been about two pounds of which sixteen shillings and eight pence had been taken for their board and lodgings.
On a visit to Penzance one day Rita and her friend called into the Y.W.C.A canteen, which was one of many canteens, provided by different organisations to provide sustenance to passing military personnel. Rita and her friend were refused a midday meal because they were not “services”. They were provided with bread and jam and a cup of tea for which they paid whilst two W.A.A.F.’s came in who were typists and GIVEN a midday meal. Rita agreed that they too were doing a war job but it hardly seemed fair. On a different visit to a very wet Falmouth the two girls found themselves outside the Salvation Army canteen that welcomed them in with a hot meal.
The hours they worked was from 7.30 am until 5.30 p.m when they would return home for a hot meal and afterwards would return to the farm and work until it was dark most nights. If there were a job to be finished then they would go back and finish it. Time was then on double British Summer time.
900000Their leave was every six months for a week and they were provided with a chit travel allowance.
The Cornish people took the Northern girls to their hearts and showed them nothing but kindness. Yes they expected a good hard days work but the girls were treated fairly. Most weekends the different Farmer’s wives would invite the girls out to tea. They were unused to having a set table with all the usual Cornish food and all they thought they were invited for was a cup of tea.
Not all the girls from different parts of the country were so willing to work, they would lean on their hoes or keep hopping over the hedge to go to the toilet, Rita said they had no toilets around in those days. She thinks that it was no wonder she lost all her shyness.
War altered Rita’s personality and everything about her.
Rita left Cornwall after the war in 1945, got married in 1946 and returned with her husband in 1947 for a visit and re-acquainted herself with all the friends she had made in Gulval.
In 1972 Rita and her husband returned to Cornwall and made their home here and have never once regretted her war years serving as a Land Army Girl in Cornwall. Although nearly forty years passed between the end of war and her eventual return she felt as though she was “coming home”.
Rita marched in the V.E. parade in Truro in 1945. Many of the girls from St. Hilary & St. Buryan represented the Land Army at this parade.
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