- Contributed by
- Rutland Memories
- People in story:
- David Laurance; Helen Laurance (nee Young); Leonora James
- Location of story:
- Nottingham; Bedfordshire
- Background to story:
- Civilian Force
- Article ID:
- Contributed on:
- 08 March 2005
This story was contributed by Helen Laurance.
The Women’s Land Army has been, in the past, dubbed ‘The Forgotten Army’. Fortunately, this has been partially remedied. However, there is a part of this army which had, at the time, to be definitely ‘forgotten’ by the outside world because of the highly secret nature of its work.
Before the War
First though, I must set the scene for my part in this work. At the time of the outbreak of the Second World War I was working with another girl in Kent. We were in charge of a large vegetable garden with a greenhouse and cold frames etc. We were both experienced in market gardening. I had trained at the Midland Agricultural College at Sutton Bonington and Leonora had trained at Usk Agricultural College.
Our work in Kent was to provide all the vegetables and fruit (also a few flowers) for a large household which was well staffed with butler, housekeeper, cook and other domestics, all living in. It was a hard job, but we enjoyed it.
When war was declared we felt extremely nervous, positioned as we were in a direct line between the enemy and London and its possible heavy bombardment. So it was with tremendous relief that I received a telegram from Professor Robinson, head of the college where I had previously trained and worked. I was ordered to return immediately to the college to train recruits for the Women’s Land Army.
Leonora had already been recalled to her previous college at Usk so I was only too glad to pack up hastily and to travel across London on my way back to the Midlands. I might add that everyone felt very nervous since we expected bombing of the capital to start immediately.
Training at the Midland Agricultural College
The trainee Land Army girls who had been sent to the College were all from London, or near to it. They were some of the first WLA recruits. They were a very mixed bunch and none of them was used to any sort of work on the land. One was a beautician, another was the German wife of a British soldier, now overseas. (The poor girl had to walk to Kegworth and back once a week to register where she was domiciled.) Another dear little lady was old enough to be my grandmother, full of enthusiasm to help the war effort but not at all suitable for the demanding work on the land which she was being trained to do.
After a few had been trained as best as we could in the short time allowed for this training, it became obvious that extra help was not needed yet on farms nor on market gardens. Agricultural workers still all fell into the ‘reserved occupation’ category and the drive to increase food production in the UK had not yet taken off.
Sadly, many of these early WLA girls had to return to their previous jobs, at least for the time being. I often wonder what happened to them after their enthusiastic initiation, - then rejection, as it must have seemed to them. The Land Army then withdrew from sending girls to train at Sutton Bonington.
In their place, Swanley Horticultural Training College for Women was evacuated from its site in Kent and took over the Horticulture Department of the Midland Agricultural College.
The Swanley staff, all women, were extremely knowledgeable and hard-working under their frighteningly super-efficient head, Dame Kate Barrat, who reorganised the department and missed nothing! I was then seconded to this Swanley outfit. I was also put in charge of the marketing of garden produce not required by the College kitchens. I learned a lot from my work with the Swanley staff and made some good friends but we were all working under great pressure and I was not sorry to move on to another challenge when it presented itself.
Camouflage work at Ruddington
When the shortage of jobs suitable for WLA girls became obvious, the War Office unexpectedly utilized some WLA recruits by employing them to camouflage the site of an ordnance factory being built at Ruddington near Nottingham.
Although it was not agricultural or horticultural work, these girls were employed by Mowlems, sub-contractors to Sir Alexander Gibb and Partners, who were in overall charge of the building of the factory and of the layout of the site. The WLA girls were to be paid more than the statutory wage for WLA girls and would also receive a canteen midday meal. Because of my previous work with the Land Army, I was offered the job of being in charge of the girls and of supervising their work.
There were about 18 girls already there when I first arrived. Their number rose to 98 at the peak of the work, then slowly diminished as the job neared completion.
The girls’ work consisted of sowing grass seed on the steeply sloping sides of the banks of soil thrown up by heavy earth-moving machinery to hide factory buildings where munitions were being made. These banks were known as ‘the mounds’. It was hoped that these mounds would not only camouflage the ammunition factories but would protect others to some extent in the event of a fire or explosion.
The work necessitated the girls working on the slopes of around 45 degrees on the mounds, and also on the level stretches between the mounds. They had to obtain a tilth suitable for growing grass seed, even though much of the soil thrown up was rough subsoil. It was physically hard, boring work with long hours. If I remember rightly, we worked from 7.30 am (or later, according to the hours of daylight) until 5.30 pm, with a shorter day on Saturdays.
I had to report daily to the company’s Welfare Officer if any girls were absent, but though the work was completely different from any of the work they had done previously, there was very little absenteeism. Many had worked previously in Players’ cigarette factory and were used to tedious regimented work — but in good conditions indoors and for shorter hours. A railway line had been installed from Nottingham on to the site. I was always so impressed by the way the girls turned up looking so clean and smart in their uniforms. They always chose to wear their WLA hats at a jaunty angle when they arrived!
They had not had any training or experience of land work when they started work at Ruddington and found the change from high-heeled shoes to the very heavy WLA boots rather daunting, so when they first came we always had a hilarious practice run (or stumbling walk, rather!) of getting around comfortably in gumboots. I divided the girls into patrols with a patrol leader in charge of each. This seemed to work well and helped me to arrange the work more efficiently as often the mounds were long distances away from our Nissen hut headquarters and it was imperative that the seed was sown as quickly as possible after I had been informed that a mound had been finished by the earth movers.
We all had passes to the site and were forbidden to talk about the work when outside. The girls were also forbidden to communicate in any way with the other outdoor workers (all male, many Irish) and their canteen meals were taken away from them. These edicts were laid down by the Welfare Officer, but I had to see that the rules were kept.
I cannot remember hearing any girl complaining about the hard, demanding, boring work which had to be carried out in all weathers because of the urgency of the camouflage work. Because of security, I could not take any photos to remind me in the future of those splendid girls and their part in the war effort. I wonder how many of them are still around now? I shall certainly never forget them. Incidentally, the factory buildings were done away with years ago and our ‘mounds’ flattened.
When that job was over I reverted to a straightforward market gardening job working with two men, one a refugee German Jew and the other a young man who had been brought up in an orphanage. They were both excellent hard workers and interesting, pleasant people as well. We had the task of converting a former mixed market garden into one devoted entirely to food production. In wartime it was forbidden to grow flowers or ornamental plants commercially — only a few stock plants were permitted to be kept.
Move to Bedfordshire
After I married in February 1943 I had another post connected with the Women’s Land Army. I had to visit all the WLA hostels in Bedfordshire and one hostel just over the border (I think there were seven altogether) to encourage them to use any garden space or suitable adjacent land for growing vegetables to feed the girls and staff in the various hostels. So I had to pick out and help a suitable girl or girls in each hostel to see to this. I then had to supply seeds and tools necessary and — most importantly of all — show them how to use them!
I also became involved with the Land Corps based in Bedford under the auspices of the Bedford War Agricultural Committee (my husband was a District Agricultural Officer with them). Groups of housewives were shipped out every weekday afternoon to farmers who requested extra help with seasonal jobs such as riddling potatoes, hoeing beet etc.
An open lorry was provided for transporting these volunteers. Unfortunately, my partner in this project and I found that we had to help many of the older or more bulky of these ladies to get into the lorry by literally shoving them up from behind! After too much of this we remedied the situation by carrying down a stool from our office every afternoon to provide a mount for them. (What would the Health and Safety people say to that nowadays, I wonder?!) It was wartime; decisions were made quickly and all work had to be carried out as speedily as possible with the minimum of red tape and bureaucracy. It usually worked well!
Bringing up a family
I worked from the offices of the Bedfordshire War Agricultural Committee until a few months before the birth of our first child. We lived four miles out of Bedford and although our rented house was not ideal and very exposed on a cold windy corner, we were fortunate to have a large garden, mainly of grassland and an orchard. There was plenty to do as I grew all the vegetables which we needed. We also had hens, ducks, geese, rabbits and sometimes a few guinea fowls. Not to mention a dog and several Siamese cats!
Since rationing was pretty severe a great deal of ingenuity was needed to produce good, varied meals. We lived on such a restricted budget that we were never able to buy on the black market even if we had wanted to. With our own vegetables and poultry we were far better off than many. It was wonderful the way in which friends did not let rationing affect their hospitality. If one went out for a snack or a meal it was usual to take something from one’s own ration — a lump of marg or a few spoonfuls of sugar to give to the hostess and vice versa. In our case we could give eggs as well — always well received! (The official ration was one egg per head per week.)
I never went out in the evenings but my husband David had many evening meetings connected with his job. He also helped to train young boys who were eager to join the Army as soon as they were old enough.
As the War wore on, many everyday things disappeared from the shops or became impossibly expensive for us. Fortunately, David was very handy. He had made all the houses and runs for our livestock and then turned his hand to other things. He made a dolls’ house and dolls’ bed for our little girl. He also rebuilt for our son an old pedal car found abandoned in a ditch. No vehicle has ever been loved more than that old pedal car! He even made a clothes horse which I still have and use to this very day.
My evenings were full enough, what with nappy washing (no washing machines then), ironing the shirts, none of which were non-iron in those days, feeding the animals and poultry as well as ourselves, and the usual chores which cannot be done when children are needing attention.
Since clothing coupons were required for children’s clothes and also for any materials, I made some of their clothes out of other garments. My mother-in-law provided me with an old tweedy skirt out of which I made excellent little playing trousers for an active little boy. We were able to buy sections of parachute (cream or yellow) without coupons. From these I made petticoats and little shirts. And of course we all knitted — pulling down old garments to reknit the wool into a child’s jersey or similar. Making something out of something which would otherwise be thrown away gave one a tremendous glow in those days of acute shortage. I even made little vests for the children from the remaining good parts of my father’s old chilprufe underclothes!
No telly in those days of course, but we enjoyed listening to the plays and the serials on the radio. I’m afraid there never seemed to be time for reading — not even the daily papers but the news on the radio was, of course, of prime importance.
It was a full life and sometimes desperately tiring, and of course often frightening, but we were far more self-sufficient than many people and thankful for that.
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