Fact File : Women's Land Army
June 1939 - 1950
The Women's Land Army (WLA) was established in World War One, but was re-founded shortly before the outbreak of World War Two, in June 1939, to provide extra agricultural labour. The government feared that if war broke out there would be food shortages. Britain, then as now, relied heavily on imported food, and it was thought that imports would be threatened by anticipated German blockades. In addition, many male farm workers were expected to join up, leaving a shortage of labour. The government was also keen to increase food production by reclaiming pasture and unused land for growing crops.
Women were initially asked to volunteer for the WLA. However, in December 1941 the government passed the National Service Act, which allowed the conscription of women into the armed forces or for vital war work. At first only single women between 20 and 30, and widows without children, were called up, but later the age limit was expanded to include women between 19 and 43. Women could choose whether to enter the armed forces or work in farming or industry. By 1943, more than 80,000 women were working in the Land Army. They were nicknamed Land Girls.
The Land Girls did a wide range of jobs, including milking cows, lambing, managing poultry, ploughing, gathering crops, digging ditches, catching rats and carrying out farm maintenance work. Some 6,000 women worked in the Timber Corps, chopping down trees and running sawmills.
All of these women worked long hours, especially during the summer, mostly outdoors and often in cold and rain. There was minimal training and most women were expected to learn about agricultural work while they were actually doing it. The Land Girls lived either on the farms where they worked, or in hostels.
They came from a wide variety of backgrounds, with more than one third from London and other large cities. Some were homesick, and many farmers were initially sceptical about employing young women on their farms, but people soon came to realise how useful most of them were.
Initially, Land Girls earned £1.85 for a minimum of 50 hours work a week. In 1944, wages were increased by £1 to £2.85. However, as the wages were paid by the farmer, rather than directly by the state, it was difficult to ensure that everyone was paid properly.
There was a Land Army uniform of green jumpers, brown breeches or dungarees, brown felt hats and khaki overcoats. As the Land Army was not a military force, however, uniform was not compulsory. The WLA badge depicted a wheat sheaf as a symbol of their agricultural work. There was also an official magazine The Land Girl, and a special song:
Back to the Land, we must all lend a hand,
To the farms and the fields we must go,
There's a job to be done,
Though we can't fire a gun,
We can still do our bit with the hoe.
The WLA came under the control of the Ministry of Agriculture, but its head was the formidable Lady Denman. Married to the former Governor General of Australia, Lady Denman was a leading figure in the Women's Institute movement, and also had a close interest in rural affairs. Her home, Balcombe Place in Sussex, became the WLA headquarters. Each district had its own WLA representative, who was expected to ensure the Land Girls were being treated well and were working effectively.
The Land Army was disbanded in 1950. Although the work was hard, conditions were often bad and the pay was low, many women enjoyed the experience, and formed lifelong friendships with fellow Land Girls.
The fact files in this timeline were commissioned by the BBC in June 2003 and September 2005. Find out more about the authors who wrote them.