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Tractor Driver Betty - Part 1 (1941-1943)

by BBC Southern Counties Radio

Contributed by 
BBC Southern Counties Radio
People in story: 
Betty Merritt
Location of story: 
Sussex
Background to story: 
Civilian Force
Article ID: 
A4971666
Contributed on: 
11 August 2005

With my Tractor

I joined the Land Army in November 1941, I had other choices — i.e. the Wrens (Navy), the A.T. S, and the WAAF, but having been brought up in the country, and already familiar with country ways, I decided that becoming a land girl would be the best choice for me.

My younger sister decided that she would also join with me. On the day of our enrolment we were to travel on the train from Southampton to Chichester, where we were to be met by an elderly W.L.A. representative who was to take charge of us, and take us to our employer, which was at a farm seven miles away.

We sat in the back seat of her small car, wondering what would happen next. We soon learnt that we were being taken to a Dairy Farm, for as we were nearing some farm buildings, the lady driver pointed to a huge herd of black and white cows in a nearby field, and said in a rather haughty voice, "Gals - there's your herd!! We glanced at each other, and raised our eyebrows. We had both been told prior to this journey what kind of land work we would be doing, and although I had always had a great love of animals, cows had not been high on my list of favourites. However, after meeting the farmer, who gave us the once-over, we were taken to the dairyman's cottage, which apparently was going to be our home for some time to come, or so we thought. We were not particularly impressed with the place, as everything looked pretty grey and dingy.

After being shown to our twin-bedded room, and given something to eat, we were asked to be at the cow-sheds at 3.30, dressed in fawn dungarees, overall coats, long socks and Wellington boots, in order to carry out the milking schedule. It was a typical autumn day, grey and dismal, and we made our way to the cowsheds, met by the dairyman, who proceeded to give us our orders. The cows were brought in, and I thought how clever they were to know exactly which particular stall was their own.

We had to give them some hay before washing their udders and putting on the milking clamps. I didn't get any further than that, for as I bent to put a little more hay into Daisy's crib, she promptly put her nose under my seat, and lifted me right off my feet. That was more than enough for me, I just screamed and ran out of the cowshed much faster than I went in, and shaking with fright I finally vowed to the farmer that I would never step foot in that place again! I was sent back to the house in disgrace, and had to sit and wait until supper was ready. The meal was rabbit stew and dumplings, and that was quite the best part of my first day. We wandered down to the village in the evening, lost our way coming home, only to find that when we finally got there we had been locked out! It was 1.0 am by then, and we failed to make anyone hear when we knocked on the door, so we were forced to spend the night in a bam. Luckily, it was a hay bam, so we made ourselves reasonably comfortable. The following morning when the stars were still high in the sky-around 4.30 am, the farmer came and found us, and took us in to the house.

At 1.0 am, we heard quick footsteps coming up the uncarpeted staircase, and in walked the same lady who had brought us there the previous day, and she said, in a much harsher voice than before, "Come along gals, I’m taking you to a hostel, and hope you will settle there." Back in the car we had to go, and from there we were taken to Todhurst Hostel for Land Girls, where some of the girls were given a month's training as dairymaids, or kept there for longer periods being trained for general farming. Some were sent to another hostel, whilst others were sent on remote farms, where they lived on the premises, and some into private lodgings, or "digs", as it was known then.

Todhurst housed around 30 girls, ages ranging from 17 to 25 years old. At first no - one would speak to us - we had already been stamped as "the two bad girls!" Curiosity soon got the better of them however, and in no time at all we were all good friends. I remained there for I8 months, being trained for general farming, including driving a tractor, and using all its capabilities. I really enjoyed my time there - such a good crowd of girls - we all got on well.

We were in a beautiful part of the Sussex countryside. The ages of the girls ranged from 17-25. Luckily for us, just along the road there was a group of Canadian soldiers who were all lovely boys. There was a pub opposite and after a hard days work on the farm, spent hedging and ditching, haymaking and threshing, and planting and digging potatoes, we were all happy to go up to the pub and meet the Canadians, and would spend a happy evening singing songs around the piano until turning out time, which was probably 10.30 in those days. Then we walked home through the lanes in the starlight in a very romantic setting.

In the summer we worked a 52 hour week, and winter 48 hours. We were up at 7 am, and sitting down to breakfast at 7.30 sharp. Then the manager would give us our instructions for the day. Some of us would go in a gang of 8 or 10, doing hedge-trimming or armed with spades and shovels to dig out ditches, clearing all the debris out of them, which had collected from autumn leaves, fallen branches and so on.

The winter months were spent grain thrashing. One of my first jobs was in a thrashing gang. We would arrive at a farm, where a very large, old steam Engine would be getting warmed up for a hard day's work. Once it really got going it would keep chugging away for what at times seemed forever! Some girls would be feeding the drum - this was a part I enjoyed. Three of us would climb up the ladder to the top of the com stack, and with a very long handled two grain fork would unpick the stack one sheath at a time, systematically, and pass it up to the person on the drum, who would then cut the string which held it together, and drop it loosely into the drum where the machine would separate the wheat from the husks, and the wheat would pour our through a large pipe into sacks fitted to catch it, and the straw would pass out another way, where it went into a bailing section, and sometimes I would use pliers to tie the bails securely. The husks passed through another channel, and it was the worst job of all to keep them cleared from under the machine, so as not to block things up, or there could be trouble. It was a foul task, for the fluff would get in your eyes, fill your nostrils, even your mouth — if you didn't keep it closed, so it was a heavenly relief when the end of the day came, and the old machine stopped rolling.

One day, the manager sent me out with a Shire horse and cart, to pick up sugar beet, which had previously been pulled by hand, and piled up for collection. Usually, "Prince" would behave quite well with me, but he had other ideas on this occasion! We walked a mile along the main road to the sugar beet field, and once inside, I turned to shut the gate behind me, and then I heard the Horsham to Brighton train coming, which passed quite near the field. Before I could think further, Prince took off across the field at a trot, scattering shovel, fork, and the sides of the cart, in all directions! He halted on the farther side of the field, and I had to collect everything up again, as I caught up with him. On another occasion, I remember someone's horse bolting in a field, and it seemed to be coming straight in my direction. I ran for my life, and have wondered since how I ever managed to jump that hedge!

I was getting through my first winter very well, but one job which was really a cold one was when a group of us would be sent to bag up potatoes, which were stored in a clamp out in an open field, and being January, there was snow on the ground. The potato clamps were about 25 feet long, and as you stored the potatoes as soon as they were freshly gathered, you had to prepare the bed thus: -

First, a thick layer of straw was laid on the soil, and the potatoes would be piled onto that, then they would be covered with about 9 inches of straw, with piles of earth on top of that, to prevent the frost getting at them. We had to remember to make a hole at the top every so often for ventilation, otherwise they would sweat and go rotten. We would commence bagging them at one end, and systematically work our way from one end to the other.

When the time came for using them, and we had spent the day sacking them, a lorry from the farm would come and collect the hundred-weight bags which we had ready for them, and take them to Billingshurst Station, and from there to London, and Covent Garden.

When we did this job, we would sometimes light a fire from hedge-trimmings, and bake some potatoes in the ashes. Sometimes they came out burnt black and covered in ashes, but believe me out in those arctic conditions they tasted really good, even without butter and salt. We used to be very pleased when 5.30 came and we were picked up by a truck driven by a land girl and taken back to the hostel for dinner. Our first move when we reached the Hostel was to see who could get a bathroom first, before dinner - we had only 4 bathrooms for 32 Girls, so some of us had to be unlucky! We dined in a huge room seating 26 of us at a very long table, and were handed our meal through a hatchway by the Warden and her helpers. There was not a great choice of menu, but the food was very good, and we were always supplied with plenty of milk to drink, which supplemented it.

When we worked away from the Hostel all day, we would be given fish-paste sandwiches, cheese and rock cakes, along with flasks of tea. We had so many paste sandwiches that I have never eaten one since! It was a lovely Hostel, which was once a big farmhouse, and had many farm buildings around it. The rooms were very large, with huge bay windows, which looked out on to fields and woods. Four or six girls shared a room, and we had great fun - they came from all walks of life - some had never lived away from home before, but we all got on extremely well, and I am good friends with some of them to this day.

Of course, it was not all work and no play. Canadian regiments were only a mile or so away in various directions, and their Staff Officers would 'phone and invite us to their dances. Many of us were eager to attend, and so we were picked up at 7 pm by an Army truck, and whisked off to the Dance - this was usually held at the Officers Quarters, which was a Stately Home taken over by the war office for the war period, to house the soldiers. We had a wonderful time at these functions, with a big army band playing for the dancing. We always enjoyed the good food, which was served at the interval, along with nice drinks. Around midnight, we would be taken home again, with everyone singing their hearts out to all the pop songs of the day.

I remember so well one day in the spring of 1942 - about eight of us were sent to a farm for haymaking, and I was asked to help build the haystack. At 9.30, the farmer came walking towards us, carrying a small cask over his shoulder. We always stopped for our morning break at this time, which meant a drink of tea or cocoa. This morning - cider was handed round from the cask. Our mistake was having a second tumbler of the stuff. It was really potent, and I’m afraid work was delayed for several hours. However, when we had sobered up a bit, we were told that no matter how long it took, we had to get the work completed before we went home. One or two of us were not happy about this - we had "dates" for the evening, so we 'phoned our Canadian Army boyfriends, who said they would come and help us out. In awhile, a jeep full of boys arrived. One said he was going to "tick the farmer off” for giving us the stuff. However, as it was such a warm day, they decided they would like a glass of cider too, before starting.

It did start them off, and they had a second glass, and became tiddly too. Soon the farmer showed up, and said, "Come on! - this is not good enough!" So we all pulled ourselves together, and got going. I shall never forget the thrill it gave me when, at I0 pm that night I was driving the tractor across the field, with a huge load of hay, several very weary people on the wagon, and a beautiful moon just rising over the brow of the hill. It was such a beautiful night; I felt that I could have carried on working all night.

I remember another day when I and another girl worked on a farm with two old men, both in their early seventies, which was old to me then. On the way back to the farm from the day's haymaking, a man and a girl were walking along the country lane, leading the horse, and the other 'old boy' and I were riding on the top of the load, which just missed the branches as we passed under them. This old chap only had one front tooth in his head - he was at the front part of the load, and I was at the back. I suppose we were pretty quiet, when the man leading the horse shouted up to us and said: “what be you two doin’ up there -I believes you be spoonin’!” - Shame, for he was the last one I wanted to kiss!

The winter evenings were nice for the young in those days, especially in the country, with a brilliant carpet of stars overhead, and every month a full moon. Romance was really in the air on such nights, when our respective Canadian boy friends would come along to the hostel. About 40 of us boys and girls would gather at the "Blacksmith's Arms" in the evenings, swap a few yarns, have a few drinks, gather round the piano, and sing the night away. Busy days, and happy nights, or perhaps I should say evenings, for we were not allowed out after I0.30 unless we had special passes.

It was during my time at the Hostel that the Bailiff who was our boss asked for volunteers to go on a six weeks pest destruction course. Four girls, including myself, said we would like to do it, and we soon found ourselves packing our bags for the long stay at a place called East Dene, near Eastbourne. On arrival there we realised that 25 girls were taking the course, and we were all to be billeted at the Vicarage. The Vicar's wife was to be our warden whilst we were there.

We were sleeping 5 to a room, and a very large room there became our dining room. After breakfast the next day we set off to the Lewes Salvage Dump, as it was called. Of course, rats were there in abundance, and soon we were learning "the tricks of the trade". A rat is an intelligent animal, and we had to be pretty clever to better him. We soon learned how to make 1 inch square poisonous zinc phosphate sandwiches, and hide them where no domestic animal could reach them - also, we learned to use cyanide and various other methods.

On one occasion I was chosen with three other girls to do various demonstrations for the Ministry of Information, and so a few days were spent with a photographer, doing the series of pictures. The results were sent to various ministries over the empire, and our faces were seen in Canadian Newspapers and magazines, as well as in other countries.

I received a letter from a young man in the Fiji Islands, who was a secretary in the Ministry of Information there in Suva. He said that he admired the work I was doing. He wrote that he was a 19 year-old "Pure Blooded Fijian", and would like to keep up a correspondence with me. I did this for 2 years. His name was Emosi Uuakatagave. We all enjoyed the course, and there was plenty to do in the evenings at Eastbourne, which was only three miles away.

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