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Dairy Work - Irene Johnson (nee Mitchell)

by Leeds Libraries

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

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

Usually a farmer would ring up and ask for some girls to come work on the farm for him. If it was within 5 mile radius they would cycle there, if it was any further he had to come a pick them up. Girls were never allowed to go on their own; it was always 2 or more.

The warden said a farmer wanted 2 girls to go into private billets as lots of girls from London had volunteered for the Land Army and hadn’t got anywhere to go. Us girls were worried about having cockneys in our hostel because we had heard they were rough and say “bl**dy this and bl**dy that” all the time. But I said we should wait and see what the girls were like.

Another farmer asked for 4 girls to go into private billets to do threshing. 3 girls, Dorothy, Winnie and (another) Irene were all friends and they decided to go. It was near Dorchester, which had shops, a ballroom and a picture house. But I hated threshing; you had to keep up with the men and the machines. There were husks flying up in the air and getting in your hair and down your neck. Also I’m terrified of rats and I just knew they would run out of the bales of hay. Dorothy came up to me and asked me to go with them but I had to say no as I hated threshing so much.

The Dairy

Later on another farmer sent word he wanted 2 girls to do dairy work. Whenever I was home on leave a lad would shout to me “have you learned to milk a cow yet?!” so I decided to show him and give it a try. I knew it was a 7 day a week job and hard work and I knew I would miss the others at the hostel.

It was me and a girl called Sylvia that volunteered to go to do the dairy work. Sylvia had a father who worked at the airport in Ferndown and a younger sister. She would often go home for a day to visit.
The dairy farm was in the village of Grimston in Dorset, and we were allowed to take our bikes with us. We were on the farm at 6am every morning. On our afternoon off we liked to cycle to Dorchester to go to the pictures but sometimes we were just too tired. Even on a Sunday we would have to get up and milk the cows then have breakfast, muck out, wash up and have an hour off before we had to milk again. In that hour we’d often ride round on our bikes! We had 1 day off a week but couldn’t have it together. Sometimes I would go to Weymouth for the afternoon in my time off.
I stayed with a lovely couple that were in the Salvation Army who made me fried breakfasts. All around that area, near the dairy, were stones with holes in them, they were thought to be lucky. When I left the dairy the couple put a rope threaded with stones up on the outside of their house to remember me and for luck. Sylvia lived with the dairy man and his family.
When we started at the dairy a lady brought a rubber bag full of water for us to practise milking on! The movement made our fingers ache. There were lots of rats living in the cow sheds and they would disappear when you walked in with a lamp giving, you a fright.

One day the farmer decided he wanted us to clear the field that was full of thistles as well as all our other jobs! We told the lady from the land army that came to check we were ok that we didn’t have enough time to do both. Because the farmer was so ungrateful and we worked so hard we requested to leave the farm and were moved to another dairy.


Sylvia was trained as a rat catcher but she said it wasn’t very good as it was private billets on your own and you got lonely. She would put out little plastic dishes of food and if the food was taken twice the third time you would put out poison. She would then shovel the rats up and put them in a sack, then a man came round and collected the sack.
When we worked at the dairy the farmer asked them to come back one day after breakfast. A girl from the village had come up to work with us. We all knew there were lots of rats in the barn. It had a thatched roof and they would live in the thatch. When no one was around they would all come out into the yard to eat the piles of food for the cows. I had never told anyone I was scared of rats because boys would throw them at you when you were threshing if they knew.
The farmer gave each of us a pitch fork, the kind used for sticking in the corn sheaves, with 2 prongs. He farmer said we were all going to creep up on the rats, each of us had to get one in our sighs and fix on it. When the farmer yelled we’d all stab down. We crept in to the barn and saw the rats, the farmer shouted and I couldn’t bring myself to stab. But the girl from the village got one and it screamed and screamed, I remember the awful sound to this day. All the other rats ran up the walls into the thatch and then came back out and stared at us. We could see hundreds of eyes watching us. We started to inch back, very slowly. I thought that all the rats would suddenly pile down on us and attack.
When we got away the farmer asked us if we were all all right. He announced, “we shan’t do that again,” it had clearly upset him too.


After the dairy we were moved to Shroton near Blandford and put in nice billets. Shroton had a pub and a church and 2 farms both called Mitchell’s, like my maiden name. Mr Mitchell, the farmer, was proud he had land girls working on his farm. He gave us lots of apples, so many we had to sent some home. He often called us ‘maids.’ We would be taken to market by the farmer in a horse and trap and it would be our job to drive the horse and trap into the yard. The market wasn’t interesting to us; it was tools and working clothes. We would be given a ‘farmers shilling’ for our help and would go to the café to have coffee and a sticky bun. The farmer would often get a lift home and tell us to take the horse and trap back! He said we could take our time as long as we were back for the 2pm milking. There was no traffic and the horse was old and went slowly. We would laugh and joke and sing all the way home.
One day two men in suits stopped me and Sylvia and asked us whose horse it was. The men said it had a V shape mark on its rump with meant it had been in World War 1 and was far too old to go to market. From then on it could only be used on the land for fetching and carrying. The farmer got a new horse and this one was young and went a lot faster but we still managed to bring it into market and home again afterwards.
The dairy man and his sister both lived with their parents on the farm. The sister asked us to get her boots like our land army ones but they were regulation land army boots and we said we couldn’t in case someone found out. From then on the sister went funny with us and the next week, when it was time for market, we were told it didn’t take 2 to drive the horse and trap home and one of us should stay behind.

Our billets were with an old lady. We hardly ever saw her, she was the caretaker at the local school and the church and helped out at the bakery. I remember coming home one night and switching on the light only to find the floor covered in beetles. I also remember the meals weren’t very nice. Dinner was usually cold meat and potatoes. Me and Sylvia came home early one day and found the old lady eating a tin of salmon; we never got given salmon! I also remember a day when we went out for a walk. Sylvia took her coat off the back door and put her hand in the pocket only to find that the pocket was full of rice! She’d picked up the old ladies coat by accident; we assumed she’d been filling her pockets at work in the bakery.

There was a younger couple in their 40’s living nearby who asked how we were doing staying at our billets. We admitted that we weren’t entirely happy and they asked us to move in with them. They were called Mr and Mrs Hoskins, they used to bake for us and on Sunday we would get a sponge cake. Mr Hoskins helped me fix my bike. The man of the manor owned all the village and every house had a plum tree in the garden. There was a cops nearby, in Easter it was a carpet of primroses. They were so beautiful I lined a box with moss and put some in and sent them to my mum. Mum said that when they had arrived they were half dead but after watering them they came back to life and were lovely. I would go with Mrs Hoskins to pick up stick for the fire. In the winter Mr Hoskins made us a sledge to go tobogganing.

On Sundays I would walk Mrs Hoskins to church because Mrs Hoskins worried about the dark walk on her own. One day I heard the vicar announce that Mrs Hoskins and her land girl would sing the day’s hymn! Mrs Hoskins said she didn’t tell me because she knew I’d worry, but we did it! In the evening Sylvia would go out and meet young men while I would usually embroider and talk to the Hoskins. Mrs Hoskins had always wanted to open a café and asked me if, when the war was over, I’d return to work in the café. I missed my mum but I also really liked Mrs Hoskins so I agreed to return.

When the end of the war was announced on the radio I packed my bags and went home, I was tired of Sylvia and tired of all the hard work. But I kept in touch with the Hoskins’. They had asked the lord of the manor if they could set up their café and he had agreed. The men from the government came out to inspect it so they could get a licence and then they could begin to serve afternoon teas.

However, the Christmas I took Sylvia home I met Harold, a young man I had worked with in the mill. Sylvia and I were on the bus together when he came over to say hello, wearing his RAF uniform. When we got off the bus in Leeds he and his friend, Alfred Booth, asked me if he’d see us both at the dance in Morley Town Hall that night. When we returned home Sylvia reminded me about the dance and we went along. The town hall was newly decorated and had a balcony. Sylvia liked dances but wasn’t a dancer she would usually sit by the side and watch. We sat on the long plush red seats downstairs. I saw Harold chatting to lot of girls and yet he’d not been to see me all night, ‘cheeky beggar,’ I thought! He wasn’t a great dancer but could get round the floor ok. He had asked me, when we worked in the mill, to teach him to dance at lunchtime but I didn’t have any time to dance as you were paid on how much you produced so I would work through my lunch.

The MC announced it was time for the last waltz. He walked across the middle of the dance floor so everyone looked and asked me “will you have the last waltz with me?” I had a right mind to say no to him for ignoring me for so long. But I said yes and after we had danced he walked me and Sylvia home. Sylvia disappeared inside and Harold apologised for leaving it so late before coming to speak to me.

When Mrs Hoskins wrote to say she couldn’t open her café as the inspectors had deemed that there wasn’t enough parking by the cottage I was sad for her but glad I didn’t have to break my promise to Mrs Hoskins. I knew I wanted to stay with Harold.
When we married the Hoskins’ came to the wedding. They got the train and Mr Hoskins was sick all the way! Me and Harold had our honeymoon in Bournemouth as he was stationed near there at Fareham during the war.

See also "The Land Army: new bikes and good friends." (A3862479) and "Working in the Women's Land Army - Irene Johnson" A3054106

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