Women's Land Army in Essex in WW2

The Women's Land Army in Essex during World War 2

During WW1 with German blockades preventing vital supplies getting through to British ports and causing food shortages, a Women's Land Army was set up to work on the land and ensure the nation did not go hungry.

Only twenty years later, as WW2 approached, plans were being made to revive this Women's Land Army to once again provide extra agricultural labour. Britain was relying heavily on imported food and producing our own food was vital. Many male farm workers were expected to join up to fight leaving a shortage of labour on the land. Initially women were asked to volunteer but by December 1941 they were conscripted to either, Munitions, the ATS [Auxiliary Territorial Service] or the Women's Land Army.

In Essex At War, Hervey Benham relates that 2,000 members of the Women's Land Army as well as many conscientious objectors worked on the land locally and WLA hostels were set up at Lexden Road, Colchester and at Peldon. The War Agricultural Committee also had a hostel at Layer Marney due to the great shortage of accommodation. Altogether there were 150 girls in the hostels and various billets in the town. There was also a hostel at West Mersea in the house, Orleans, now demolished, on the Coast Road.

The members of the Women's Land Army did a wide range of jobs, including milking cows, lambing, managing poultry, ploughing, gathering crops, digging ditches, catching rats and other pests and carrying out farm maintenance work.

They were issued with a uniform, brown corduroy breeches and green jumpers with a beige aertex shirt, boots, thick long socks, khaki overcoat and a cloche hat. Some wore dungarees which they cut off at the knee to get tanned legs in the summer! The badge was a sheaf of wheat, there was an arm band with a red crown on it and they even had a Women's Land Army Song

Official Land Army Song (1942)
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 a hoe.
When your muscles are strong
You will soon get along
And you'll think that the country life's grand;
We're all needed now,
We must speed with the plough,
So come with us - back to the land.

Edna Smy outside Peldon WLA Hostel

Edna Smy outside the Peldon Hostel

The Peldon Hostel

Here in Peldon a hostel which had been used for Italian Prisoners of War was designated a Women's Land Army hostel and as E J Rudsdale writes in his Journals of Wartime Colchester.

'the first of the Land Army Girls arrived at Peldon Hostel' Monday 9th March 1942

In Essex Land Girls by Dee Gordon we learn from an account by Land girl Lynette Vince that the Peldon hostel was 'built for prisoners of war with one big dormitory' and Eva Parratt wrote of it as housing about 40 girls in double bunks with no sheets just blankets.

In From When I Can Remember by Pixie Farthing, she writes her father's account of what the hostel was like.

The Hostel building had an unimposing appearance from the outside but the girls said the atmosphere inside was homely and comfortable with all modern conveniences ... Peter got chatting to a very attractive girl, her name was Edna Dallas ... Her bedroom was part of a long dormitory of cubicles that held two double bunks apiece. Each of the four girls had their own wooden lockers for their personal possessions. Every morning they were called at six-thirty. Only twelve hand basins in the washroom and three bathrooms between forty girls meant a real free for all. The worst was having only four toilets between the lot of them, which, on occasions led to a discreet visit to the bushes outside. There was a spacious recreation and dining room but unfortunately none of the local men visiting the girls could get a foot over the threshold. The supervisor in charge of the girls was a stickler for rules. Her office window had to be passed before being able to enter the building and she kept a diligent watch for any male admirers ... life on the farms and land entailed driving tractors, weeding, pruning, milking cows, planting harvesting, as well as mucking out pig sties and cow sheds. They had undertaken what was regarded as exclusively male jobs and it wasn't unusual for them to work fourteen hours a day.

The hostel, in a very dilapidated and unused state surrounded by dense blackthorn bushes is still there, situated adjacent to land at Harvey's Farm on the North side of Wigborough Road. At some point in the mid-sixties after the hostel had been empty for some time, a local farmer from St Ives Farm, Michael Fausset, rented the site to keep pigs. Pat Wyncoll, who worked for him, remembers there being drawings of spitfires inside on the hostel walls. Christine South remembers Steve Chew keeping pigs there in the seventies; it was known as The Hostel then. In a picture from Ralph Sadler's book Sunshine and Showers, taken in 1982 the hostel was empty, no longer being used for pigs and it has remained empty ever since.

Not all the Land Girls in Essex lived in hostels, some were billeted with farmers and in Peldon, Dora Banfield, came home from teaching in East London to help her parents, Mr and Mrs Wooldridge on Kemps Farm.

See Mersea Museum's website for Dora Banfield A Land Girl's Story , an account on farming at Kemps Farm, Peldon, during the war.

The vicar's daughter, Phyllis Wilson, also worked as a land girl, remaining at home at the rectory. She started work for Mr Scales at Harvey's Farm 'at the foot of the hill', moving onto Lords Farm at East Mersea.

It was arranged that I would cycle over there every day from Peldon. It was no chore to get up before everyone else and cycle through the sleeping village at 5a.m. and ride into the dawn as the sun rose behind East Mersea. The day was spent working among the delights of the cows and calves, the sheep and the hens, and fun with the stalled bull. My job was to clean out the cowshed and wheel the manure up a narrow plank on to the top of a huge manure heap. I think I only came off the plank once! I became adept at milking and came to know the cows by name. I was in my element.

One of the girls billeted here to work in the Women's Land Army was Grace Rosetta Pentecost. While she was here she met William Arthur Wopling whom she married in 1945. They settled down to live and work in Peldon, Grace becoming a Postwoman. She was very involved in village life being on the Parish Council and for many years organised the popular whist drives. Later, in spite of her slight build, she was a wonderful, hard worker on the farm in the village, growing flowers for seed.

Ruby Theobald worked at St Ives Farm in Peldon looking after the pigs, Pat Wyncoll recalls she was 'worth any man' as a worker. Not strictly a member of the land army, Ruby already worked at the farm and continued for much of her working life.

In a Record of The Parish Of Peldon (Essex Record Office D/P287/28/6) Peldon women who were members of the WLA were listed by the vicar:

M Scales
Jean Ponder
Ruby Balls
Muriel Greenleaf
Josephine Booth
Dora Wooldridge (became Dora Banfield 1943)
Joyce Thursby
Diana Wenlock

Work.....
Generally, the way the WLA women at the Peldon hostel were employed was to send them out as a gang to whichever farm needed them and transport would be arranged to pick them up each morning. Many of them had no experience of farm or country life and were a long way from home; they may or may not have had some training (Writtle Institute of Agriculture was the centre of training in Essex although women were also sent to train in Suffolk).

It seems, Rudsdale, as part of the local War Ag Committee had quite a lot of trouble with non-attendance of these Land Girls at Peldon. In January 1943 A farmer phoned in to report two land girls had walked off the farm because it was too cold, two others didn't report in at all so instead of 20 there were 16.

Noticed by the return today that of our 35 girls in the WLA at Peldon only 13 put in a full week last week. All the rest were ill or absent some part of the time. Thursday 11th March 1943

Two WLA gangs struck work altogether Thursday August 5 1943

In April 1944 Rudsdale reports 'more WLA troubles today'. Four girls had walked off the threshing machine and turned up at the War Ag office to make a complaint about their ill-treatment. They thought it unfair to be on the threshing drum for two to three weeks at a stretch and were incensed at the accusation they 'only joined WLA to get out of munitions or ATS'.

Then in May 1944 a land girl is reported for canvassing for the TGWU [Transport and General Workers' Union] among other girls. Later in the month several land girls are called to a disciplinary hearing for striking and being absent and Rudsdale comments those who turned up (one did not) took the whole day off work for a 2.30 meeting!

In Dee Gordon's book there is a personal account of Eva Parrat's experiences written for her family, which refers to working for the WLA at Maypole Farm in Layer de La Haye and in farms at Fobbing and Corringham, among others. While billeted at Peldon, Eva wrote of 'sawing huge trees down by hand, clearing hedgerows and digging ditches. Ditching was a specialist job - three spade widths at the top and one at the bottom'.

An account of one harvest reads
'The corn was cut with a cutter and binder which made sheaves of corn which were then thrown onto the field in lines. Usually the binder was drawn by a horse or maybe two horses, sometimes an early tractor. The Land Girls then picked up the sheaves and stood them into stooks, about three or four sheaves on each side, propped up together ... when dry the sheaves had to be loaded onto a cart and carried to where the corn stack was to be made. The loading onto the cart had to be done in a special way ... I stood on the cart and the men pitched the sheaves up with a pitchfork ... then we had to hold on tight as the cart was drawn by horses to where the stack was being made (especially hazardous when they came across a water furrow).

Lynette Vince recalled

One morning we were waiting in the hostel in Peldon in the pouring rain when the lorry arrived to take us to East Mersea, but as there were no barns or shelter for us, we refused and told the driver to take us back to the hostel where we had a bath and changed our wet clothes'. The protest did not last long because they were told that 'strikes were illegal' and sent back to work. However as the ringleader, this led to Lynette subsequently being offered training as a 'ganger' because she was 'the sort of person the WLA was looking for' but she refused because she 'didn't want to give orders to my friends'.

Lynette recalled that the work was all arable farms 'including wheat and barley' which she preferred to an early milking experience in Wivenhoe, and she continued to work with her sister on 'picking sugar beet, a lot of hoeing, hedging in winter and cutting down trees...working with older men who showed us what to do' Neither of them was keen on harvest time though 'all that threshing and stooking, covered in stalks'. Up to twenty girls would work in a gang in a field with 'different jobs on different days, early starts and late finishes with a couple of twenty minute breaks and half hour for lunch. Sugar beet lifting was heavy work, carrying half a hundredweight at a time ... Although the winters were bad, it was [better than] working in a munitions factory; that was too dangerous ... When pea-picking, we worked with other local women who didn't want us to pick too quickly because there was then less work for them'.

She tried driving a tractor but couldn't drive in a straight line, which was a 'shame because that was a cushy job'.

Edna Smy left home in Walthamstow joining the Land Army in the spring of 1942, she was one of the first girls at the Peldon Hostel in March that year. The countryside was a welcome retreat from the bombing of London and she loved her work on the land, especially enjoying looking after the cattle and milking.

Childhood dreams of a lovely old farmhouse with cows and sheep in green fields were soon shattered when I found myself with forty other girls in a prefab building standing in fields well away from a village nor far from the East coast, bus stop two miles or more away.
The girls came from all walks of life, rich and poor alike. Aged from 17-30 we were all thrown together yet somehow managed to agree most of the time.
A long dormitory held our sleeping quarters, cubicles held two double bunks; each girl had a wooden locker where she kept her meagre possessions. The dorm was heated in winter by three iron stoves where on cold evenings we would rake out the ashes and bake spuds we had brought in from the fields. We had nothing to put in them but when you were hungry as we always were, well we ate them with relish.
We were called at 6.30am. It was a free for all for the washroom which held twelve wash-hand basins and three bathrooms, with so many girls we often ended up four to a bath; there was no privacy, and any modesty soon vanished.
The dining room cum common room held two long tables, seating twenty a table. You had to be quick in the breakfast queue otherwise you could end up with cold porridge and no jam. We were given a pack of four sandwiches, a small piece of cake to take out into the fields which lasted until 5pm. Our evening meal was at 6pm and there was never enough to keep our hunger at bay; the open air made one ravenous.
Our uniforms consisted of green woollen jumper, fawn corduroy breeches, fawn cotton shirt, long knee length woollen socks, a pair of hard brown lace up shoes, and a topcoat. All the uniform was of good quality. We had no issue of underclothes, so had to use our clothing coupons on the bare essentials. WW2 People's War BBC - Edna Smy

She explained how she signed up

'I went somewhere up into London, to the recruiting office. And although the army, or the ATS and the WAAF had a very strong medical examination we had nothing, they just said, just get a certificate from your doctor to say you were fit and you were in. I was sent to Peldon hostel, that was the first hostel with forty other girls, which made life hilarious, because forty girls living together it was great fun, always a laugh and a joke, we were all new to the land but we got on with it'.

When asked about whether she was trained

We didn't at the beginning. When land girls came later, they were sent out to Suffolk to train as milkers and that. The first lot that came into the hostel, there were about twelve of us to begin with, and we were at The Glebe Farm at Abberton, and we were clearing the trees that bordered on the reservoir. We were clearing the orchards and after several of us had been there a few weeks we were asked would any of us like to learn to drive a tractor, about five of us said yes we would. We had a few runs up and down the field and next we knew we'd got our driving licence. There was no problem and from then on we were sent out on separate jobs. We worked for the War Agricultural Committee.

But if a farmer wanted extra hands, he would ring up the hostel and say, you know, can I have four or five girls for this, that and the other, hoeing, weeding, or whatever and that's how it worked. But, um, food wasn't very appetising, we all survived.

Edna goes on to say that it was a good life for those who liked it but some didn't, they stayed a few weeks and were gone.

It appears the girls were welcomed by the locals

We were really all, like, girls from London, I know we were called 'the old London girls' down here, but people were kind to us, you know, they took us into their houses, and always pleasant to us. Transcription of interview with Edna Smy courtesy of Roger Bullen MA.

WLA Girls working near Peldon Rose 1942

Land Girls Edna Smy, Rose, Emmy, Bunny Reynolds or Bunny Webb (tractor driver) working near Peldon Rose 1942

Years later, having stayed in Mersea, Edna's story was featured in the Mistral Magazine on Mersea

A Land Girl Edna Smy

People often ask 'How did you come to live in Mersea?' In my case, it was Hitler's War. I volunteered for the WLA, and was duly sent to Peldon where I found myself living with about 40 other girls from all parts of the country.
We worked for the War Agricultural Committee who sent us out in gangs to work for local farms, none of us had any previous training, but we got on with our tasks with few complaints. We had harvested, picked up spuds, hedged and ditched, and some of us learn to drive a tractor. The old barn by the church [Hall Barn at West Mersea], now sadly gone, was the tractor repair yard and here each morning I would pick up tractor and trailer and deliver diesel oil and paraffin to drivers working on farms on Mersea or in Peldon. The village seemed a quiet place, for most of the girls came from busy towns, and I am sure the Mersea folks thought we were a rum crowd too. Mistral Magazine.

Although the girls may have thought they had left the dangers of London, those billeted in Wigborough Road, Peldon had a lucky escape when an AA (anti-aircraft) shell fell in the middle of the road in February 1944 outside their hostel. Luckily no one was hurt, and the only damage recorded was to the gate and some of their bicycles.

..and play...

The Women's Land Army was a lively addition to war-time Peldon and their hostel became a venue for dancing and music as reported by the village correspondent in the Essex County Standard. They also took part in church parades along with the Home Guard, H M Forces and Civil Defence.

LAND ARMY CONCERT There was a crowded attendance at the Land Army Hostel on July 15th when a concert was given by members of the Land Army resident at the Hostel and visiting members of HM Forces. Items by the land workers included popular tunes on the piano by Mrs Marriott, a violin solo by Miss E Furnoll, and monologues by Miss R Doree. Impressions of famous radio and screen stars were given by Gunner Manny Coken and there were other impressions by Gunner Langley. Vocal solos were rendered Gunner Tommy Forster, accordion solos by Gunner Patrick, and ukulele items by Gunner Floyd who also acted as compere. The sum of £8 was raised towards the purchase of instruments for the R A band whose contributions during the evening were highly appreciated. Essex County Standard 25.7.1942

MADAGASCAR An interesting lantern lecture entitled 'a recent journey across Madagascar' was given to a highly appreciative audience at the Land Army Hostel by Mrs O Murray Chapman FRGS on Friday September 18. Essex County Standard 26.9.1942

Abberton Village Hall became one of the venues where people in the armed forces got together with many civilians to dance the evening away to one of the popular military bands. The Land Army girls were often seen cycling to Abberton. Other local venues to host such bands were The Fountain Hotel and The British Legion Hall, both in West Mersea well within cycling distance for the girls. Pixie Farthing From When I Can Remember

Edna Smy, living in the Peldon hostel, tells us 'The British Legion Hall [in Mersea] served as a cinema, and dance hall. A film was shown about twice a week, and there were plenty of dances and partners too! The island teemed with troops, army and navy, and despite the war we all had great fun.
Mersea had a forces canteen. It was one of the two little cottages by the church in Coast Road - one of the smallest canteens ever, I should think. We would all cram into a tiny room where the kind lady who ran it served us with baked beans on toast, tea and home-made cakes. Working out of doors made us forever hungry.

There's a picture from the Rosemary Pepper Collection included in Dee Gordon's book showing the Land Army girls in uniform making a guard of honour for their warden, Joanna Round's wedding at St Peter's Church, Birch, in October 1942 when she married sub Lieutenant Michael Tritton. Joanna (whose family were the Rounds from Birch Hall) was the supervisor of the Peldon Hostel in 1942 having previously been in the EWAC [Essex War Agricultural Committee] office at Colchester but left in July 1943 before the birth of her first child.

The Essex Chronicle recorded The presents included a bookcase bureau from the tenant farmers of Birch Hall Estate; mahogany coffee table from the outside staff of Birch Hall, armchair from the Lexden and Winstree War Agricultural Committee ; cut-glass from the staff; beauty box from Mrs. Francis and the Land Girls at the Peldon Hostel; glass dressing-table set from Miss Jack and the Land Girls at the Lexden Hostel; and gifts from staff and workers the Essex W.A.C.

WELCS

Perhaps not as well-known as the Women's Land Army were the Welcs.

WOMEN'S LAND CORPS Members of the Women's Emergency Land Corps, known as the Welcs, are said to be earning their badges, local farmers having expressed themselves well satisfied with their help in weeding, thinning and harvesting. Essex County Standard 22.8.1942

PARTY There were 30 guests at a party held at the Rectory for members of the Mothers' Union and the Women's Emergency Land Corps. Games and a harvest tea were much enjoyed. Essex County Standard 31.10.1942

The Welcs were usually local women (many from groups like the Womens' Institute or Mothers' Union) who worked as volunteers when they were able, often evenings or weekends. The Peldon vicar's daughter, Phyllis Wilson, in her memoirs described her mother, Mrs Wilson, as marshalling all the ladies from the 'Mothers' Meeting' into work on the land, 'pulling up mangel wurzels, hoeing and helping with all manner of jobs'. Locally, the term that came to be applied to these women was 'Mrs Wilson and that lot'.

Post-War

Still needed in the immediate period after the end of the war the Women's Land Army continued to do the vital job of providing the country with food and finally it was disbanded in 1950.

Despite any teething troubles, the Women's Land Army ensured food and timber supplies continued throughout the war and beyond. Many of the land girls spoke about the friendships made and their pride in doing an important job. Edna Smy related 'Recently I heard a local farmer comment on how hard the land girls worked in those far-off days. This made me feel proud to have been a part of the W.L.A.'

By 1943, overall, 80,000 had volunteered or been conscripted into the WLA with another 6,000 working in the Timber Corps, the so called, 'Lumber Jills' whose job it was to meet a shortage of telegraph poles and timber by felling trees and operating sawmills..

A belated recognition of the importance of these women's contribution to the war effort was made in 2008 when applications by surviving WLA members were invited by the government for a badge to commemorate their part in the war effort.

In 2008, in recognition of her work as a land girl, Dora Banfield received a Land Army Badge from DEFRA and a letter signed by Gordon Brown.  Dora said: "It's a very pretty badge of a wheat sheaf.  It has made me realize how much we did on the farm during the war and many memories have been coming back which I had almost forgotten - such as using the cart horses and pitch-forking the corn stacks."

As Hilary Benn, Secretary of State for Environment said

"It is absolutely right we at last recognise the selfless efforts these women made. This badge is a fitting way to pay tribute to their determination, courage and spirit."

Elaine Barker
Peldon History Project February 2018

Thanks to
Mersea Museum
Dee Gordon Essex Land Girls
Cathie Pearson EJ Rudsdale's Journals of Wartime Colchester
Ruby Theobald
Pat Wyncoll
Chrissie South
The Wooldridge Family
Roger Bullen MA
Mersea Island Society Mistral magazine
The Essex County Standard
The Essex Chronicle
"Essex At War" 1945 - Hervey Benham
Pixie Farthing


More Information:

Dora Banfield - a Land Girl's Story
Mersea Byegone Days - Farming
Womens Land Army photographs

WW2 People's War is an online archive of wartime memories contributed by members of the public and gathered by the BBC. The archive can be found at bbc.co.uk/ww2peopleswar

Author: Elaine Barker

Related Images

 Land Girls Edna Smy née Dallas, Rose, Emmy, Bunny Webb or Bunny Reynolds (tractor driver) working near Peldon Rose 1942  DIS2008_WLA_129DIS2008_WLA_129
Land Girls Edna Smy née Dallas, Rose, Emmy, Bunny Webb or Bunny Reynolds (tractor driver) working near Peldon Rose 1942
1942
ID: PH01_WLA
Source: Mersea Museum