If like me you are of mature years you will remember the Women’s Land Army, members of which made a huge contribution to the war effort here at home in WW2.

Your grandmother or a family friend may even have been a member.

Formation of the Land Army

Early in 1939 a National Service Handbook was published by the Home Office, which stated “In the event of war a Women’s Land Army will be organised. This body will be a mobile force consisting of women who are ready to undertake all kinds of farm work in any part of the country. The members will wear uniform, although will be normally employed and paid by individual farmers, and the organisation will supervise their lodging arrangements and general welfare. There will also be a need for women who are only able to offer their services for work in their home district.” Beginning in June 1939 women were then invited to enrol by applying to offices in London, Edinburgh and Belfast.

Lady Gertrude Denman, popularly known as “Trudie”, was appointed as Honorary Director of the Women’s Land Army. This was a popular appointment as Trudie had been closely involved in women’s rights issues for over 30 years.

In September 1939 the Government, who had learnt from their experiences on the outbreak of the First World War in 1914, then carried out a census of the population. Known as the 1939 Register this provides a snapshot of the civilian population of England and Wales just after the outbreak of the Second World War. Women who had enrolled in the Land Army recorded that fact in the Register.

In south Buckinghamshire there are some 35 women recorded in the 1939 Register as being in the Women’s Land Army. At that time the majority seemed to be from relatively wealthy families, such as Jane Stewart-Liberty, whose father was a “Director of Liberty & company Silk Merchant”, the family living at the Manor House in Ballinger Common near Wendover. Several of the women lived in Gerrards Cross and gave their occupations as “Artist”, they were Dorothy M Barber and Isobel R Beard. Joyce H Cook, who lived in Seer Green Lane in Jordans, gave her occupation as “Musician”. Florence David, Joyce Townsend and Eileen M Evans all lived at Walton Cottage in Bledlow and worked at University College in London as respectively “Secretary & Research Assistant”, “University Teacher (Statistics)”, and “University Teacher (Phonetics)”. It would be surprising if these women were not eventually assigned to other types of work in support of the war effort where their experience was utilised.

Service in the Land Army

As word spread around the country about the WLA and the healthy outdoor lifestyle involved, volunteers increasingly enrolled who lived in London and other large cities, particularly those in the north. By the Autumn of 1941 more than 20,000 women had volunteered to serve in the WLA, one third of whom came from the cities. From December 1941 the Government introduced conscription to supplement recruitment into the WLA.

Many land girls lived-in at the farms where they worked, they were paid by the farmers who employed them. The minimum wage was 28s per week, from which 14s was deducted for board and lodging (the average wage for male farm workers was 38s per week!). The basic working week was 48 hours in winter and 50 in summer.

By 1944 when the WLA was at its peak, with more than 80,000 serving, about one third of all Land Girls were employed in some form of dairy work. But there were many more specialised tasks, such as pest control. During the war there were estimated to be 50 million rats in Britain. To tackle the threat these rats posed to food and animal fodder on farms, Land Army girls were trained to work in pest control squads. Their duties also included the control of foxes, rabbit and moles.

Other specialised teams were established to source and prepare wood, which was urgently needed for use as telegraph poles and pit-props. In 1942 the Women’s Timber Corps was set up, these women were known as “Lumber Jills”. They numbered about 6,000, and their tasks included selecting and measuring trees suitable for felling, sawing and lifting the wood, and clearing brushwood.

Long Service Awards

In Buckinghamshire there were about 750 members of the WLA when the war in Europe ended in May 1945. Fifty one of those were rewarded for 4 years of continuous and satisfactory service at a ceremony held in the school hall of Eton College on May 12, 1945. They were each presented with a scarlet armband by the Duchess of Kent, who entered the hall through a Guard of Honour formed by Land Girls from the Slough area.

In her speech Mrs Fellowes the county chairman of the WLA said that “they little thought when they made the arrangements, that their rally would coincide so closely with the victory in Europe” (VE Day was May 8, 1945). She also said that the Land Army was “rather bewildered” at the Government’s decision to regard them as an industry rather than a service.

Despite wearing uniforms and from December 1941 being recruited rather like the armed forces, the WLA did not receive the benefits of the other women’s services, which had already led to the resignation of Lady Denman on February 17, 1945.

This meant that at that time members of the WLA were not officially recognised nationally for their service and contribution to the war effort (after the then Queen made clear her support for the WLA, members were granted a £150 resettlement allowance to help them settle back into civilian life).

This lack of recognition was not remedied until 2008 when all surviving members of the WLA, thought to number about 20,000, could claim a commemorative medallion.

In October 2012, the then Prince of Wales unveiled the first memorial to the WLA on the Fochabers estate in Moray, Scotland, a sculpture designed by Peter Naylor. In October 2014, a memorial statue to the WLA, which included the Women’s Timber Corps, was unveiled at the National Memorial Arboretum in Staffordshire, England

The recipients of the Long Service armbands are listed on the left.

After WW2

It is not generally appreciated that the Women’s Land Army continued for 5 years after the war. It was not disbanded until November 1950. There are only a relatively few women who served in the WLA for the full eleven years and one of those was local girl Gwendoline Hann, who was born and bred in High Wycombe. I will tell you all about Gwendoline and other local girls who served in the WLA in future articles.