Women's Land Army
The Women's Land Army (WLA) was first created during World War One, during a time when a great deal of farm work was done by men. With so many young men called up for the armed services, there was a real gap in farm workers, so the government called on women to fill this gap. The same situation arose in World War Two – home-grown food was needed, and the men were not there to harvest it, so the government resurrected the WLA. By 1943 there were some 80,000 young women working in every aspect of agriculture to feed the nation.
Womens Land Army girls came from every walk of life, such as office girls, waitresses, shop assistants and factory workers but without exception they said they preferred the countryside and the freedom of an open-air life.
The women in the WLA did all the jobs that were required to make a farm function normally - threshing, ploughing, tractor driving, reclaiming land, drainage etc. Their wages were set by the Agricultural Wages Board. The wage for someone in the WLA over the age of 18 was £1 12 pence a week after deductions had been made for lodgings and food. There was an agreed maximum working week - 50 hours in the summer and 48 hours in the winter. A normal week would consist of five and a half days working, with Saturday afternoon and Sunday off. Along with their weekly pay, all members of the WLA who were posted more than 20 miles from their home would receive a free rail warrant for a visit home every six months. However, their pay came from the farmers themselves, and there is evidence that WLA members were paid less than the accepted rate by some farmers who tended to overcharge for accommodation and food. Also, during harvest time, many WLA members worked from dawn to dusk and easily eclipsed their 50 hour week.
In World War One, the WLA had been set up at very short notice. This time, many knew that war was a real probability and plans for the WLA were made in the 1930s rather than at the last minute. Though the WLA came under the control of the Ministry of Agriculture and Fisheries, it was given a honorary head, Lady Denham, while her home, Balcombe Place, became its headquarters.
For its work to succeed, the planning for the WLA had to be excellent. England and Wales were divided into seven regions. Each region administered itself but reported to Balcombe Place. The seven regions were served by 52 county offices, and each county office had its own administrative force. In this way, the WLA had an organisational unit right down at farm level and inspections of farms could be carried out with a degree of regularity.
Women who wanted to join the WLA had to be interviewed and given a medical if they passed the interview. If accepted, training depended on just what work farms needed to be done. In theory, new members of the WLA should have been taught a number of farming issues, such as milking cows, drainage, and a host of other things. In reality, such was the demand for food that what was learned was learned 'on the job'.
Though the WLA had the word ‘army’ in its title, it was, in fact, a civilian organisation. Women were recruited by the farmers themselves and, if they did not work sufficiently well, could be dismissed from the farm's service. Also, women could move to another farm if they wanted to. There were ways for WLA members to express their grievances with farmers as well if they felt that they were being unfairly used.
The uniform of the WLA was functional. Women who worked on farms got dirty so by the very nature of their work, day-to-day uniforms were suited for the task as opposed to being fashion statements. On joining, every girl was supplied with two green jerseys, two pairs of breeches, two overall coats, two pairs dungarees, six pairs of stockings, three shirts, one pair of ankle boots, one pair of shoes, one pair of gum boots or boots with leggings, one hat, one overcoat with shoulder titles, one oilskin or mackintosh, two towels, an oilskin sou'wester, a green armlet, and a metal badge. After every six months of satisfactory service she received a half-diamond cloth badge which was sewn on the armlet; after two years’ service a special armlet, and then after four years’ service a scarlet armlet to replace the two-year one.
With the outbreak of peace the WLA remained in existence doing vital jobs on the land until demobilisation was complete. The WLA was formally disbanded in 1950. At the end of their service, Land Girls received their last week’s pay, a letter from the Queen thanking them for their efforts, their greatcoats (provided they were dyed blue), their armbands, and in return for the rest of their uniform, a humiliating 20 clothing coupons. In some extreme circumstances, they might also receive some money from the Land Army Benevolent Fund. The Land Army girls had to wait another 58 years before their services were finally recognised by the Government, with the presentation of a small brooch in 2008 by Gordon Brown.
Research by Alan Beales 2011