Today I thought I would share some information about one of my favourite women’s services groups from the Second World War, the Women’s Land Army (WLA). I first became very interested in the WLA when it came to choosing a dissertation topic for my history degree. I knew I wanted to cover some topic from WW2 and the British Home Front, it was then that I narrowed it down to the women’s services, and from that the WLA in Staffordshire. I thought the WLA would be very interesting having grown up in the farming county of Lincolnshire (where many land girls were based), and then the studying the WLA of Staffordshire came about as I was studying in Staffordshire with easy access to archive material.
So without further ado here is an extract from my dissertation on ‘The Lives of Staffordshire Land Girls’ giving you an over view of the Women’s Land Army and the women who were part of the WLA known as Land Girls.
“The Women’s Land Army, an all women establishment, was first established in 1917 during the First World War as a means of providing extra labour to help support farmers and food production throughout World War One when British imports were dramatically reduced. During this time the WLA proved that the movement could be very successful at farming and increasing much needed food production. The name itself might be a bit misleading, for the Women’s Land Army was a civilian organisation and not under military control as the name might suggest, and this is something that makes the WLA different to many of the women’s services at the time.
In 1938, as thoughts turned to an impending war whose outbreak loomed on the horizon, which signalled undoubtedly a repeat of the hardships of First Wold War where British food imports would almost entirely be cut off, plans to establish a new WLA were made and volunteers began to register interest; but it was not until January 1939 that recruitment for the WLA actually began. Soon after, in February 1939, Lady Gertrude Denman, a former member of the WLA in World War One, accepted the position of Honorary Director of the Women’s Land Army and in doing so she also offered up her family home, Balcombe Place, in Sussex as headquarters for the WLA. Some reference must also be made to the Women’s Timber Corps (WTC), a subdivision of the WLA, the members were employed by the Forestry Commission to maintain woodland and provide timber for vital war supplies; for the rest of this dissertation however we shall be focusing on the Land Girls division of the WLA as the lives of the Lumber Jills (Women’s Timber Corps) was different in many respects to that of Land Girls, which is the main focus of this discussion.
On the 1st June 1939 the Women’s Land Army was officially formed, and by September 1939 and the outbreak of World War 2, roughly 17,000 volunteers had been registered and were ready to send out to work or training. However even though Land Girls were ready to start work as soon as war broke out, the uptake of Land Girl labour by male farmers was initially slow, many farmers were reluctant to employ young women, many of whom were from cities, and some even refused to take on land girls. This was due to pre-existing prejudices about women’s capability to perform labour intensive farm work, which can appear quite perplexing to our eyes given the proven success of the WLA during the First World War. Inevitably, what this resulted in was that many girls could find themselves out of work and without an income for some months; and as the WLA was primarily a mobile force they could not start another job, for they might have to up and leave suddenly.
Women hoping to join the Women’s Land Army had to be at least 171/2 years of age (although 16 to 17 year olds were often accepted if they appeared strong enough) and the upper age limit was 50, and irrespective of their age all WLA members (who worked on the land and were in non-managerial roles) were referred to as ‘Land Girls’, even if they were no longer teenage girls. Women over 50 with relevant experience could also often join the WLA to be placed in managerial roles. All new Land Girls, again irrespective of age, were issued with the same standardised uniform of ‘a mackintosh, an overall coat, two fawn shirts, a pair of corduroy breeches, a pair of dungarees, a knitted pullover, three pairs of fawn stockings, a pair of heavy brown shoes, a pair of rubber gum shoes (wellington boots), one brown felt hat, a green armlet and a WLA badge’.However this uniform was mainly reserved for smart wear for official occasions, as discovered by Jean, who had initially been attracted to the WLA by the ‘walking out’ uniform. Day-to-day women would be expected to wear their own blouses and jumpers with dungarees and wellington boots. Farm work in reality was not glamorous, as the official uniform might have lead girls to believe, instead it was dirty, sweaty and tiring, unlike most of the military women’s services.
At the start of the war a Land Girls’ wages were paid to them directly by the farmer employing them. However it was soon proven that this system was not going to work due to some unscrupulous farmers not paying up. Therefore a weekly minimum wage of £1 2s 6d for girls over 18 was introduced. However the pay that Land Girls received was initially always a bit less than male farm hands were paid for performing the same work; but in 1942 the County War Agricultural Executive Committees (often referred to as the ‘War Ag’) took over the employment and wages of Land Girls, who were then employed on the same terms and conditions as other farm employees. The wages of WLA members had to be enough to cover food and board, but whichever type of accommodation they had all Land Girls would be left with roughly the same amount of disposable income, which was not much. In terms of accommodation there were three main options for land girls, either living on the farm, being billeted in the local village or living communally in a WLA hostel.
In December 1941 the new National Service (No. 2) Act was introduced, this saw in the beginning of women being conscripted into the WLA. By then the demand for land girls had increased, as farmers had come to appreciate and rely on the work of the WLA. By the beginning of 1943 all the government targets for the WLA and British food production had been achieved and there were roughly 65,000 members of the WLA, with the number of members reaching its wartime peak in July 1943 of 87,000 members. In Staffordshire there were 65 full-time live-in Land Girls and 26 live-out, based individually on farms and a total of 114 girls in hostels across the county at any one point as of 1942. Membership of the Women’s Land Army, and its subdivision the Women’s Timber Corps (WTC), totalled over 200,000 throughout the duration of the war.
All of their hard work meant that by the end of World War Two British food imports had dropped by ½ million tonnes and Britain was producing more home grown produce than ever before; but there were also three main changes the WLA had undertaken since its initial creation during World War One; these were, that during the Second World War more girls were employed by the WTC than ever before, many land girls were now skilled market gardeners and most importantly, there was no type of work undertaken on a farm that a Land Girl could not perform successfully. After peace was declared in May 1945 recruitment for the Women’s Land Army continued, unlike recruitment and employment for other women’s services, because there was still a major food shortage and rationing worsened during the period. It was not until November 1950 that the Women’s Land Army was no longer required and was disbanded.”
From my studies and passion for the 1940s and WW2 I hope to be able to portray a Lincolnshire Land Girl at some of the 1940s events this summer, I have already purchased some original WLA corduroy breeches and intend to acquire the rest of the WLA dress uniform over the coming months.
If you have made it to the end of this article well done! (at the point of writing this several years ago I never intended it to be for public consumption, so I do hope it was both informative and interesting and didn’t send you off to sleep too much.) If you have any questions about sources used in this article or where to source WLA uniforms please don’t hesitate to ask.