Land Girls and Lumber Jills

In a year commemorating not only the centenary of women’s enfranchisement, but also the end of the First World War, the achievements of women in wartime deserves recognition, not least the efforts of the women who worked on the land through two world wars. A decade ago, in January 2008, it was announced that former members of the Women’s Land Army (WLA) and Women’s Timber Corps (WTC) were to be awarded a medal commemorating their vital contribution to the war effort during two World Wars. The badge, bearing the Royal Crown and showing a gold wheat sheaf on a white background was surrounded by a circlet of pine branches and pine cones to indicate the work of both the ‘Land Girls’ and the ‘Lumber Jills’. It was long overdue (sixty years overdue, sniffed the Daily Mail at the time), but it was, at last, official recognition for a cohort of women who had thrown their backs, and their hearts into providing the nation with food and timber during World War II.

Land Girl, Pauline Bell, who used to be a Civil Service clerk, working with plough horses on a farm during World War II

By early 1917, and with an estimated three weeks’ food supply left in the country, it was clear that drastic action was needed. Ronald Protheroe, President of the Board of Agriculture engaged the services of (Dame) Meriel Talbot, a leading light of the Women’s Farm and Garden Association, who became director of the first Women’s Land Army. She set about immediately implementing an intensive recruitment drive.

Women's Land Army WW1. Somewhat idealised portrait of a Land Girl in hat and smock. Pitchfork over her shoulder. Captioned, 'National Service' 'Sunshine on the Land'     Date: Circe 1917

Through both World Wars, the WLA struggled with an image problem.  Other, comparatively more glamorous women’s services such as the Women’s Air Force (WAAF) or the Women’s Royal Naval Services (WRNS) were formed around the same time and offered not only more conducive working hours but an elegant uniform in comparison to the smock and breeches ensemble worn by land girls. Munitions workers of course, earned far more. Farm work meant long hours, physical toil and low wages. Furthermore, many land girls who arrived at farms full of optimism and enthusiasm, found their male employers sceptical about their abilities. The recruiters appealed to the patriotism of the nation’s women, and peppered that with promises of a healthy, wholesome rural idyll. Prime Minister David Lloyd George, quoted in The Landswoman (a magazine launched in January 1918 expressly for WLA members), added his voice to the appeal in June 1918; “…the harvest is in danger…once again therefore…I appeal to women to come forward and help. They have never failed this country yet.” A Times article, reporting on a the 130 land girls who visited London and then Buckingham Palace for a recruitment campaign in March of that year commented enthusiastically on, “the health and happiness, clear skins and bright eyes” of the land girls.

A member of the Women's Auxilary Agricultural Service (Land Army) in hat, smock, shirt, tie and sturdy brogues. Her armband bears the emblem of the crown.     Date: circa 1916

The Women’s Land Army of the Great War, which had recruited approximately 23,000 women to its ranks, was disbanded in 1919 but within twenty years, it would be needed again. Having proved to many doubters in 1918 that women were more than capable of physically taxing work in the fields and forests, the next generation of land girls found themselves facing similar prejudices.

The new WLA reformed in 1939, with Lady Gertrude Denman at its head. Its headquarters were based at her own magnificent country home, Balcombe Park in Sussex where the bedrooms were turned into offices and the stables and squash court transformed into warehouses for storing the thousands of uniforms to be issued to recruits. From here, the Land Girl, a monthly magazine under the editorship of birth control pioneer, Margaret Pyke was produced reaching a circulation of 21,000. Lady Denman was a tireless representative of the WLA. She toured the country, making personal visits to county and regional officers as well as speaking to land girls themselves and was firmly committed to raising the profile and improving conditions for the women under her wing. In 1941, she approached Buckingham Palace to invite Queen Elizabeth to become the WLA patron. The Queen accepted and from then on, took an active interest in the Land Army, attending reviews, subscribing to the WLA Benevolent Fund and throwing an anniversary party for over 300 land girls at Buckingham Palace in 1943.

The WLA’s recruiting slogan was, ‘For a healthy, happy job, join the Women’s Land Army’. Its most famous poster depicted a glowing young woman, pitchfork poised, in WLA uniform surveying with a satisfied gaze, a large, sun-kissed field stretching out to the horizon. For some, it was an alluring prospect. Indeed, in the months leading up to WWII, when the WLA was already beginning to recruit as the storm clouds of war gathered, the fortnight of training given to Land Girls was regularly described as akin to a holiday. The Hastings Observer, writing in July 1939, suggested, “Land Army work is something which girls and women of all types and ages will find interesting and health-giving…The period of training is only a fortnight, and those who would find a country holiday attractive and are prepared to pay £1 for their board should find the training period as enjoyable as it is instructive.”

World War Two, 1940s, Women's Land Army, tractor, horse, harness, girl on dungarees, fields, village. .     Date:

The bucolic idyll promoted by posters and newspaper editorial rarely lived up to expectations. For most girls, some of whom came from cities and were entirely unused to country life let alone physical work, the reality involved endless weeks of strenuous, back-breaking effort. Jobs could be by turns filthy, dangerous, repetitive, or all three. Nevertheless, by 1943, over 80,000 women had gamely turned their hand to baling, ploughing, weeding, ditching, chaffing, milking, mucking out, plucking chickens, picking potatoes, cutting sugar beet and even rat-catching! One former land girl, Dorothy Wheeler, sent to work on farms in North Wales, recalled the field work she was faced with on her very first day – sorting through clamps of potatoes, separating them into one heap for pigs and another for humans. “Oh, it was horrible sometimes, like custard.” Another girl, Hilda Billings from Salford left her job in the Rennies indigestion tablet factory to join the land army and described her typical working week in the Shropshire countryside as, “getting up to bring in the cows at six, washing their udders with icy-cold water, drying and then milking them. Then breakfast and lots of other work until six. Haymaking time, you’d go back after tea and work till it went really dark.” For a forty-eight hour working week, payment was the underwhelming sum of £1 2 s. 6d., and was considerably lower for girls under the age of eighteen. Promotion to a supervisor was, at least, a chance to improve earning power.

Land Girls working as milkmaids milking cows on a farm in Tooting during World War II. Miss Ivy Baldwin (on the left) was a mulitple shop worker).

Members of the Women’s Timber Corps found themselves in an even more masculine world than their land girl counterparts. With timber imports badly hit by submarine attacks on Allied ships, and the need for a specialisation in this kind of work, the WTA was set up as an offshoot of the WLA in March 1942.  Recruits, who had four weeks of training, earned more than land girls with the result that, at one point, women were volunteering at a rate of 250 per week. The Lumber Jills carried out an enormous range of forestry jobs from working in sawmills to labouring in forests, felling trees and lopping branches. They would also take on the heavy work of haulage and transportation. A key aspect of their job was acquisition work, where WTC members would walk for miles daily, assessing, measuring and selecting trees suitable for war production, whether as telegraph poles, as pit props or for wood that would be laid in front of tanks on beach landings.

Most girls were billeted either at farms, or often in hostels where facilities could be spartan, though the camaraderie of communal living was often preferred to the isolation of living alone with a family in a remote area. Nevertheless, home comforts were thin on the ground. Helen Collett, who worked in Buckinghamshire remembered coming back from the fields after a day knee deep in mud and having to share just four inches of bath water with six other girls. The familiar uniform issued to the Land Girls and Lumber Jills consisted of brown, corduroy breeches (an extra pair was allocated to WTC girls), fawn knee-length woollen socks, fawn Aertex shirt, green pullover and green tie. To top it off was a brown felt ‘slouch’ hat, worn at a jaunty angle by the more sassy girls to avoid looking overly quaint. The green beret that set the Lumberjills apart was infinitely more rakish. For many, this uniform was kept for ‘best’ and daily work was carried out in baggy, brown dungarees with a matching jacket.

Women War Work WW1 Land Army. Members of the Women's Land Army, Forestry Division or Timber Corps, also known as 'Lumber Jills'     Date: 1918

Despite the disadvantages of an unflattering uniform, the land girls still had their fair share of admirers. Those close to RAF or Army bases would cycle (sometimes bicycles were provided) to dances where they jitterbugged with GIs or British airmen. Some went on to marry the servicemen they met while in the WLA. They caught the eye of others too. Many prisoners of war were put to work in the fields and one land girl recalled that while the German POWs were surly yet hard workers, the Italians, unable to subdue their natural flirtatiousness, would spend more time whistling at girls or calling, ‘Bella, bella’.

Most of the Land Girls and Lumber Jills are now in their eighties but still remember their time with the Women’s Land Army fondly – “good years with good friends” as one put it. Peg Francis from Grimsby, speaking in 2010 explained the firm friendships forged out of a shared experience. “I was very young and had never been away from home. I was frightened of cows, but had no fear of hard work. The people I met during those four and half years were full of kindness and generosity and I’m still in touch with some of the girls now.”

Incredibly, it was not until 2000, that the Women’s Land Army was finally invited to march past the Cenotaph on Remembrance Sunday – in honour of the work they did for their country. Since then, a memorial sculpture to the WTC was unveiled in the Queen Elizabeth Forest Park near Aberfoyle in Stirling in October 2007, a fitting tribute to the so-called ‘Forgotten Corps’. In 2014, finally, after a fundraising campaign, a memorial to the Women’s Land Army was unveiled by the Countess of Wessex at the National Memorial Arboretum in Staffordshire. The figures, by sculptor Denise Dutton, were inspired by those in one of the original WLA recruitment posters. As the original Land Girls become fewer in number, the focus on women’s contribution to the past becomes magnified, and it seems that finally, their voices are beginning to be heard.

Top Ten Royal Wedding Dresses

What do the names Reville & Rossiter, Handley Seymour, Molyneux and Maureen Baker all have in common?  It’s a quiz question that might stump the most ardent of royal enthusiasts, but add a couple more names – Norman Hartnell, David & Elizabeth Emmanuel or Sarah Burton at Alexander McQueen – and the penny might drop.  They have all had the honour of designing a royal wedding dress and, in some cases, such as Reville and Hartnell, they have answered the royal call more than once.  The name of the designer of Meghan Markle’s wedding dress for her marriage to Prince Harry this coming Saturday remains very firmly under wraps though a shortlist of possible candidates has been drawn up to include the Australian-born but London-based duo Ralph & Russo (designers of the gown Meghan wore for her engagement photos), to stalwarts of British fashion, Stella McCartney or Dame Vivienne Westwood.

All will be revealed on Saturday, but in the meantime, here is our top ten royal wedding dresses from history:

  1. Lady Pamela Mountbatten in Worth, 1960.  Not strictly royal, but not far off, the younger daughter of Earl Mountbatten married David Hicks in a snow storm, the ideal backdrop for her fur-trimmed show-stopping satin gown by Worth.
Lady Pamela Mountbatten, younger daughter of Earl Mountbatten, pictured in her superb wedding dress designed by Worth, for her marriage to interior designer, David Hicks at Romsey Abbey, Hampshire in January 1960. Date: 1960
Lady Pamela Mountbatten, younger daughter of Earl Mountbatten, pictured in her superb wedding dress designed by Worth, for her marriage to interior designer, David Hicks at Romsey Abbey, Hampshire in January 1960. Date: 1960
  1. Princess Elizabeth (Queen Elizabeth II), Norman Hartnell, 1947.  Britain was still in the grip of rationing, but Hartnell’s design, embellished with seed pearls & symbolism, lifted spirits.  James Laver of the V&A declared, “The occasion demanded a poet, and Mr Hartnell has not failed to string his lyre and to ring in tune.”
Group photograph following the wedding of Princess Elizabeth and Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh showing the newlyweds with their best man, bridesmaids and page boys. Date: 1947
Group photograph following the wedding of Princess Elizabeth and Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh showing the newlyweds with their best man, bridesmaids and page boys. Date: 1947
  1. Princess Alexandra in Mrs James, 1863.  Arriving in England with a gift of fine Brussels lace, the Danish princess was firmly steered towards a gown of English silk and Honiton lace.  The future Queen Alexandra would in time become a style icon, but as a fresh-faced fashion ingénue, she looked perfectly ravishing in this frothy crinoline confection.
The Wedding' Bride in white with six bridesmaids, Groom in blue military costume, two Beefeaters (Yeomen Warders) standing guard
The Wedding’ Bride in white with six bridesmaids, Groom in blue military costume, two Beefeaters (Yeomen Warders) standing guard
  1. Edwina Mountbatten in Reville, 1922  Ticking all the 1920s boxes, Edwina wore the era well.  With those mitten sleeves and the minimal bouquet of lilies, this society girl injected more than a dash of chic into royal weddings.
Lord Louis Mountbatten and Edwina Ashley after their wedding in the church of St. Margaret's in Westminster, pass through the wedding trellis. Date: 1922
Lord Louis Mountbatten and Edwina Ashley after their wedding in the church of St. Margaret’s in Westminster, pass through the wedding trellis. Date: 1922
  1. Princess Anne in Maureen Baker.  Magnificent modesty with a cool 1970s vibe, Princess Anne’s dress, with its high neck and trumpet sleeves echoed the medieval splendour of Westminster Abbey, but its modernity allowed her to shine.
Princess Anne, the Princess Royal seen smiling and waving from the balcony of Buckingham Palace following her marriage to Captain Mark Phillips at Westminster Abbey on 14 November 1973. Prince Edward, now the Duke of Wessex, who served as a pageboy can be seen beside the couple. Date: 1973
Princess Anne, the Princess Royal seen smiling and waving from the balcony of Buckingham Palace following her marriage to Captain Mark Phillips at Westminster Abbey on 14 November 1973. Prince Edward, now the Duke of Wessex, who served as a pageboy can be seen beside the couple. Date: 1973
  1. Lady Diana Spencer in Emmanuel, 1981.  Some say meringue, some say romance, everyone says creased, but “Shy Di’s” gown was the fairytale dream every girl wanted.  Shelve your fashion prejudices for a moment: you’ve got to admit that this was an iconic – and unforgettable – dress.
A photograph of Lady Diana Spencer arriving at St Paul's Cathedral in the City of London for her marriage to Prince Charles, Prince of Wales. Her dress and train, designed by David and Elizabeth Emmanuel is being arranged by her bridesmaids. Crowds of 60000 people lined the streets of London to watch the ceremony on 29th July 1981. Date: 29th July 1981
A photograph of Lady Diana Spencer arriving at St Paul’s Cathedral in the City of London for her marriage to Prince Charles, Prince of Wales. Her dress and train, designed by David and Elizabeth Emmanuel is being arranged by her bridesmaids. Crowds of 60000 people lined the streets of London to watch the ceremony on 29th July 1981. Date: 29th July 1981
  1. Catherine Middleton (Duchess of Cambridge) in Sarah Burton for Alexander McQueen, 2011. Sarah Burton’s take on the precision engineering of the house of McQueen saw it meld effortlessly with the bride’s taste and style: a self-assured, graceful, feminine statement.
Princess Catherine Middleton and Prince William after their wedding ceremony on the balcony of Buckingham Palace with bridesmaids Grace van Cutsem and Margarita Armstrong-Jones, page boys William Lowther-Pinkerton and Tom Pettifer, Queen Elizabeth II, Prince Philip, Pippa Middleton and Prince Harry. Date: 2011
Princess Catherine Middleton and Prince William after their wedding ceremony on the balcony of Buckingham Palace with bridesmaids Grace van Cutsem and Margarita Armstrong-Jones, page boys William Lowther-Pinkerton and Tom Pettifer, Queen Elizabeth II, Prince Philip, Pippa Middleton and Prince Harry. Date: 2011
  1.  Princess Grace of Monaco in Helen Rose, 1956. A gift from her film studio, Grace Kelly’s exquisite, lace gown was a carefully structured and modestly feminine creation that showcased her cool, classic beauty.  A style classic, many saw echoes of Helen Rose’s design in the Duchess of Cambridge’s 2011 McQueen gown.
WEDDING IN MONACO, Grace Kelly, Prince Rainier, 1956 Date: 1956
WEDDING IN MONACO, Grace Kelly, Prince Rainier, 1956 Date: 1956
  1. Princess Marina (Duchess of Kent) in Molyneux, 1934.  A chic fashion icon, the Duchess of Kent did not put a sartorial foot wrong.  Molyneux could have dressed Marina in a bin bag and she’d looked stunning.  But she didn’t have to:  this dress was an elegant 1930s affair with a definite regal aura.
A photograph of the royal wedding between Prince George, Duke of Kent and Princess Marina of Greece. Date: 29th November 1934
A photograph of the royal wedding between Prince George, Duke of Kent and Princess Marina of Greece. Date: 29th November 1934

1.Princess Margaret in Norman Hartnell, 1960.  Breathtakingly simple, a strong silhouette, acres of fabric moulded into shapely discipline.  She’s truly the bridal belle of the ball.

The marriage of HRH The Princess Margaret (1930-2002) to Anthony Armstrong-Jones (1930-). The couple pictured on the balcony of Buckingham Palace acknowledging the cheering crowds after their wedding ceremony on 6th May 1960. Date: 1960
The marriage of HRH The Princess Margaret (1930-2002) to Anthony Armstrong-Jones (1930-). The couple pictured on the balcony of Buckingham Palace acknowledging the cheering crowds after their wedding ceremony on 6th May 1960. Date: 1960

Do you agree with our top ten?  Do let us know your opinions – and enjoy the royal wedding celebrations this weekend.

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