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.

The Maurice Collins Collection

Mary Evans’ reputation as purveyors of the quirky and unusual was given a boost last year with the welcome addition of the Maurice Collins Collection to the library’s offerings. A cornucopia of gadgetry and bizarre inventions, Maurice’s unique collection is a celebration of technological advancement, manufacturing prowess and rampant consumerism over the 19th and 20th centuries (not to mention a heavy dose of Victorian eccentricity). Among the thousands of peculiar and often dubiously useful objects Maurice has collected over the years are such curiosities as hen peck protectors, adjustable skirt lifters (to protect long hemlines from muddy puddles), bed linen smoothers, cricket bat string applicators and chewing gum holders. We thoroughly recommend whiling away an hour or so browsing his fascinating collection online. Click here to see the entire collection.

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Image numbers (left to right): 11041344, 11041464, 11041359 & 11041457

In the first of a series of contributor interviews, we talked to Maurice to find out more about his fascinating hobby and collecting habits.

How did you start your collection?

I began collecting when my children were younger in the 1970s. My daughter was handicapped, and in order to spend time with my son, we used to go bottle digging on old Victorian rubbish tips to see what we could find. We uncovered pot lids, old bottles and I recall finding a particularly unusual bottle – a genuine Hiram Codd mineral water bottle, with a pointed bottom and a marble in the neck to stop the contents’ gas escaping and the drink going flat. That was the beginning and I’ve been collecting ever since.

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Image numbers (left to right): 11043914, 11043905, 11043895 & 11043869

What is the scope of the collection? What are the qualifications an item must have to be included?

I look for anything unusual or something I simply like the look of. They might be every-day items for their time, though seem curious in retrospect. But the main rule I have is that the majority of objects fall roughly within the century from the time of the Great Exhibition in 1851 to the Festival of Britain in 1951. The collection now numbers around 2000 individual items, and they are catalogued in so far as they are stored eight to a box, with a description of each piece.

Do you have a favourite particular piece?

It’s my clockwork teasmade dating from 1902. The Science Museum have one in their collection. Other than that I’m intrigued by security devices, such as traps in coat pockets against thieves, or products that were powered by clockwork. Also escape items – I have button or collar stud compasses, or compasses disguised as razor blades, used by the RAF during the Second World War.

And a preference for a particular period?

I admire the aesthetics and design of the 1930s and the Bauhaus movement, but for sheer variety and invention, the gadgets of the late 19th century take some beating. Some were essential advances to improve the health and well-being of the population such as Royal Doulton’s water filter or the Jennings toilet as shown at the 1851 Great Exhibition (George Jennings invented the first public flush toilet). There are other gadgets that demonstrate society’s increasing quest for comfort and ease such as car seat heating or coachman’s belly warmers. Others are just plain bonkers such as a tin of South-end air you could send as a refreshing alternative to a postcard!

Where do you find your treasures?

I’m always looking – antiques fairs and markets, eBay of course now, which makes searching internationally so much easier.

What is the most recent acquisition?

A clockwork alarm from around 1820 consisting of a small clock connected to a bell and ratchet. It is very beautiful and the mechanism is very effective.

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Image numbers (left to right): 11041331, 11042765, 11041461 & 11041660

As an inveterate collector yourself, are there other collections you admire?

It has to be Robert Opie and his marvellous collection of advertising, packaging and brand ephemera.

And do you collect anything else other than gadgets?

I have a sideline collection of ephemera consisting of graphic design material, adverts and posters, particularly a major collection of WWI and WWII posters. I was a compositor and then owned my own printing business for a number of years, so am naturally drawn to this sort of material.

What projects have you got lined up for the collection?

I have always lent objects to museums and for exhibitions – any fees are donated to disability charities. I will be at the Gadget Show in Birmingham this year (the show runs from 31 March to 3 April at the NEC) showing a selection of objects. I have written books based on the collection (Ingenious Gadgets and Eccentric Contraptions) and have another planned.

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Image numbers (left to right): 11047261, 11047192, 11047000 & 11044365

What do you think your collection tells us about society over the past two centuries?

It’s commonly assumed today that we buy and own too much stuff. But there is a rationale behind this and that is that society is dependent on the production and sale of goods. All wealth is created by someone buying something over a shop counter which in turn means that people are buying products, meaning employment, which allows taxation, which is then spent on the infrastructure of a democratic society, from health, roads, education and even the preservation of our past through provision of museums. It is a principle of economics that has remained constant over the centuries. My collection of objects and gadgets, whether life-changing, ground-breaking, totally pointless or utterly obsolete, represents this perennial rhythm of industry and consumerism.

The Maurice Collins Collection is exclusively represented by Mary Evans Picture Library, with 3800 images available to search. Click here to see the entire collection.