A fundamental component in British victory during the Second World War was the ability of the United Kingdom to feed its population. This would be partly accomplished by farming the land intensively, sustainably and without drawing upon the country’s limited manpower resources.
Shortly after the war began in October 1940, in an effort to supplement the national food supply, the Ministry of Information unveiled a new initiative, entitled: ‘Dig for Victory’. Its purpose was to encourage householders and neighbourhoods throughout the UK to grow their own food in their back and front gardens, in nearby community allotments, commonage and even public parks.
This national programme was highly successful, changing both the shape and health of the nation for many years to come – but it would not be enough.
Even as an island nation, the UK depended very heavily upon agriculture to supplement the food supply, which was placed under tremendous strain by German U-boat attacks on Allied merchant shipping. 70 percent of British food was imported, and every cargo ship sunk by the Kriegsmarine during the war severely impacted upon the flow of food supplies into the country, threatening the population with starvation.
Farms throughout the UK were recruited to the cause of feeding the nation in its hour of need. However, the output of each of these farms would have to be double, or more, of what it had been in peacetime. This would require intensive farming, and men could not be expected to labour upon the land as they would be needed to serve in the armed forces, in heavy industries or any other vital occupation for which male participation was an exclusive requirement.
This was where the women of Britain stepped in.
Originally formed during the First World War for the same purpose, the Women’s Land Army (WLA) was reformed before the outbreak of war in 1939 to provide trained women labourers to work the land in the place of men. This rural workforce was designed to maintain the British agricultural sector at full capacity while able-bodied men were conscripted to fight.
Women from all over the UK volunteered to serve in the WLA. They were drawn from all backgrounds, coming from cities and the countryside, or were locally recruited by regional WLA branches. By December 1941, conscription had been introduced for women throughout the country, and the WLA also began conscripting women into its ranks. In many ways, service within this organisation comparable to that in any of the women’s branches of the armed forces. By 1944, the WLA peaked at 80,000 members throughout the UK.
Serving members of the organisation were known as ‘Land Girls’.
As the WLA was organised into localised branches at county level, Cornwall had its own WLA branch. Headquartered at Truro, the Cornwall County Committee of the WLA would be responsible for organising the recruitment and training of Land Girls and coordinating the activities of the local Land Army in Cornwall.
Also known as the Cornwall Land Army Committee, it was initially chaired by Mrs. Agnes Bolitho. In 1940, Mrs. Charles Williams was appointed as the new chairwomen, and would remain in that post until the end of the war.
According to the minutes of a public meeting of the local WLA committee, held at Truro on 17 May 1939, new recruits to the organisation were to be trained in 5 areas of land work:
- All forms of light field work; hoeing, weeding, weed-outing with hooks
- Horse work; carting, ploughing, etc.
- Harvesting, gardening, smallholding work
- Dairy work and Feeding livestock
- Tractors (for those who were considered competent drivers)
Later, certain Land Girls were taught how to drive other vehicles, such as Bedford trucks. These transport drivers played a vital role in ferrying teams of Land Girls between WLA facilities and farms where their services were required. Every day, the girls were driven from their hostels to local farms and other agricultural sites, depending on where they were needed.
Facilities and training centres administered by the WLA were located at Lisgeard, Trengwainton, St. Hilary, St. Columb, Moorgrove, Kenegie, Pencubbit, Pelynt and on the Roseland. Land girls were also accommodated in special hostels for WLA members only, each of which had strict rules, such as cleanliness, attentiveness to dress code, proper maintenance of equipment and, above all, no male visitors, particularly after ‘lights-out’. Well-known Land Army hostels included Poltair and Ponsandane in Penzance, Tregarthen Farm in Ludgvan, Penmare in Hayle and Leslie House in Helston.
In total, over 1,500 land girls were recruited by the WLA in Cornwall, and most served until after the war had ended in 1946.
The work and routine was very tough on many new recruits to the WLA, even for local Land Girls like Pat Peters from Nancegollan, who recalled:
After a month a man came from Truro, pointed at some of us and said we had to get into another cattle lorry up to Wadebridge. We were in for a shock then; we had to be at the church each morning to get in a lorry at 8, so had to be up at 7, and then into the fields at Tintagel and all up the north coast. Plenty of saints up there, picking up potatoes, potatoes, potatoes! It was all right in the sunshine – we had to pick up stones first as they could not plant potatoes in a stony field.
Realising that their potato-picking duties had, in fact, turned into stone-picking, Pat and her fellow Land Girls decided to mutiny:
After 10 months we got really fed up with this, so we sat in a ring, put the stones in a heap and decided we were going to sign a petition to say that we would go back to London, we had had enough. One of the reasons we were called the “towny hellers”! So the foreman said, “Dear, dear, dear, we can’t do without you girls, we need the food, the potatoes, we need you.” So he said he would see what he could do. We were all billeted to private farms and I went back to Nancegollan.Courtesy of the Hypatia Trust’s memoir, Digging for Memories: The Women’s Land Army in Cornwall (Penzance, 2006), p. 30.
However, for those Land Girls who had been drafted into the Cornwall WLA from other parts of the UK, especially those who came from cities, the experience of land work in the county proved to be life-changing. Mildred ‘Mickie’ Bowman was called up for war work at the age of 17. A trained seamstress from the industrial city of Leeds, she observed that there was no shortage of employment in her home town, but rather than making tanks in the local factory she was attracted to the idea of working on the land.
After joining the WLA, Mickie received her uniform and a rail ticket, along with her papers which said ‘Penzance’. Together with her father, she took out a map of Britain and searched for the town – neither of them had ever heard of the place before, and when they discovered where it was, her father commented: “Well if they sent you any further, they would have dropped you off the end!”
Mickie travelled by train with 50 other girls from Leeds and Lancashire, “all new recruits, all in new uniforms” who had been posted to Cornwall. On the subject of clothing, she remarked:
We’d never worn trousers before this. I didn’t mind wearing dungarees and things, but the other clothes – I tell you, I looked like humpty-dumpty!
Mickie remarked that there were two types of Land Girls; those who lived in hostels and worked on different farms, and those who lived permanently on allotted farms. One of thing that struck Mickie was the hands-on nature of the work that was required. She noted that anything that anyone didn’t know how to do, they learned to do very quickly:
Most of the Land Girls, those who lived in hostels, had to be prepared to do anything that was asked of them – any land work. If you couldn’t milk a cow when you went to a farm, they very quickly taught you. And you fed chickens, cleaned out cow sheds, planted cabbages and broccoli. The thing I liked most about the farms was when they sent you out to bring in the cows, you used to stand at the end of the field and shout: “COW! COW! COW!” And then they’d come trampling across and then you’d walk down the road with a stick in your hand. And I used to think, this is magic!Excerpt from ‘Mickie’s story of the Land Army in Cornwall’, from Tallys an Tir – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Jl2avVwl_Sc&t=163s
For Mickie, and many of the Land Girls who worked the land in Cornwall to feed the local population, and the nation as a whole during wartime, their service in the local Women’s Land Army proved to be a formative part of their lives. It was an experience which shaped them as young adults, taught them new skills and, in many cases, brought them into contact with rural life for the first time.
Indeed, most Cornwall Land Girl veterans like Mickie looked back on their years of service with a tremendous sense of pride and accomplishment, as well as a feeling of contentment that they had done something important during the war.
Digital Intern (Second World War & Holocaust Partnership Programme)
Top image shows Land Girls carrying baskets of seed potatoes to begin potato planting at Ludgvan, Penwith, 18 March 1942. Courtesy of The Archives and Cornish Studies Service, Kresen Kernow [Ref No: corn01547]
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