Tuesday 8 March 2022

International Women’s Day 2022: The Women’s Land Army

March 8th is International Women’s Day, and this year we’re looking back to the Second World War.  We’re recognising the contribution that women in Cheshire made to the war effort by joining the Women’s Land Army (WLA). 

Originally established during World War One, the Women’s Land Army was a civilian organisation set up to replace men working in agriculture who had been called up to fight in the armed forces.  It was revived in 1939 to increase the amount of food grown within Britain, rather than relying on imports.  At first women were asked to volunteer, but this was later supplemented by conscription.  In 1944 the WLA had over 80,000 members, who became known as Land Girls. 

Our Local Studies department holds books and pamphlets that cover the work of the Land Girls and that of its forestry branch, the Women’s Timber Corps, whose members were known as Lumber Jills.  These include titles like Malpas and the Home Front 1939-45, Frodsham in the War Years– A Compilation of Memories and Wartime Tatton, 1939-45.  From this one we learn that, 

“a team of 15-20 Land Army women worked at Tatton taking the place of woodmen, gardeners, and farm workers who had been called up.  Besides helping at the home farm and in the gardens, they did a lot of valuable work in the park’s woods, helping keep the trees in a healthy, well-managed condition.”

From basic hostel accommodation in the Bothy in the gardens…the Land Army girls would arrive at 7.30 in the morning.  Some would help to clear the woods, others worked in the sawmill, the dairy, the kitchen gardens and in the fields at harvest time.” 

We also have Local Studies articles, such as one from Cheshire Life in March 1943 about a rally held at the Cheshire County Agricultural School near Nantwich (now Reaseheath College) to mark the training of the thousandth Land Girl there since the outbreak of war.  It describes the students’ training in areas like threshing, milking, lettuce planting, potato sorting and stable work.  This, from our Women’s Land Army and Cheshire Timber Corps collection is a copy of a certificate issued on completion of a similar course (whether it was issued by the Nantwich training centre is not known). 

Cheshire Life had already featured the Land Girls the year before – the November 1942 edition covers a County Rally held at Chester Town Hall in October that was attended by 500 members of the WLA and its Director, Lady Gertrude Denman.  Lady Denman announced that Cheshire now employed 1200 Land Girls, “and she presented over 20 three-year good service badges.”  

Photographs of Land Girls from our Local Studies collection are available on the Cheshire Image Bank.  The one below left was taken at a Women’s Land Army Rally in Stockport, and on the right two Land Girls are shown ‘digging for victory’ in Chester, in 1942.


Our archives contain original Women’s Land Army material, for example in the William Wild & Sons collectionThey were horse dealers and there are several letters about employing Land Girls, such as this one to Miss Adrienne Fisk of Birkenhead.  Mr Wild explains he has found a man to do the work she applied for, and Miss Fisk’s reply perhaps gives a sense of the difference between women’s lives then and now: “I quite understand your preference and after all Land Girls are only substitutes for men.” 


Another letter is from Mrs Vera Davies, who includes her Land Girl number ahead of starting work at the farm in October 1941 – and there is a Ministry of Agriculture claim form for a billeting fee to cover her board and lodging.


In addition to this correspondence, Cheshire Archives has a voice recording from a Land Girl, giving a first-hand account of her experiences (ref: D7912).  Speaking in later life, Norah Bate describes wanting to be a Land Girl from the day she left school, aged 14, in 1941 - but as the minimum age was 17, she was accepted as the “next best thing”: an orderly for the Cheshire Committee of the WLA.  The oral history gives an insight into her duties in WLA Hostels in Tabley and Cholmondeley, where she cooked and cleaned for 30 Land Girls and staff, along with details of the Land Girls’ routines and other information about the war.  She describes their free time and entertainment, such as dances with American servicemen who were based nearby.  

Norah remembers reaching the age of 17 and going to the Women’s Land Army Office in Chester to be issued with her number and uniform:

“I was delighted, but my biggest disappointment came two days afterwards, with a letter from Head Office saying although I was accepted as a member of the Women's Land Army, my position as a cook was too important and I must stay in that position at Cholmondeley.”
She stayed there until 1946, then moved to be a cook at Audlem Land Girls Hostel for her final three months in the WLA. 

At the end of the war in 1945 there were around 60,000 Land Girls working in Britain.  The Ministry of Agriculture confirmed shortly afterwards that the WLA would need to continue at least until the harvest of 1948, and it was eventually disbanded in November 1950.  Over 200,000 women had worked as Land Girls between 1939 and 1950 - this is a copy of a release certificate issued in 1950.  

In Frodsham in the War Years – A Compilation of Memories mentioned earlier, there is an uncredited account, ‘A Land Girl’s Story’, of activities such as milking, mucking out and ploughing fields. But she notes that, 

“looking back over many years, it is the fun and laughter which other Land Girls and myself experienced which stands out.  One tends to forget the misery of working in the pouring rain spreading manure with a fork, washing your dirty farm clothes by hand armed only with a bar of soap and a scrubbing brush, cleaning out a ferret’s cage and many more unpleasant jobs one had to do…I would have missed all these experiences had the war not come, and although I wish the war had never taken place, it came…I am glad those of us who were able to pay our part, however small or insignificant that part was, to help in the war effort.” 

In 2007 the UK Government announced that the efforts of the surviving members of the Women’s Land Army and the Women’s Timber Corps would be recognised formally with the presentation of a specially designed commemorative badge.  It was awarded in July 2008 to over 30,000 former Land Girls. 

Over 80 years after they were first asked to serve, and particularly on International Women’s Day, their efforts will not be forgotten. 

All of these items and more are available to view at Cheshire Record Office in Chester.  The oral history of Land Girl Norah Bate can also be heard at the Record Office - a short clip is available below.

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