THE WOMEN OF CHESHIRE REMEMBER.
The NFWI guidelines allow WIs to donate money to a poppy wreath on remembrance day so that members can remember family and friends lost in any war and the work women have done fighting for their country either overseas or on the land.
Many older members talk about caring for evacuees, canning and preserving fruit, making pies or moving out from cities to work on the land and joining their local WIs after the war.
Lady Denman was chairman of the NFWI but also of the Women’s Land Army and many of the women she worked with in the NFWI helped to feed the nation in our time of need.
Cheshire Federation of WI’s Prepare for War
THE WOMEN’S LAND ARMY
It was a battle with no guns and few casualties but it was one of the most vital of the Second World War. At its height the Women’s Land Army had more than 80,000 at the “front” – farm workers who took the place of men to help save Britain from starvation. They were called the Land Girls.
Gertrude Denman summed it up: “The land army fights in the fields. It is in the fields that the most critical battle of the war may well be fought and won.”
Baroness Denman, suffragist and public service veteran, had helped run Britain’s first Women’s Land Army as president of the Women’s Institute in 1917. In 1938 the Ministry of Agriculture asked Gertrude to do it again – this time as honorary director – and in June 1939 the army was re-formed.
The 54-year-old set up HQ at her home, a Victorian pile in West Sussex, and by December 4,500 Land Girls were at work. They fought with hoes, spades and tractors. Around 6,000 joined the Timber Corps, chopping trees and running sawmills.
When conscription began in December 1941, women could choose between the military and the Women’s Land Army. Earlier that year, as U-boats wreaked havoc with Atlantic supply convoys, Britain was days away from running out of food.
The Land Girls were mainly aged between 17 and 30, from middle and working class backgrounds, and a third came from the big cities. They lived at farms or hostels and learned on the job.
There was an agricultural training school which land girls were sent to, in Holmes Chapel and a dairy school at Reaseheath.
The uniform, with wheat sheaf badge, was not compulsory although many wore it – the Women’s Land Army was the only service that allowed trousers. There was also a magazine and a song:
Back to the Land, we must all lend a hand,
To the farms and the fields we must go,
There’s a job to be done,
Though we can’t fire a gun,
We can still do our bit with the hoe.
A government slogan proclaimed: “For a healthy, happy job, join the Women’s Land Army.”
The reality could be different; hours were long and pay was poor. In 1939, women got 28/- (£1.40) for a 50-hour week, 10/- (50p) less than the average farm wage. Half of that went on food and accommodation and as the women were paid by farmers, they often received even less.
Many rural areas had no piped water or electricity. WI members took in evacuees from the towns and the Stockport area and Acton & Reaseheath took children and teachers from Guernsey.
Ill feeling was rife at first; male workers resented women doing “men’s work” and local females felt threatened. But as the Land Girls proved their worth, problems fell away. Almost all looked back on their service fondly, revelling in the independence of leaving home and earning money.
The Duchess of Wessex dedicated the memorial to the land girls at the National Arboretum in Staffordshire.