Essex Land Girls is their story, told where possible in their own words. It was a delight to meet surviving members of the Women’s Land Army (WLA), and listen to their vivid memories (in their case relating to the Second World War) of experiences enjoyed by the vast majority, in spite of the backdrop of war.
In Essex, as in all other agricultural counties, women with little or no experience of farming or animal husbandry were literally thrown into the deep end, but were effectively responsible for saving this country from starvation. The importance of home-grown food was brought into focus by the blockade of our ports by the enemy in 1915, bearing in mind that half of Britain’s food up to then had been imported. At one stage, there were just three weeks’ supply of food remaining in the country. Added to that, conscription of able-bodied men during the First World War meant that the farming community was losing its workforce, so women began to replace men in the fields in large numbers.
History was to repeat itself in 1939 when the UK was importing sixty percent of its food from overseas. Farm workers, shepherds, pig men, cattle men and green-house workers, all these men aged 21 and over were called up. Some 17,000 women chose the WLA at the outbreak of war, with as many as 80,000 joining up before its end. The number in Essex grew from 124 in 1939 (as milkers, tractor drivers, poultry girls and farm hands – plus another 160 on private farms or in training) to a peak of nearly 4,000 in the county, only just behind Yorkshire and Kent. Although Essex, just a short hop across the English Channel, was subject to the threat of air attack, this rarely seems to have been a deterrent! The women featured in this book were excited to hear that their story was going to be told. In some cases, I met up with surviving family members who had found diaries, photographs and letters, revealing the grit and courage of these girls, out in all weathers, working from dawn to dusk at back-breaking tasks, with no mirrors, no loos, and definitely no high heels. A very different image gradually unfolded.
For some, joining the WLA was a duty, for some it was an escape from domestic life and a chance to experience a healthier outdoor lifestyle. For the majority, it was quite a shock – some had never seen a cow or a tractor before, and some did not know the difference between an onion and a radish. The experiences were varied, however, being very different for those girls in Essex hostels, who experienced real camaraderie and managed to fit in quite a hectic social life, and the girls billeted in remote farmhouses with just darning or jigsaw puzzles to while away the evenings. But the complaints were few, and usually about the tedium of the same sandwiches every day (jam and cheese were favourites), badly fitting boots, or picking Brussels sprouts in the snow. For me, one revelation, in one diary, were the prevalent entries about which boys the writer fancied and which ones she danced with at the Saturday night hop, etc. Not great for research purposes, but a reminder that so many of these girls were just seventeen or eighteen years old with normal seventeen and eighteen-year-old interests!
Recognition came very late, a bitter pill for some, with Gordon Brown’s signature on mass-produced certificates in 2008, and medals available ‘on application’ … But Essex Girls have a lot to be proud of.
By Dee Gordon