Women’s Land Army & Women’s Forestry Corps
The efforts of the Women’s Land Army in the First World War have been largely forgotten, and the fact that the organisation left so few lasting marks on the landscape probably contributes to this phenomenon.
The history of the Land Army is a curious clash of elements of continuity and change; ultimately it was about keeping the wheels turning, ensuring that agricultural output was maintained, but that process involved putting women into trousers and onto tractors – essentially into conventionally ‘unfeminine’ roles.
It had a significant impact on those individuals involved, and arguably on accepted ideas of women’s capabilities, but made a lesser (or at least impermanent) physical impression on the structures of rural England.
By the end of 1916 it was estimated that around 350,000 male workers had left agriculture for military service, equivalent to approximately 35% of the normal workforce. A real labour shortage was starting to impact farm productivity by the spring of 1917, just as Germany’s U-boat campaign was shifting up a gear and threatening to starve Britain into surrender. It was this crisis that prompted the launch of the recruitment campaign for the Women’s Land Army (WLA) in March 1917 A civilian women’s labour force of mobile workers to recruit, train for four weeks and then channel healthy young women over 18 years of age into farm work. These ‘land girls’, as they came to be known, took on milking, care of livestock and general work on farms and were paid 18 shillings a week. This increased to 20 shillings a week after they passed an efficiency test.
Notices placed in newspapers appealed for ‘10,000 Women Wanted at Once to Grow and Harvest the Victory Crops.’ By the start of May 22,603 women had come forward.
While the recruiting propaganda offered women the possibility of making a permanent career on the land, it was also stressed that this was an emergency measure – a temporary measure . Investment in physical infrastructure was limited; rather, appeals were made to landowners’ goodwill, assets were begged and borrowed, and favours were called in.
A local Selection Committee or Board, formed of members of the Women’s War Agricultural Committee in each county, questioned female applicants as to their health, physical capabilities and reasons for wishing to do land work. They had to be medically examined, free of cost.
Women who had previous experience in agriculture and were not already in work, were given priority. Women over the age of 20 were also preferred. The committees were also looking for women with a stable temperament, so that they could cope with possible loneliness on isolated farms. ‘A good constitution’ was also an important quality for an applicant – work on the land was hard graft!
After the interview
If recruits were prepared to sign on for 12 months, they could choose whether to work in either the Forage, Agricultural or Timber Cutting sections. But if volunteers were only prepared to sign on for six months, they had to join either the Agricultural or Timber Cutting sections of the WLA. All recruits had to be willing to go to wherever in the country they were required. They were given free railway warrants to get there.
Experienced women went straight into paid work on farms. Inexperienced recruits attended organized training centres or ‘practice farms’ for 4 (later 6) weeks. Successful trainees who passed the ‘efficiency test’ were found work on farms; unsuccessful women were deemed ‘unfit’.
Recruits, most of whom had no previous agricultural experience, were either trained by their employer-to-be, or on designated training farms. In June 1917 a correspondent for the Whitby Gazette went along to see how Land Army trainees were getting on at Intake Farm, at Littlebeck, near Whitby. He found the women ‘clod-breaking’, and going about this monotonous duty cheerfully. Mr Ventrees, the farmer, spoke in glowing terms of how the women had adapted and learned new tasks. ‘Probably this is not to be wondered at,’ the journalist observed, ‘seeing they have been treated as members of the family and everything done to make their stay a profitable and pleasant one.’
The experience wasn’t always quite so cosy, though. In Northumbria, a training centre opened at Wideopen, on the land of the Cramlington Coal Company. The government contributed funds to furnish a house and paid towards the women’s training, while other expenses (‘cows, dummy cows, and a nanny goat for teaching the girls to milk’) were met by the Coal Company.
By September 1917, 247 training centres and 140 training farms were operating.
Bristol Training Centre - the best in the country!
In Brislington, well to do ladies grew vegetables on an allotment in Hampstead Road for soldiers in Bristol hospitals, knitted socks and balaclavas for 'our boys at the Front'', and arranged concerts and tea parties for wounded soldiers at The Grove Hall, then the church hall for Brislington Congregational Church (now the United Reformed Church).
In 1917 Mrs Bonville Fox of Brislington House Asylum established a training centre for the Women's Land Army, which was rated the best in the West Country.
Brislington also welcomed Belgian refugees. In October 1914 one hundred 'Belgian peasants', as 'The Bristol Observer' referred to them, arrived and were billeted in the old Imperial Athletic Ground Pavillion in West Town Lane. The refugees were housed in 2 Kensington Place (site of former John Peer building on Bath Road), and houses on Kensington Hill and Hampstead Road. Over two years fifty Belgians were to stay in Brislington and a large garden party was held in their honour at Brislington Hall, home of the Squire of Brislington, Alfred Clayfield-Ireland. 580 Bath Road was occupied by a doctor's family from Antwerp, so as the 'Bristol Observer' commented. 'All classes are being cared for'.