Brief History of the Women's Land Army

Until the mid 20th century, women were expected to be 'housewives' or perhaps to do certain 'women's jobs', such as nursing or being a domestic servants or shop assistants. Both WWI and WWII changed the world of work for women for ever. When men went to fight, women were called upon to fill their jobs, and this included many jobs that were previously thought of unsuitable for women.

The Women's Land Army was first created during World War One. This was an era when a great deal of farm work was done by men, but with so many young men called up for armed services, there weren't enough left to keep the farms of Britain working.  The government called for volunteers, and women stepped forward, seeing the chance to support their menfolk fighting in the fields of Europe.

The 1930s and 1940s brought a whole new set of problems.  By the late 1930s, as a result of decades of under-investment in British agriculture, two thirds of Britainís food was imported from overseas.  Farming was becoming less profitable, wages had fallen and many men were leaving the countryside in search of better paid work in the towns and cities.

The British government anticipated war breaking out, and resurrected the Women's Land Army (WLA) in June 1939, a few months before Germany invaded Poland and the declaration of war was made. 

Within weeks of the war starting, it quickly became clear that one of Hitler's strategies was to use his submarine fleet to attack shipping convoys whether they carried troops and equipment, or food and other supplies.  Many of the foodstuffs which Britain had become dependent on such as citrus fruits, bananas, tea and sugar soon became scarce.  Food rationing was introduced in January 1940.  However, farms struggled to maintain or improve quantities of food they could produce as, as had happened in the First World War, men began leaving the fields to volunteer for armed service.  By March 1940, agriculture in England and Wales had lost over thirty thousand men, whilst a further 15,000 had also left to find better work in industries.

Though the WLA came under the control of the Ministry of Agriculture and Fisheries, it was given a honorary head - Lady Denham and her home, Balcombe Place, became its headquarters.   England and Wales were divided into seven regions. Each region administered itself but reported to Balcombe Place. The seven regions were served by 52 county offices. Each county office had its own administrative force. In this way, the WLA had an organisational unit right down at farm level and inspections of farms could be carried out with a degree of regularity.

Women who wanted to join the WLA had to be interviewed and given a medical if they passed the interview. If accepted, training depended on just how much farms needed work done within a region. In theory, new members of the WLA should have been taught a number of farming issues, such as milking cows, drainage etc.  In reality, such was the demand for food, that what was learned was done on the farm and as time went on. Many members of the WLA literally learned 'on the job'.

Though the WLA had the word "army" in its title, it was, in fact, a civilian organisation. Women were recruited by the farmers themselves and, if they did not work sufficiently well, could be dismissed from the farm's service. Also, women could move to another farm if they wanted to. There were ways for WLA members to express their grievances with farmers as well if they felt that they were being unfairly used.

The minimum age at which women could join was officially 17.  However, there were many examples of keen women and girls as young as 13 and 14 who managed to be accepted, often after lying about their age. By 1944 there were 80,000 women volunteers working on the land. The majority already lived in the countryside but around a third came from Britain's industrial cities.

Women carried out all the jobs that kept the farm working normally - threshing, ploughing, tractor driving, reclaiming land, drainage etc.  Their wages were set by the Agricultural Wages Board at 28 shillings (equivalent to £1.12 pence) a week after deductions had been made for lodgings and food. There maximum working week was 50 hours in the summer and 48 hours in the winter. A normal week would consist of five and a half days working with Saturday afternoon and Sunday off. Along with their weekly pay, all members of the WLA who were posted more than 20 miles from their home would receive a free rail pass for a visit home every six months. However, their pay came from the farmers themselves and there is evidence that WLA members were paid less than the accepted rate by some farmers who tended to overcharge for accommodation and food. Also during harvest time, many WLA members worked from dawn to dusk and easily exceeded their 50 hour week.

By 1943, Britain needed more and more food as the U-boat campaign hit hard. By the end of the year, Britain was less dependent on overseas supplies as the work done by the WLA was sufficient to keep Britain in food.

The WLA continued in existence even after the war had ended. Food rationing continued after the war and the WLA continued until 1950 when it was disbanded. During the time of its work, the WLA had provided 90,000 women to work on the land and had kept Britain in food for the duration of the war. Though Britain had rationing, no-one actually starved during this time - a testament to the work done by the WLA.

 

FURTHER READING:

Read the story of Emily Braidwood who worked as a land girl in Essex