WOMEN ON THE LAND
At the outbreak of the First World War the British government failed to anticipate the need to take control of organising food production at home. By February 1916, 250,000 men had left the agricultural labour force for military service. Imported food was lost as U-boats targeted merchant shipping and Kaiser Wilhelm threatened to starve Britain into submission. National schemes attempted to mobilize women as emergency labour and Women’s War Agricultural Committees (WWAC) kept registers of local volunteers; Norfolk WWAC claimed to have placed 1,700. The National Federation of Women’s Institutes organised food production in villages, as cultivating allotments and preserving fruit and vegetables for home consumption became vital war work.
The Women’s Land Army (WLA), a civilian labour force of full-time mobile workers, was set up in March 1917, to recruit and train women over 18 for farm work and persuade farmers to employ them. A recruitment campaign of posters, rallies and cinema films was mostly aimed at middle-class young townswomen keen to ‘do their bit’ for the war effort. This promised women ‘the honour of doing a man’s work’. Women signed on for six or twelve months, were supplied with uniforms and paid 18/- per week during training and 20/- after passing an efficiency test.
By the time the Women’s Land Army (WLA) was demobilised in 1919, 23,000 women had passed through its 247 training centres. Agricultural training (4-6 weeks) covered the use of farm implements, working with horses, care of young livestock and the majority occupation milking. Timber work (4-6 weeks) covered cutting, stacking, loading and transporting timber. It also included operating sawmills, tree nursery cultivation and planting. Forage workers trained on the job in gangs which moved from farm to farm, operating steam baling machines to produce hay bales for feed, straw for bedding and chaff cutting. At Agricultural College women learnt to operate tractors for ploughing, harrowing, seed drilling and mowing. They were also taught how to do their own repairs. Tractors were an innovation on most farms and farmers were impressed with their speed of work. Women also worked as shepherds, bailiffs, thatchers, market gardeners and stockbreeders. At its peak the WLA had 16,000 members in Agricultural, Forage and Timber sections.
‘Breeched, booted and cropped’, these young women were initially regarded with scepticism and suspicion in rural communities. Countrywomen had always undertaken seasonal work on farms but there remained deep opposition to women working full-time in agriculture and very few did so, particularly in the eastern counties. Whether as individuals on small family farms or in teams on large estates like Houghton Hall and Sandringham, the WLA women worked hard and proved their worth. Once they had gained experience, many farmers came to prefer them. Good Service Ribbons were awarded to anyone who had been six months in the WLA and kept up a high standard of work and conduct; 169 were awarded during the summer of 1919 to women working in Norfolk.
The need for their work would not end with Armistice. The food situation was still uncertain; imports could not be resumed immediately and supplies had to be maintained to the demobilizing troops. Nonetheless, the WLA was disbanded in November 1919. Many members wanted to stay in agricultural work but had not given much thought to the practicalities. Some made careers in gardening, horticulture and dairying while others took their skills overseas, despite warnings not to expect ‘paradise’ in the Colonies. These workers were included in land settlement schemes for ex-servicemen, but government-supported farm colonies struggled financially as broader trends in agriculture were against them. The period between the two World Wars would see farm sales, declining wages, bitter labour disputes and thousands of acres going out of cultivation.
There was a newly discovered mutual interest in country life across all classes, with hopes for the regeneration and reinvigoration of rural England. Despite this, for most village women there was little change in their routine or status. Married women continued to do seasonal, low-paid farm work and their daughters left for the towns. There was no accessible training in horticulture or agriculture to encourage women to remain on the land. The National Union of Agricultural Workers restated its opposition to female labour where male labour was available and as village war memorials witness, many of the young men the women would have returned to marry were lying ‘in Flanders fields’.
The WLA had not succeeded in its intention of making agriculture a recognised career for women, but one valuable legacy. In 1938 the government planned ahead for the Second World War and the WLA was re-formed in June 1939. Women would play as vital a role in holding the home front and keeping the country fed during the Second World War as they had in the First.