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IWM Stories: The Women’s Land Army

“I had the whole farm to look after. I had seven jersey cows; about four hundred hens; and a goat; and ducks and it was only me!”Our museums may be temporarily closed, but we’ll continue to send you handpicked stories that resonate in remarkable times for your enjoyment at home. Your support – as ever – is appreciated.

As a result of coronavirus, UK farms are currently experiencing a shortage of seasonal labour. The Environment Secretary, George Eustice, recently stated:

“We need to mobilise the British workforce to fill that gap and make sure our excellent fruit and vegetables are on people’s plates over the summer months … I would encourage as many people as possible to sign up.”

In Britain during the First World War, hundreds of thousands of men were conscripted into the armed forces, including many agricultural workers. This led to a shortage of farm labour. On top of this, German submarines threatened the supply chain, meaning Britain couldn’t rely on importing food.

The British Government needed to find a solution, or face food shortages across the country. In February 1917, they created the Women’s Land Army (WLA). The WLA were responsible for a range of different agricultural and rural tasks across Britain. By 1918, there were over 113,000 women working on the land.

The WLA was disbanded at the end of the First World War. However, it was reformed in June 1939. Before the Second World War, Britain had imported much of its food. But when war broke out, Britain needed to grow more food at home and increase the amount of land in cultivation.

Yet again many male agricultural workers joined the armed forces. The WLA provided a new rural workforce in the Second World War and significantly boosted Britain’s food production.

Initially women were asked to volunteer to serve in the Land Army. By autumn 1941, more than 20,000 women had volunteered. One third of these volunteers had lived in London or another large city. But from December 1941, you could also be conscripted into land work.

At its peak in 1944, there were more than 80,000 women in the WLA – often known as land girls. Land girls had plenty to do. They worked in all weathers and conditions and could be stationed anywhere in the country.

Doris Robinson worked on a farm in Essex.

“I had the whole farm to look after. I had seven jersey cows; about four hundred hens; and a goat; and ducks and it was only me! I had to get up at six in the morning, you see, for milking. And I had to stay up until about 10 at night because they had a lot of eggs incubated that had to be turned. So there was nobody else there at all!”

During wartime, there were thought to be over 50 million rats in Britain. This posed another serious threat to British food supplies. To counter this, teams of land girls were trained to work in anti-vermin squads.

Two land girls are reputed to have killed 12,000 rats in just one year. Land girls in anti-vermin squads were also trained to kill foxes, rabbits and moles.

Land girls were paid directly by farmers who employed them. The minimum wage was 28 shillings per week and from this, 14 shillings was deducted for board and lodging. By comparison, the average wage for male agricultural workers was 38 shillings per week.

The basic working week for land girls was 48 hours in winter and 50 in summer. Initially there were no holidays – paid or unpaid, just a free travel pass after six months.

However, conditions improved after 1943 with the introduction of the ‘Land Girls Charter’. This introduced one week’s holiday per year and raised the minimum wage.

Land girls were not the only additional work force available to farmers. By 1943, there were almost 40,000 Italian prisoners of war working on British farms.

The general public was also encouraged to help with farm work, especially at harvest time. It was considered a cheap holiday in the countryside, and special camps were set up to accommodate volunteers.

The WLA were one part of an extraordinary effort at home that powered the troops on the front line. From ammunitions workers to ‘Dad’s Army’, find stories about life on the Home Front by exploring our online collections.

DIG FOR VICTORY

Although our museums are temporarily closed, our online shop is still open for business.

You can order a piece of the Home Front to your front door, with our print reproductions of some of the famous images that helped inspire the war effort back home.

From ‘Dig for Victory’ to ‘Use Spades not Ships’, find the perfect print to hang on your wall.

SHOP NOW

BRINGING IN THE HARVEST

Our collections are full of films recording life at home during the First and Second World Wars. Click the link below to see two public information films encouraging volunteers to help with the harvest.

WATCH HERE

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