Dorothy – Women’s Land Army
Dorothy Woodall was born in London on 13th March 1925 in London, near to where her father (who was a Chief Refrigerating Engineer shipping bananas and meat) would dock his ship from Southern America. Dorothy’s family moved to Glasgow for the same reason, and then to Cumbria. Dorothy attended schools in Cumbria, near the market town of Wigton, and when her father died at the age of 16 she left Thomlinson Girls Grammar School and went to Secretarial College, working at the local council offices in Wigton.
Dorothy was 14 when the war started in 1939, and at 17 and a half (in 1942) she volunteered for the Women’s Land Army. Below is an account of her experience as a ‘Land Army Girl’ written by Dorothy herself and delivered as the guest speaker at a luncheon club in Bramhall.
NOTE: The following information and images of the Women’s Land Army are taken from the Imperial War Museum (IWM) website
The Women’s Land Army (WLA) made a significant contribution to boosting Britain’s food production during the Second World War.
Before the Second World War, Britain had imported much of its food. When war broke out, it was necessary to grow more food at home and increase the amount of land in cultivation. With many male agricultural workers joining the armed forces, women were needed to provide a new rural workforce.
The WLA had originally been set up in 1917 but disbanded at the end of the First World War. It reformed in June 1939. Women were initially asked to volunteer to serve in the Land Army and, from December 1941, could also be conscripted into land work. At its peak in 1944, there were more than 80,000 women – often known as ‘land girls’ – in the WLA.
Land girls did a wide variety of jobs on the land. They worked in all weathers and conditions and could be directed to work anywhere in the country.
By autumn 1941, more than 20,000 women had volunteered to serve in the Women’s Land Army (WLA). One third of these volunteers had lived in London or another large city. Posters, such as this one, suggested that the WLA offered a healthy outdoor lifestyle, which perhaps appealed to many urban women and girls.
Memoirs of a Land Girl Recorded by Dorothy
When I reached the age of 17 and a half in 1942 l realised that I would soon be “called up” as it was known then. This meant that I would be sent a notification from the government to say that I would be required to join one of ‘His Majesty’s Forces’ to help the war effort. I realised that this could entail me moving anywhere in this country or even abroad. As my mother was a widow and would be living alone in Wigton I had to give this a lot of thought.
It so happened that I saw a poster one day which said that women could join a Women’s Land Army. I made enquiries and discovered that this would mean working on a farm to replace menfolk who had been “called up”. Upon further enquiries I learned that I could be not too far from home. All well and good but I had never even liked gardening – never mind knowing anything about farming. But I was not one to refuse a challenge so I signed up for the Women’s Land Army and was sent to a farm in a place called Abbeytown only seven miles from home. Incidentally, my mum really laughed when she knew I was going to be a Land Girl as she knew that I didn’t even like getting my hands dirty! The farm was actually three miles from Abbeytown…..and…the next thing I knew I was cycling along a country lane, full of apprehension about what lay ahead. The farmer (Mr Harrison) and his wife made me very welcome and after lunch showed me my uniform which had been sent on ahead.
Let me tell you about the uniform:
For dress wear I had what was known as a great coat, a pair of riding breeches, long socks and brown brogue shoes plus a felt brimmed hat with a badge at the front.
For work we had khaki dungarees, polo type shirts, green pullovers and Wellington boots
But there was no hanging around, it was straight into my working gear and out to the fields. It was September and it had been a very wet one and the field was full of corn stooks.
You only see these on older artists’ pictures nowadays.
What, you might as well ask, was I to do? Well, because of the heavy rains, the stooks had started to grow into the ground. These stooks were made up of six to eight sheaves stacked against each other and they had to be moved to dry them out. I can’t honestly say that my efforts were very good at first but by the time I got to the end of the day they had improved. But I must say that the farmer and his brother who also helped, were very patient with me.
After dinner that evening I was shown my room by the light of a candle as there was no electricity. When I asked about the bathroom I was shown (guess what) a chamber pot and for washing facilities a large bowl and a jug filled with cold water (you will probably see these in antique shops now).
To think I had given up my bathroom at home!! I can assure you that I didn’t take long to get to sleep and I had been informed that I’d be called at 5am as milking started at 6am and there were things to be done beforehand.
Sure enough there was a knock on my door at 5am precisely. I got ready as quick as possible and after a quick cup of tea, made by the farmer’s wife, I was told to report to the Byre or perhaps better known as the cow shed. The cows had all been brought in from the fields by the farmer. They each had a separate stall and I noticed that they all knew their own stall. There were about 30 cows altogether. I was given a three legged milking stool and a bucket. I had to sit on this stool near the cow’s rear end and proceed to pull on the cow’s udders in order to get milk into the bucket. Imagine me, who had never really been near a cow before. I was petrified and I’m sure the cow knew I was a novice because after a while it must have had enough as it lifted its hind leg, kicked the bucket and knocked me off the milking stool. There were hoots of laughter from the farmer and his brother and it was a good job I hadn’t managed to get much milk into the bucket!
As time went on I did improve and believe it or not I got to love those cows. There was something about getting up close to them on a cold frosty morning and it was always warm in the cowshed. All the cows had names and they were a mixture of shorthorn and Frisian breeds Cows were not dehorned at that time so they could be a bit awkward. My favourite was a large Friesian called Ruth Elmer and I think she got to like me too!! After about two years electricity came to the farm and the farmer decided to invest in a milking machine. It did take a bit of getting used both for me and the cows but it certainly made life much easier.
During the summer the cows were let out after milking to graze in the fields but in the winter they stayed in the cowshed and were fed in there. Feeding consisted of hay, special cow pellets and mangold wurzels.
They are a kind of turnip used for cattle feed. Let me tell you a little about these as I always associate them with one of the worst jobs on the farm. They were planted out in the fields in long rows during the spring and it was really backbreaking work.
Come about November they had to be pulled up and the leaves taken off. In some areas this is known as fashing but in Cumbria it was known as snagging. You had to go up and down the rows armed with a small scythe like object known as a snagger. As this was done in the early morning when it was cold and frosty it was one of the coldest jobs you could imagine. I was sure my hands would drop off with the cold and the wet and there was also an art to using the snagger or you could end up chopping your fingers off. I won’t dwell on that but the turnips were gathered up and taken to the farmyard and stacked ready to feed the cows. But before feeding they had to be cut up in a turnip cutter (something you will only see now in old farm exhibitions). They had to be tipped into this, a handle turned (not easy) and they were cut into chip like pieces. Let me tell you that when the cows were fed these turnip chips it was not too pleasant being in the cowshed.
Then of course there was always the need to clean up the cowshed after they had been fed. This was called mucking out. The manure was taken out in wheelbarrows and deposited on a large mound behind the cowshed and then the whole shed was hosed down. Believe me I was ready for my breakfast after all that hard work. Whilst we always had a hearty breakfast there was no sitting around afterwards as we had to go into the diary where all the milk was stored. The farm had a milk round in the village so the necessary amount of milk had to be bottled. Do you remember the pint and half pint bottles which were topped with a cardboard disc? Well we had to do this by hand – fortunately it was not a large milk round. Surplus milk was put into large milk churns and taken to the farm gates and would be picked up by a lorry and taken away to various factories. Sometimes if there was any milk to spare the farmer’s wife would make butter although this was hush hush as butter was rationed to an ounce per person per week. (I hate to tell you but I put that much on my breakfast toast now.)
This farm was a dairy farm and termed as such because we kept cows for milk and the cows were milked twice a day. But, of course, there were other things to do as well. Grains such as wheat, corn and barley were grown and also potatoes. The potatoes were ready to gather soon after the harvest time and this was known as “potato picking time” and the farmers around all helped each other to get the potatoes in as soon as possible. I did get around to other farms but I was the only land girl in the vicinity. The pickers had to follow the digger, pick up the potatoes and put them into a bag which was tied round your waist. When this got full the contents were put into sacks which were placed at various points round the field. Talk about backbreaking work! Eventually the sacks of potatoes were transported back to the farmyard where they were put into clamps. The farmers usually had a market for the potatoes and (of course) some for their household needs.
During the winter months I learned to do hedging and ditching when the hedges had to be tidied up and any ditches round the fields to be cleaned out in order for the water to run freely. There is quite an art in hedging and the main tool of trade was called a slasher which has a very long handle and a blade at the top shaped like a knife. This was another tool which could be dangerous if not used properly. The hedges had to be cut and layered so that the branches grew into each other as they thickened up. I often look at hedges now if I am walking in the fields and wonder if they are still maintained in the same way.
After the hedging and ditching came the muck spreading as it was called. The muck (or manure) was brought out from the farmyard to the fields by horse and cart and the farmer would rake it out of the cart and I had to spread it over the field using a large, heavy fork. There were others helping but sometimes I thought the manure would never stop coming. Again this was another job that is mechanised today.
Next came the ploughing of the fields ready for the sowing. This was done with horses and it could be one horse or two pulling the plough. I really felt great when I was allowed to plough some furrows of my own but, I must add, only with the one horse plough. I’m sure that there are not many today who can say they have helped to plough a field. There was great rivalry between the local farmers as to who had ploughed the straightest furrows in the fields – needless to say I wasn’t in that category. The farmer did eventually invest in a tractor but I didn’t get a look in there, in fact it was ages before I was allowed to drive the tractor at all as that was seen as men’s work.
Next came hay time. As now, this was governed by the weather. At one time, of course, the hay was cut by hand but we had a horse drawn cutter. The hay had to be forked into what were known as haycocks. These were large mounds of hay that were left to dry. When deemed dry enough we went out into the fields to load up the hay carts and it was transported back to the farm. All farms had a hayloft which was situated above the buildings. The hay had then to be put into the loft and here’s how we did it. I would stand on top of the hay in the hay cart armed with a pitchfork and the hay had to be pitched into the loft. This, of course, was repeated and as the entrance to the loft was quite small we would have to climb up the loft ladder, go into the loft and fork the hay around to make room for more. It was usually very hot weather and I can tell you it was sweltering in the loft. In addition we always had to tie the bottoms of our overalls as there was the danger of a mouse running up your trouser leg. No it never happened to me and I can’t imagine what I would have done if it had! I will always remember what hot work hay making was but then it was just us another part of the farming year. It is noticeable how things have changed now though when huge rolls of hay, enclosed in plastic, are to be seen in the fields at hay time these days.
During the 1940s living on a farm out in the country I soon discovered that there was certainly a lack of the modern conveniences we have today. There was no electricity or gas & lighting was either by paraffin lamps or candles. Kettles were boiled (and cooking was done) over the fire. There would always be a large range with a fire-heated oven and it was in most cases the farmers wife’s pride and joy to have this range bright and shiny. This was done by “black leading” and I can assure you that was really hard, dirty work.
In between times I did get to do things like feeding the hens. I really enjoyed this job as hens are quite comical birds. There was a mixture of Rhode Island Reds and white Leghorns, which were popular breeds at that time. We also had a few bantams (a miniature version of a full sized chicken) and it was really funny to see these little bantams making sure they got their share of the chicken feed. Whilst it was fun feeding the hens the downside was that the hen houses had to be cleaned out. Of course one had to be mindful that the hen houses had to be closed up at night after the hens had retired because of foxes. If they got into the hen houses they would kill the hens but strangely enough never eat them.
Talking of hard work I should mention that although it wasn’t much, I did have some leisure time. Saturday evenings there was usually a dance somewhere around and I would join up with some of the farmers’ daughters and cycle to a dance which could be up to 7 miles away. Sometimes if we were very lucky, one of the farmers who had a little petrol to spare (it was, of course, rationed during the war) would give us a lift but he had to hide the car in a nearby field in case the village policeman was around. We always danced to accordion bands doing such dances as the lancers or the gay gordons. As far as partners were concerned our choice was limited to either older farmers or young teenage boys but we always enjoyed ourselves and made sure to be back by the midnight curfew. Sunday afternoon was my only time off and I used to cycle to Abbeytown village, leave my cycle at a nearby house and catch the bus to my hometown of Wigton to see my mother. On returning to Abbeytown I would alight from the bus to find groups of young farm lads all waiting to see Mr Harrison’s Land Girl. For some reason I was a bit of a celebrity!
On Sunday’s evenings there would be social gatherings at one or other of the surrounding farms where we would get together round a piano and have a good old sing song or we would be entertained by someone playing the accordion. I was amazed at how accomplished these farming folk were. There was always a good supper as farmers’ wives always seemed to be good at baking. We had lots of fun in those pre television days
My very first job on the farm as I arrived (the moving of the corn stooks) was followed by the harvest. I must say that I never realised how much there was to learn about harvesting. We always began on a dry sunny morning when the horse would be hitched up to the cart. There was a lot to learn in that as the horse tack (collar and bridle etc.) had to be put on correctly and the horse backed between the shafts of the cart. It took a good deal of patience on the farmer’s part to teach me this as the cart horses on the farm are pretty hefty animals and I must admit to being more than a little scared of them. However I got better as time went on. I would ride on the cart as the horse made its way to the cornfields and then the work began. The corn sheaves were loaded on to the cart by forking them up and these sheaves had to be placed a certain way in order to get as many on as possible. I really felt great when I finally was able to do this although I must say it took a while. When I look back now, one of the nicest things I remember is riding back to the farm on a well-loaded cart with the harvest moon shining above. Yes it was the moon because at that time there were two hours brought forward on the clock and quite often it would be getting on for midnight before we finished. Although everything about harvest is mechanised now nothing can take away the memory of that moonlight ride.
I have to admit that I’m glad I joined the Women’s Land Army as it taught me so much. I can certainly appreciate how hard farming life is. One of the hardest jobs I found was in “threshing time”. This followed on after the corn had been harvested. The machines we used then must surely be museum pieces now. They were privately owned and went round all the farms in the vicinity when required. They were huge and noisy and were used to separate the grain from the husks and straw. I understand they were invented around 1782 and like the spinning wheel, they were opposed by the poor as they put casual labourers out of work. I can’t imagine what the threshers were like then as the one I remember was bad enough. There was dust everywhere and a bath was the order of the day after threshing time. In addition your arms got badly scratched as the bundles of straw were really sharp. Of course the machines must now be much improved
When the end of the war came in 1945 and the farm hands returned home our job was over. I enjoyed the life and would be always grateful for all that I learned from the farmer. Strangely enough, 60 years after the end of the war, in July 2008 when Gordon Brown was Prime Minister, someone, somewhere, decided that although the Women’s Land Army was not part of the armed forces, they had contributed towards the war effort and that they should have some form of recognition. After quite a lot of “filling in of various forms” a large gathering of ex-Land Girls was treated to afternoon tea and the presentation of medals in Manchester Town Hall 60 years on……Better late than never.
At the end of the war in August 1945 Dorothy worked for the Ministry of Defence, stripping war planes and earning the huge sum of £4.00 a week (as opposed to the 17 shillings she had earned as a Land Girl). However, she became bored with the monotony of the job and in 1947, looking for a challenge, she joined the police force and following training was assigned to Stockport Police Force as WPC No 5, the 5th woman to join the forward-thinking Stockport Police Force.