When we were threshing we had to tie the bottoms of our dungarees as the rats and mice were scurrying all over the place.
“Come on, don’t be a spoil sport, join up with us and we will all be together”. My two friends, who were sisters, had just enlisted in the Women’s Land Army and were begging me to join up with them. This was during the Second World War and if you were a teenager then it was compulsory to either go into a factory, or serve in the forces. At that time I was in a factory making munitions. We had to work twelve hour shifts, dayshift and nightshift. It was very tiring, also I was troubled with my stomach most of the time because I could not get used to working through the night and having irregular meals.
Dad was adamant, “you’re not going into any forces my girl. I don’t care what your friends are doing you’re not joining up and that’s that.” And what Dad said was final.
It soon became apparent that working long hours in a factory was making me ill and my doctor advised me leave, but the only way I could was to join up. On hearing this my Dad had to relent saying “you can go into the Land Army but not the WRENS or WAAF or ATS.”
I could not wait to see my friends who were so pleased and hoped we would all be at the same hostel, or failing that the same village. However, it was not to be. I was posted to a different area than my friends. We were all disappointed but we couldn’t do anything about it.
On my bus journey to my destination I met two other girls going to the same hostel and by the time we arrived at our hostel we had become best friends, they were from the same area as me and knew quite a lot if my friends too. When we arrived at the village of Thropton, near Rothbury, the Assistant Warden met us. She took us the short distance to the hostel where we met the rest of the girls who lived there. There were forty of us in all and we were all aged about seventeen years. We lived in a large dormitory with double bunk beds on either side and a chest of drawers and small wardrobe in between. They were like small cubicles with a curtain at the front of each one for privacy.
Very soon we were supplied with our uniforms which consisted of a nice warm three quarter length coat, two pairs of jodhpurs, blouses, shoes, jumpers, knee high thick socks to wear over the bottom of the jodhpurs, overalls, ties, a pair of heavy boots and a bicycle. We also had a large felt hat. We couldn’t put them on quick enough to see what we looked like. I didn’t anticipate having to wear heavy boots for work, and riding a bicycle with them on too. However, I soon got used to it as it was mostly country lanes we were riding along and there was very little traffic about then.
On my first working day I was sent to a farm with two of the other girls. The farmer met us and took us to a byre which had been lived in all winter by the animals, he gave us all a spade and we were instructed to go into the byre and dig up the cow dung and turn it over, the smell was appalling. I was wearing a neckerchief and I took it off and tied it round my face, covering my nose and mouth, every couple of minutes I had to run outside for a breath of fresh air. I was holding my breath most of the time inside the byre, the farmer thought it was a huge joke however and said “you’ll get used to it, it will give you an appetite lass,” I am pleased to say that was the first and last day digging the byre.
There was a barracks next door to the hostel with four hundred soldiers billeted there. We soon got to know most of them, as they held dances every weekend and they really looked after us. We were not allowed to frequent any pubs, we had to be indoors by ten o’clock every night, the wardens were very strict about this.
We were allowed home every weekend but not during the harvesting. My friends and I never wanted to go home as we enjoyed the dances too much. One particular weekend two of my friends had got permission to stay so they asked me to see the Warden and ask her if I could stay for the weekend too. She said yes if I was on my best behaviour. Bessie the maid was mopping the floor in the kitchen. I asked her if she had seen Jean and Ann as I wanted to tell them I was staying. Bessie said “I think they are down by the river” which was close to the hostel so I rushed down to try and find them.
It was a warm sunny day and some of the soldiers were swimming and some were lying on the grassy banks sunbathing, but there was no sign of either Jean or Ann. I asked a couple of soldiers if they had seen them and said they had not and at that they promptly grabbed me and rushed me down to the river. I was struggling and screaming to no avail. I was fully clothed and they began passing me from one to the other in the water, I was yelling at them to stop when all of a sudden a loud voice shouted “get your case packed and get away home”. It turned out to be the Warden. You could have cut the atmosphere with a knife, the soldiers felt terrible about it as it was all in good fun to them. So I went home and did not see Jean and Ann again until I got back. When I told them what had happened we all had a good laugh about it
On another occasion I decided to have a walk in the village one night, I met Jean and Ann as they were waiting for their dates to turn up. I stood talking to them for a while and along came three soldiers, two of whom they had arranged to meet, so they asked me to pal up with the other one. I asked where they were going and they replied they were just going for a walk so I agreed. Soon after we started off, they parted company and took a different path so I was left with this total stranger. I didn’t mind having a walk and a chat with him, but he wanted to go deeper into the countryside, I felt uneasy and said I wanted to go back to the village, with that he grabbed me and started to tug at my clothing and tried to kiss me.
I was terrified but I knew I had to act fast, so I lifted my knee and kneed him in the groin. He had to leave go of me so I started to run. I grew wings that day. I was leaping over dykes and fences in fact if I had been running in a race I’m sure I would have come in first. I didn’t stop until I reached the main road. I was very upset and my heart was pounding with fear, he caught up with me and he came behind me saying, “from now on I have got a knife in your back, I’ve got Spanish blood in my veins and I’ll put a Spanish curse on you. Your mother and father could be killed in an air raid”. I ran back to the hostel crying my eyes out but I was glad I had managed to get away from him and it made me wary of going out with strangers again.
I was one of six girls sent to work at Holystone for Major Fenwick. He was a gentleman farmer and rode around his estate on horseback. He was very nice to us but we did not see very much of him as he had a steward to run the farm for him. We learned to ride horses and drive tractors, as we had to do general farm work, even milking if necessary. The steward was an old Scotsman, who was rude and vulgar, he even took to urinating in front of us. I decided to reproach him about this and I told him that we were not used to that sort of behaviour and we did not like it and if it persisted we would report him to the Warden.
A couple of weeks later we had to fork bales of hay onto a horse and cart. When the cart was full he told me to lie on the top of the bales spread-eagled to stop the bales falling of as he took them to the next field. On the way there he led the horse to a small stream preceded by a small bank and as we were going down the bank the bales started slipping and me with them. I could not believe what was happening as I landed straight in the stream surrounded by bales of hay. We all laughed about at the time but I’m sure it was done deliberately.
There were quite a few soldiers stationed in Rothbury at that time and we were requested to teach the soldiers how to dance. We went to the village hall a couple of nights a week, one of the sergeants played the piano but it was hard work and you got your toes trod on more times than enough. However we enjoyed it and had some good laughs. They were a great bunch of girls I was with, never any fighting or squabbles, every one got on well with one another and helped each other when necessary. We worked very hard during the day, but we looked forward to the evenings when we could all get together and talk about our experiences and usually have a good laugh.
One of the girls got engaged to a farmer’s son but after a while she broke it off as she did not feel ready to settle down. He was very upset at this and shot himself and all the girls were distressed about that. Another one of the girls had an arm taken off working with a threshing machine and there were lots of tears shed over that too, but we had to get over it quickly as the work had to go on. When we were threshing we had to tie the bottoms of our dungarees as the rats and mice were scurrying all over the place and some of the baby mice had no fur on, it was quite scary. If you did not have your head covered they would fly into your hair and onto your clothes. We were all horrified at first but it was part of the job and you just got on with it. Harvest time was the busiest time of the year you couldn’t even get weekends off, it was work until it was done.
Being in the Land Army was an experience I’ll never forget and one I would hate to have missed, I certainly grew up and learnt a lot in more ways than one.