DAVID ARNOLD - The women who worked the land in two world wars

Land Army women pictured in front of County Hall, Lewes, in 1919 after being 'stood down' from service. SUS-150505-121818001 SUS-150505-121818001
Land Army women pictured in front of County Hall, Lewes, in 1919 after being 'stood down' from service. SUS-150505-121818001 SUS-150505-121818001

Girls serving in the Women’s Land Army, first established during World War One, worked as agricultural labourers in the place of men who either volunteered or were called up to serve in Britain’s armed forces.

The women would have recognised the long hours undertaken by the farm workers of Victorian days as recounted above but I very much doubt if they would have received the same beer rations whilst “on the job” as were enjoyed by their male counterparts of that earlier era.

Land Army women undertook a vast range of tasks, including milking cows, lambing, looking after poultry, ploughing, gathering crops, digging ditches, eliminating rodents and carrying out farm maintenance work. All of them worked long hours, especially during the summer, mostly outdoors and often in the cold and wet. Training was rudimentary and most were expected to learn about agricultural work while they were actually doing it. The Land Girls lived either on the farms where they worked, or in hostels. They were paid 25 shillings per week less 17 shillings for bed and board.

The photograph here appeared in the “Sussex Express” of 3rd August 1919. The war had ended in November of the previous year but the WLA worked on for many months afterwards. The venue for the photo was in front of County Hall, Lewes. Today the building houses the Law Courts. All the WLA members featured had marched up to Lewes High Street following a medal presentation ceremony and “stand down” parade held on the Dripping Pan pitch of the town’s football club.

When the Second World War began there was again a massive need for women to work in industry and agriculture. Initially volunteers filled the gap but in December 1941 the National Service Act was passed to allow the conscription of females for vital war work.

Women could choose whether to enter the armed forces or work in farming or industry. By 1943, more than 80,000 women were working as Land Girls.

They came from every background, with more than one third from London and other large cities. Initially, Land Girls earned £1.85 for a minimum of 50 hours’ work a week, not much more than the girls received in the Great War. In 1944, wages were increased by £1 to £2.85.

There was a Land Army uniform of green jumpers, brown breeches or dungarees, brown felt hats and khaki overcoats. However, as the Land Army was not a military force, uniform was not compulsory. The WLA badge depicted a wheat sheaf as a symbol of their agricultural work. Head of the WLA was the formidable Lady Gertrude Denman. Her home at Balcombe Place in Sussex became the organisation’s HQ. Each district had its own WLA representative, who was expected to ensure the Land Girls were being treated well.

The Land Army was disbanded in 1950.