The Land Girls of Essex
PUBLISHED: 07:44 07 July 2015 | UPDATED: 18:52 07 July 2015
In her latest book, historian Dee Gordon explores the unique tales of the Land Girls of Essex who, in both world wars, made such a vital contribution towards victory. Here Dee highlights just a glimpse of her insight
There have been a number of books about Land Girls over the years, but Essex Land Girls is different in that it focuses on their experiences in Essex. In both World War I and World War II, there have been Land Girls working in the fields and farms of Essex, contributing to women’s history and the history of wartime agriculture, as well as Essex history and 20th century social history. Their stories are told where possible in their own words, although the World War I stories are heavily reliant on reportage, for obvious reasons.
During both world wars, it has been up to volunteers to feed the war effort and the nation, with research revealing the depth of commitment in this oft-maligned county. The book recognises that commitment and that contribution. Gordon Brown’s officials may have sent out certificates of gratitude in 2008 and medals may have been available (on request!) since 2007, but for too many, this was too little, too late.
It was a delight for the author to meet surviving members of the WLA and listen to their vivid memories (relating to World War II) of experiences enjoyed by the vast majority, in spite of the backdrop of war. World War I experiences of Land Girls in Essex, at the centenary of their service, form a shorter part of this book, but this is only because many of their experiences and stories, left unrecorded in an age before social media, have sadly been lost. Luckily, audio archives at the Essex Record Office, and, especially, at the Imperial War Museum, have some accounts of Land Girls in Essex. For example, Doris Robinson, born in 1895, worked on a farm in Loughton after just two weeks of training at Little Baddow. Here she looked after seven jersey cows, plus 400 hens, goats and ducks on her own! There were no days off, not even on Christmas day, when she was given mouldy fruit as a Christmas gift.
Many members of the WLA from Essex in fact never set foot in their home county during the wars, ending up in Scotland, Wales or the West Country — in fact all over the UK. However, the emphasis throughout this book is on the girls and women who worked in Essex, rather than those from Essex. Many of the Land Girls working in Essex came from urban areas, in particular the East End of London, and their stories are even more fascinating for these were young women who had no experience of a rural life. Many had not been on a train, seen the sea or a cow, or had ever had a garden.
More than 50 interviews make up the content of the book — some face-to-face with women like Elsie Haysman from Shoeburyness who worked the fields around Great Wakering, but who disliked working with Prisoners of War and Conscientious Objectors: so much so that she would smilingly offer them what appeared to be chocolate, but which was in fact Ex-Lax!
Ellen Brown in Canada was interviewed over the phone and spoke of her dismay, on leaving Leyton after a cursory medical, to find that she was met at Chelmsford station with a bicycle and billeted with a widow and her daughter one mile from the farm where she was destined to work. Her first reaction was to telephone her dad and tell him she wanted to go home, but he, to her surprise, told her to give it a chance, which she did, and was pleased she stuck with it, although the only thing she had ever grown before was tomato plants on the air raid shelter in Leyton. The first time she saw a field of wheat, she thought it was spring onions. She learned how to use milking machines and ‘only’ lost the herd on one occasion when she fell asleep on Galleywood Common where they were grazing, to find they’d all gone when she woke up. Luckily, someone on a tractor pointed her in the right direction!
Joyce Willsher in Australia was interviewed by email. Unlike Ellen, who had stayed on one farm for the duration of the war, she worked in nurseries and farms in Waltham Abbey, Rochford, Shopland, Benfleet and Hockley, often doing such back-breaking work as picking up the potatoes behind the tractor, but she was staying in a hostel in Thundersley with a gang of girls and enjoying herself hugely. In fact, many women had more memories of the dances they went to and the lads they met than of such downsides as blisters, aching backs or contending with wasps’ nests and nettles when nature called. There again, these were girls in their teens and early twenties, so this selective recall is not unexpected.
Sadly, a couple of the ladies interviewed for the book have since passed away, so it was really worthwhile to get their stories down for posterity, and especially for their families. Other material was supplied by a number of Essex museums, in particular Harlow, West Mersea and Braintree.