The Women's Land Army in WWII and After
A report in the 'Bury Free Press' issue of 20th.June 1942 dealt with the official opening of the Y.W.C.A.'s hostel for W.L.A. girls at Lakenheath on 13th. June. In fact it had been in operation for some time and was fully occupied. The hostel, for 116 girls, was opened by Mrs.G.Walmsley, wife of the chairman of the West Suffolk War Agricultural Executive Committee. Mrs.Carnegie, National chairman of the Young Women's Christian Association presided over the proceedings and Lady Briscoe, West Suffolk Women's Land Army chairman was among other 'V.I.P.'s present. Three of the W.L.A. girls then in residence - Miss Capper, Miss Stobie and Miss Sharman - also spoke at the opening ceremony.
The Lakenheath hostel was the largest in the country with three dormitories, two sleeping 40 girls and one 36. Attached to each dormitory was an 'ablutions block' with baths, showers and laundry facilities. There was also a welfare block, kitchens, dining room and recreation room. The hostel was situated on either side of the High Street - the dormitories on the east side, (where Quayside Court is now,) and the other buildings on the west side, (where Mutford Green is now.) The buildings were single story; those on the east of the road being constructed of timber, those on the west of brick.
This large hostel was sited at Lakenheath because a considerable number of workers were required to assist in the reclamation of Lakenheath Fen, which had become largely derelict and subject to flooding during the pre-war 'depression' era, and bring it into arable crop cultivation to help the war effort. Some 2,100 acres of the Fen had been taken over by the West Suffolk W.A.E.C. under the Defence Regulations. Droves had to be repaired, bridges built, miles of drains dug, trees and scrub cleared and the land ploughed. By 1949 all this acreage was carrying crops of wheat, barley, potatoes, sugar beet, chicory and market garden crops - largely thanks to the hard work of the W.L.A. girls - whose efforts had not been well recorded - until the 1990s when a crop of 'memoirs' by ex Land Army members were published. (However, as far as the author is aware, none of these refer to Lakenheath.) At the end of the war the Women's Land Army was very badly treated by the Government in comparison with all other services.
The Women's Land Army girls, on joining, were issued with their uniform. The official scale, which not all received, was as follows: Shirts, fawn Aertex, short slv. 3 Breeches, fawn corduroy 2 Overcoat, fawn 1 Shoes, brown 1 Stockings, knee length, wool 6 Hat, felt 1 Jerseys, green wool 2 Tie 1 Belt, leather 1 Overall coats, khaki 2 Dungarees, khaki 2 Boots 1 Gaiters, webbing 1 Mackintosh 1 Souwester hat 1 Wellington boots 1 * Towels 2 Armband 1 Shoulder titles 2 Badge, metal 1 Note: * only for those on certain jobs, e.g. dairy work.
From the summer of 1942 they had to surrender 'clothing coupons' for replacements. A 'half diamond was sewn onto the armband for each completed six months service. At the end of four years the green armband was exchanged for a red armband and after eight years service a yellow armband was issued. (These armbands are usually still treasured possessions as most ex W.L.A. girls have little else to show for their efforts.) W.L.A. girls usually did a months training before, in most cases, going out to work on individual farms. Only a proportion were in hostels as at Lakenheath. (Those in hostels often did not get any training but had to learn on the job from other girls there before them.) Thereafter they could apply to go on courses, e.g. at 'Chadacre' Farm Institute at Shimpling, for a Proficiency Certificate and badge or on a Forewoman's Course.
At first W.L.A. members were paid the county rate for female agricultural workers, (which was lower than the men's rate - £2.14s. per week for men over 21 in 1941/42,) but later a National minimum of 32/- (£1.60p) was fixed of which 12/6d. a week was to be left over after paying for her lodgings. (The author, age 16 and working on a farm in Kent in 1943/4 was paid 36/- a week out of which he had to pay 26/- for 'board & lodging'.)
The Lakenheath Hostel
Accomodation was fairly spartan and there was no privacy although, as the hostel had electricity, running water, (including hot water,) and flush toilets the girls there were better off than many of those posted to 'live-in' on isolated farms or who were billeted in cottages. The dormitories were divided into open-fronted cubicles by breeze block partitions. There were five cubicles on each side of the hut with a central passage. The dormitory was heated by a coke fired 'tortoise' stove at each end of the passage. Each cubicle accommodated four girls in two double-tiered bunks. There was one wooden, 4-drawer dressing table - each girl having one drawer - and two steel 'wardrobes' - shared by the four. There were no chairs and very little standing room! The floor was concrete and the girls took turns to swab out the hut and generally clean the place each week as there were no cleaners.
There was a Caretaker, (Mr.France,) who looked after the boiler house which provided the hot water and he also filled the coke hods and left kindling wood by each stove each day. It was the job of the first girls back off the transport each day to light the stoves. Naturally the two stoves to a hut did not provide much warmth! If the one hod of coke provided ran out the girls 'scrounged' more from the boiler house. Each dormitory block had toilet facilities consisting of 6 washbasins, 4 'WCs', 2 baths and one sink for washing clothes - these to serve 40 girls! The girls had to wash all their own clothes in the one sink and had to provide their own soap powder - which soon disappeared if not hidden after use! There was no mangle and of course no drier for the clothes. As can be imagined some girls were more careful than others in cleaning basins, baths and sinks after they had used them. Each dormitory had one private room. These three rooms were occupied by the Warden, the Forewoman and the Under-forewoman. (Miss Moore was the Warden in 1945.) One of the cubicles in one of the dormitories had a sewing machine to enable girls to repair their clothing.
The Matron, (Miss Ethel Morrison in 1945, followed by Miss High,) lived in quarters in the main hostel block on the west side of the road. This block contained the kitchen, (staffed by two cooks and two kitchen maids,) the dining room and the recreation room. The latter had chairs, tables, a half size billiard table, a darts board, a radio, books, etc. Male guests could be received in this room. The dining room was also used for dances, held once a month, when the tables and chairs were cleared away. Music was provided by a gramophone and records.
The girls had breakfast - usually cereal or porridge - in the dining hall and also dinner at 6.0 pm. They had to prepare their own sandwiches for lunch to be eaten in the fields each day. For this they were given four slices of bread each and usually cheese and a slice of fruit cake. If they had a 'Thermos' flask they could take hot tea to drink, if not it had to be cold tea in a bottle. Flatt's shop did a good trade in 'Thermos' flasks! Mrs. Cooke remembers how some of the girls bought baskets made by Italian P.o.W.s, (who were in a compound at Sedge Fen.) They then went round local farms and bought eggs when they could which were cooked to supplement breakfast or lunch.
After breakfast the girls left for work - whatever the weather, winter or summer, a job was found for them, nearly always outdoors. They left at 7.30-8.0 am. Those few working on their own, usually with livestock or as tractor drivers, cycled to work. (About 10 WAEC cycles were kept in a rack by the boiler house.) The majority of girls were 'field workers' who were organised into 'gangs' of 8-10 and were taken to work in the back of a WAEC truck with bench seats and a canvas tilt. Each gang was dropped off at the farm which had requested labour. The girls worked for private farms, e.g. Chivers, Sizer's, Kidner's, etc. as well as on the land taken over by the WAEC at Lakenheath. They sometimes worked at quite a distance from base - e.g. at Ickworth, (SW of Bury St.Edmunds,) Gazeley, etc. They worked on all the usual field crops in the area - sugar beet, chicory, carrots, potatoes, etc. - hoeing, singling, topping, picking up, etc. as well as with the corn and hay harvest. In winter they had jobs like hedging.
One member of each 'gang' was appointed 'ganger' by the Forewoman. Although the ganger received 1/- (5p) a day extra pay this position was not always sought after as some of the girls were reluctant to take instructions from one of their number! Occasionally the girls were put on 'piece work', e.g. when singling sugar beet. It was then the task of the ganger to record the work done by each member of the gang. When not on piece work the pay of the girls in 1945 was £2.10.0d. (£2.50) a week. They were paid every Friday by the Forewoman. In addition they received free board & lodging. They worked a 5½ day, 44 hour, week but this included travelling time so those gangs working furthest from 'base' spent less time in the fields. They did not work 'overtime'.
In an article in the 'Free Press' of 7th.November 1942 a Miss Showell tells of how she graduated, at Lakenheath, from driving a light wheeled tractor to a 30 HP. American 'Caterpillar' tracklaying tractor. It had no self starter! She commenced work at 7.30 am. in summer and as soon as it got light in winter. Although tractors were used on big farms and projects like that at Lakenheath Fen most of the work was of course still done by horses throughout the war. On 26th. May a team of W.L.A. girls from Lakenheath won the final of the West Suffolk 'Quiz' competition held at 'Everards Hotel' at Bury St.Edmunds. The team members were Sybil Johnson, Dorothy Kenny, Mary Marriott and Betty Pullen.
On their return from work about 3.30-4.0 pm. the girls 'cleaned up', changed into civilian clothes and, after dinner, were free to go out until a 10.0 pm. 'curfew'. Often their boy friends would be waiting outside to take them to a 'pub', (of which there were a dozen in the area at the time,) to a dance, (one was held in the Lakenheath Village Hall about once a fortnight and others were held elsewhere,) or perhaps to the cinema at Mildenhall. (A bus ran to Mildenhall every Saturday afternoon.) Some girls kept a personal bicycle at the hostel which enabled them to get around. At 10.0 pm. the hostel door was locked and woe betide any girl who was late back! No excuses were accepted and the poor girl would get a week 'confined to barracks', (i.e. would not be allowed out in the evenings.) Girls were given a 'weekend off' every six weeks and were then given a Railway Warrant to travel home. They then had to wear their uniforms - one of the few times most of them wore it as they wore overalls at work and their own civilian clothes 'off duty'.
The Lakenheath boys must have thought God had been kind to them when 120 girls descended on their quiet village. However they had plenty of competition - R.A.F. men from Feltwell, British soldiers from Warren Wood camp and American soldiers and airmen stationed in the area, etc. Local girls, some of whom, although not in the W.L.A., were experienced land workers, were not overjoyed at the arrival of the W.L.A. girls, who they did not hold in high regard. However the local lads must have had their attraction as some 30 of the W.L.A. girls married them and stayed in the village!
All the W.L.A. girls were from towns - mainly London and northern towns - and when they first arrived had little or no knowledge of village life or farming. Mrs.Cook remembers travelling from London to Lakenheath for the first time in October, 1945 with another girl. By the time the train reached Shippea Hill in the barren fens their spirits had sunk to a low ebb! They thought they were going to the 'middle of nowhere'!
If a girl fell ill she had to stay in her dormitory attended by the Matron and if neccessary Dr.Old would be summoned from the village. There were occasional accidents at work of course. They were not usually serious but Mrs. Cook remembers when hedging in the winter one girl cut her wrist to the bone. Of course they had no First Aid kit and had to bind up the wound with a headscarf. They were on their own far from help but got the girl to a roadside where, fortunately, a car was passing, (then a rare event.) The girl was taken to hospital at Bury St.Edmunds. Her fate is unknown as she never returned to Lakenheath.
There was a tragedy on 2nd. June 1945 when Miss Kathleen Doidge, aged 18, was killed and four other W.L.A. girls from the hostel were injured. They had been passengers in an American army truck which skidded on Station Road at the bend by Sandy Drove, collided with a telegraph pole and overturned. Constable Taylor of Lakenheath was one of the first on the scene. The injured girls were first taken to R.A.F. Feltwell for attention. Apparently the Americans had been taking the girls from the 'Half Moon' to the 'Swan' for a drink. (One wonders if the driver had already had too much to drink.) The injured girls were then taken to Bury St.Edmunds hospital where it was found that one of the girls was pregnant. One of the Americans was the father. This man and the driver were quickly 'shipped off' - back to U.S.A. The girl in due course had to enter the 'Home for Unmarried Mothers' at Bury St.Edmunds.
The 1947 Floods
In March, 1947 occured the last great flooding of the Fens. Some 3000 acres of Lakenheath Fen were inundated and the floodwaters reached to the edge of the village. The W.L.A. hostel, being situated at a low point at the north end of the High Street, was flooded - including the dormitories, the water being right across the road. The dressing tables from the cubicles were moved out before the water level rose but the bunks and wardrobes had to be left in. The W.L.A. girls were evacuated to a large house at Risby and elsewhere - until the floods receded. Mrs.Cook remembers being sent with seven other girls to 'rescue' a haystack near Christmas Hill Farm, Lakenheath before it could be washed away. On their return to the hostel after the flood had subsided the girls had to clean out their accomodation.
The W.L.A. girls were shabbily treated by the Government at the end of the war. They received no gratuity, no civilian clothes, no clothing coupons and were not allowed to keep their uniform. They received none of the privileges or rewards given to the Forces or Civil Defence. Lady Denman, Hon. Director of the W.L.A., resigned in March 1945 in protest over the issue. Eventually the girls were allowed to keep their overcoat, a shirt and a pair of boots.
The W.L.A. was disbanded in 1952. The following year the Lakenheath hostel was converted into 17 'family units' which were rented to homeless couples. It was demolished when the sheltered housing now occupying Quayside Court was built in 1965. There is a photograph of the main block in the booklet 'Memory Lane' published by the Christian Enterprise Foundation in 1989. A few general histories of the W.L.A. have been published and a number of members have written their stories.
Acknowledgements: The author would like to thank Mrs. Joyce Cook who kindly supplied much of the information for this article. Also Mrs. Sybil Rolph for her assistance.
© R.A.Silverlock. Nov.,1997.
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