In April 1938, the government asked Lady Gertrude Denman, the dynamic head of the Women's Institutes, to lead the new organization. Using a Women's Land Army formed in World War I as a guide, Lady Denman, her coworkers, and local authorities were able to launch a national recruiting campaign in the spring and summer of 1939. By the time the call came in September, more than 1,000 volunteers had signed up, and soon afterward WLA recruits began arriving at British farmsteads.
The "land girls," as they were called, had to be at least age 17 to join. They were primarily from cities, where they had been employed as barmaids, hairdressers, store clerks, and in other similar positions. They underwent four weeks of training and then were sent to individual farms or lived under supervision in hostels. They were given uniforms consisting of a green sweater; brown, knee-length trousers; high black boots; a light brown overcoat; and a brown felt hat. They usually worked 11-hour days and were to have half a day per week and Sundays off, but often that was impossible because of the nature of their jobs. They did all kinds of work, from weeding and threshing to cleaning ditches and milking cows. Some eventually became tractor drivers. They were paid the equivalent of about $3.50 per week, half of it for room and board.
Farmers at first were reluctant to hire WLA workers. By the spring of 1940, however, the labor market had become tighter, and farmers became more receptive to the idea. By the end of the year, 6,000 women were working in rural areas. The number reached a peak of 87,000 in July 1943, and total of 250,000 had enrolled by war's end.
Shirley Joseph has written movingly about her life as a land girl. She recalled being interviewed and asked, among other things, whether she realized that cows had to be milked every day. She was then trained and sent out to work. Her first job was at Warborough farm in Oxfordshire, where she worked from 6:15 a.m. to 5:00 p.m., and her most important task was to assist with morning and late-afternoon milking. On Wednesdays, she received a half day off and often used the time to hitchhike to her home nearby. She lived part of the time in a cottage with no electricity and no running water. Later she worked out of three different hostels, and although she was allowed to do some milking, her main jobs were threshing and hoeing crops, which she described as dirty, hard work. She remembered hard bunks, queuing for meals, the total lack of privacy, boyfriends (some of them American GIs), and long hours of work. Her experiences were probably typical of those who served.
The Women's Land Army gained increasing acceptance from the public, partly because it was well organized. Lady Denman and other WLA leaders gave talks over the radio about the Land Army's service, kept local supervisors informed, and even published a magazine, The Land Girl, that was distributed to the workers. Denman was also able to enlist influential patrons. Queen Mary, for example, was a major supporter, and she employed land girls at one of the royal family's country estates. Although the Women's Land Army may not have played as large a role in solving the agricultural labor problem as its backers have claimed, it did help, and it was a worthwhile experiment.
Alan F. Wilt
Joseph, Shirley. If Their Mothers Only Knew: An Unofficial Account of Life in the Women's Land Army. London: Faber, 1946.; Sackville-West, Victoria. The Women's Land Army. London: Michael Joseph, 1944.; Tyrer, Nicola. They Fought in the Fields: The Women's Land Army: The Struggle of a Forgotten Victory. London: Sinclair and Stevenson, 1996.