A Real Land Girl…
The best-selling novel The Land Girls was so successful that it was made into a film. I read the book and watched the film with some surprise, for the life it portrayed was nothing like my own wartime experience in the Women’s Land Army — but then I only knew about Suffolk, and perhaps it was very different in other counties.
I thought that getting up at five o’clock every morning would be the hardest thing, but I was wrong. The most difficult part about being a WLA milker during the war was mastering the old bicycle that was issued to me. It was too big and had a crossbar, and I’d never really been much of a cyclist. Every time I used it I leaned it up against the nearest fence, climbed the fence, transferred myself to the saddle and pushed off. Stopping was simpler — it had no brakes, of course — for I just fell off on to the nearest grassy bank.
There was always a debate about whether the milkers of the general farm workers had the toughest job. The general workers started their day at the late hour of seven, and did only six days a week. We started at 5.30am and worked every day of the week. After all, cows have to be milked regularly.
The so-called general farm work was backbreaking — picking potatoes, digging, hoeing and ploughing — whereas we took care of the cows, those lovely warm and friendly creatures, talking gently to them by name as we herded them into the milking parlour, gave them a warm wash on their hind-quarters and relieved them of the burden of the excess milk they were carrying. Of course that was by no means all we had to do, but it was the best part.
None of the farms I worked on had milking machines. I heard that some big modern farms had them, but I never saw one. Milking by hand was so much more pleasurable, I’m sure for the cows as well as us. Although we were transferred from farm to farm as help was needed, a friendly relationship was soon set up between milker and cows, and the old chaps we worked with always confirmed that “their girls” as they called the animals, gave more milk if they liked the milker. Some said it was creamier, too.
Incidentally, the old regular farmhands never called any of us “girls”. We were always “those women” to them. They acknowledged our help, but none of them really approved of us. Mostly they referred to us as “they flighty townies”.
After milking and pasteurising the milk, we herded the cows out to pasture, then scrubbed and hosed out the cow shed, got the milk into churns ready for collection and cleaned up the dairy until it shone. Only then did we return to our billets for breakfast — and you can be sure we needed it by then!
None of the Land Girls I knew was ever billeted on a farm — probably because the farmers didn’t
have enough spare accommodation. Fifty of us lived in a large manor house which had been requisitioned as a hostel “for the duration”. During training it was compulsory to stay there, but after that we could opt for a private billet,
For some of my time of service I lived in a little cottage half-way between the villages of Eye and Diss (these days full-grown towns). The cottage, which had no running water, drainage or electricity, housed three of us milkers in its tiny attic, and we had to get used to the constant mysterious noises from the thatch immediately above our heads. Washing water came from a pond across the way, and it wasn’t unusual to find a tadpole swimming around in it, but drinking water was brought from the pump in Eye on a little tank trailing at the back of our landlady’s bicycle. She said she didn’t mind that, as it was “only a mile to cycle each way!”. The toilet facilities were extremely primitive to say the least, and in the hot weather we were glad that the ‘little house’ was some way from the cottage. In cold weather, of course, its distance away wasn’t an advantage at all!
All our landladies were very kind and generous, looking after us and feeding us well on the thirty bob we each paid them from our wages. We weren’t even expected to make our own beds, and most of us were well pleased to have the remainder of our £3 weekly pay to spend on ourselves. I never heard of any Land Girls being dissatisfied with their billets, nor of any landladies complaining about their lodgers.
I never saw a farmer or male farm worker under the age of 50, and some of them looked almost twice that old, so there was never any question of flirtation between us and them. Soldiers and airmen of all nationalities abounded, however — there were many airfields in Suffolk — so we didn’t lack for male companionship. Lorries picked us up to take us to dances, or occasionally we cycled (dangerously on my part) into Ipswich for a drink. Our constant early rising prevented us from carousing too late into the night, however, and that was where the land workers scored over us milkers, but we didn’t mind. We had our other friends — Buttercup, Daisy, Pansy, Daffodil and the like — to warm us on cold winter mornings and to lead out to the meadows on sunny summer afternoons.
There was more to do than looking after the cows themselves, of course. Winter fodder had to be prepared and stored up — haystacks to those unfamiliar with the process — and the solids from the mucking-out of the milking parlour and bull pen had to be piled up, alternating with layers of straw, to be allowed to ready itself, in time, to become fertiliser for the fields.
Cabbages had to be picked, loaded on to carts and taken to the fields to add to the cows’ diet of grass and sweet clover and cow-cakes. These latter were a mystery to us. We never found out what they were made of, although they smelled very like chocolate. One thing was certain: they were definitely not made from any of the dangerous animal offal which was to cause so much trouble to the farming community and the rest of the country many years later. No farmer in those days would have dreamed of feeding animal matter to a non-carnivorous animal.
Now we hear that at last we ex-Land Girls will be permitted to join in the Remembrance March with the others who served during the war in various capacities — so in November I shall polish up my badge and walk with them, hoping to meet some of my fellow-milkers doing the same. The badge is my only souvenir of that happy and worthwhile time, although I still have the photograph I had taken on the very day I was issued with my uniform, when I was so proud to send my parents that token of their youngest ‘doing her bit’.