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Women's Land Army: Back to the land to help big war effort

When the Second World War began, so many men were required for military service that the need for skilled agricultural workers increased - and this was fulfilled by the creation of the Women's Land Army(WLA).

For a 48-hour week, recruits aged less than 18 would receive 22s 6d, with 28s a week for those aged more than 18.

By October 1939 the general headquarters of the WLA in Buckinghamshire had been established in renovated stables at West Wycombe Park.

Very soon 120 girls were in permanent employment in the county, and on August 3rd 1940 the First County Rally took place at West Wycombe Park.

Hastened by Compulsory Registration, by April 1941, 500 applications a week were being received, and as the quota for the county the Bucks War Agricultural Executive Committee now asked for 1,000 girls over the next three months.

To accommodate Buckinghamshire's Women's Land Army, sites on which to build agricultural hostels were chosen at Bletchley, Wing, Buckingham and Princes Risborough.

For ease of construction the buildings consisted mainly of prefabricated sections and could therefore be ready for immediate assembly on a concrete base, laid by local contractors.

With all the furniture supplied, each hostel would consist of three blocks, and could accommodate 30 to 50 workers.

Perhaps a welcome distraction from the long hours of toil, on occasion the girls' lives in the fresh air seemed to sometimes stimulate a certain romance, for engagements between the farmers' men and local Land Girls soon followed.

Indeed, this was a situation that did little to allay the fears of the farmers' wives, who thought that, clad in their uniform of khaki breeches, green jumper, and wide brimmed hat, the new arrivals were 'far too glamorous'!

At Bletchley, the first batch of 40 girls settled into their new hostel, in Church Green Road, on Saturday, November 22,1941, and a local boy had the enviable job of acting as host, while other lads were called in to maintain the premises.

Employed by the Bucks War Agricultural Executive Committee, the girls came from Liverpool, Manchester and other parts of Lancashire, and formed a pool of labour for local farmers, who paid the Committee for the help.

During the following four weeks the girls then received training on all aspects of farming on land taken over by the Committee which ensured the girls were kept fed and comfortable.

Responsible for three threshing machines, by early December the new recruits were doing excellent work, but there still remained a shortage of magazines and books al the hostel to occupy their leisure time.

By November 1942, 1,351 girls were employed throughout Buckinghamshire, and in January 1943 it was announced in the 'New Standard Conditions of Employment' a week's leave would be granted during the year, plus full sick pay.

But in less than a year - by August 1943 - there were 87,000 Land Army girls at work throughout the country, and that month the Government decided to ban further recruitment, since the Women's Land Army was proving a more popular choice than the Forces!

In fact, in November 1943, it was stated that unless before the end of the month they surrendered 50 per cent of their civilian clothing coupons, then 300 might be dismissed.

However, for those girls completing four years of service, to smarten their attire they qualified for the special Scarlet Armlet award, which bore a crown, the letters WLA and four green diamonds.

Yet despite the invaluable work being performed by the WLA, it had now been decided to exclude the personnel from all post war benefits, since the Government reasoned that since the organisation had been an auxiliary to industry, unrest might be created amongst factory workers.

Not surprisingly, Lady Denman argued that the Land Girls has been 'an army in Government issue clothing', and on the strength of this conviction she resigned in protest, on February 16th, 1944.

On happier matters, for social relief on occasion the Land Army girls would be entertained by ENSA artistes, with local troops also being invited to attend, although not so entertaining was the compulsory fire watching, with no time off allowed.

Nevertheless, excepting 'lights out', within the hostels little discipline was enforced; with each girl allowed one late pass a week.

Then, in recognition of the wartime contribution of the WLA, at Eton College on Saturday, May 12, the Duchess of Kent presented Service Armlets to Buckinghamshire Land Army Girls, who, for post war employment, were now able to benefit from various Government Training schemes, including Further Education.

In Bletchley, in August vacancies at the hostel for a cook and domestics, but with the end of hostilities during December a Release Scheme for Land Army Girls came into operation.

Thus their wartime efforts were recognised on Saturday, March 9 1946 when Mrs C Jenkins, the chief administration officer of the Women's Land Army, paid her first visit to Buckinghamshire, where at Aylesbury she presented long service awards to those members who were, or had been, employed in the county.

Four-year armlets were thus awarded to, among others, Miss M Brindle, of Bletchley who before the war had been a 'silk twister'; Miss E Sullivan, also of Bletchley, who was employed by Mr Cowell of Furzen Farm, Verney Junction, as a kitchen maid; and, although she was unable to attend, Mrs B Spence, employed by Mr J Ramsbotham, of Brooklands Nursery, as a folder in the printing press.

In the years after the war the Church Green Road hostel was used by the Diplomatic Wireless Service, but today the area is overlaid bv modern housing.