Pair dig deep for stories of Suffolk’s Land Girl heroines during Second World War
Up at dawn on bone-chilling winter mornings, pigs to feed, cows to milk, fields to plough, mud, manure and the air thick with distinctive country smells.
To young women born and bred in a city – or even a market town – life as a Land Girl must have come as a massive shock.
But in the Second World War thousands of them headed for Britain’s farms to keep the country fed while men served in the Armed Forces.
The Women’s Land Army took on jobs from farm labouring to forestry from the start of the war in 1939. It was not disbanded until 1950.
Even in summer work was hard and harvest meant 100-hour weeks toiling in the fields. But they got stuck in and adapted to the sometimes back-breaking life on the farm.
Now, two passionate enthusiasts have pledged to put Suffolk ’s Land Army heroines on the map and ensure their stories survive for future generations.
Nicky Reynolds and Vicky Abbott are researching the topic for the Sharing Suffolk Stories project linked to a new county archives hub.
“The project was a bit of serendipity,” says Nicky. “I’ve been interested in the Land Army for ages, and done living history and collected stuff for more than 25 years. I’ve also had an interest in anything agricultural.”
Several years ago she met Vicky, a farmer’s daughter who is also a collector and living history enthusiast. “We just completely hit it off,” Nicky says.
“We did a show a couple of years ago where we combined our collections together in a display. We put it out, stood back and thought wow, we have quite a lot between us.
“We’ve always joked we should do something with it, and thought we should do some research into the Land Army in Suffolk.
“Then, by luck, I saw adverts for The Hold, which is a new Suffolk archive building being developed on the waterfront in Ipswich.
“One of them was for Sharing Suffolk Stories, asking people who had something they wanted to find out more about to do a project.
“Vicky and I put our heads together and submitted a proposal and they practically bit our hands off. It met the brief perfectly of using archives, and telling stories that hadn’t been told before.
“Our project is called Soil Sisters and it’s about putting the Land Army on the map in Suffolk.”
In this case ‘on the map’ is not just a phrase. “The research we do we’ll plot on to a digital map which will be on the website,” says Nicky.
“It ties into maps by cartographer Ernest Clegg, which were commissioned by the Women’s Land Army Benevolent Fund.
“They were beautiful and highly illustrated, and showed what the Land Army was doing in each county. But only 16 were completed, and Suffolk never got theirs.
“Part of our plan is to use the information we’re gathering to have a map created in Ernest Clegg’s style. Being digital will mean it can be reached by people all over the world.
“We started the project in January 2019, and planned to spend this year taking our displays to events so that families of ex-Land Girls – or even the girls themselves - would be encouraged to come forward. But Covid has put a bit of a dampener on it.”
Before lockdown halted their plans they had already spoken to some women – now in their 90s – who spent the war on Suffolk farms, and recorded their stories.
Grace King joined the Land Army after moving from East Ham to Essex when her family was bombed out. For a girl from London’s East End it was a headlong plunge into a tough new world.
Her uniform was sent in a parcel with her train travel permit to Lakenheath, where she would live in the Land Army hostel.
“She arrived at the station in her uniform but had to wear her own shoes as they had sent her two left feet,” says Nicky.
“With no training and no experience of the countryside she started work next day in the fields with a load of other girls who showed her what to do.
“She was weeding chicory on her hands and knees for three weeks and didn’t think she would ever straighten up again.”
Grace also found love in Suffolk ... marrying a local man and settling in Lakenheath.
“The girls were out in all weathers, and they really did just get on with it,” says Nicky. “Most got training, although on rare occasions they would get dropped in the deep end. Agricultural colleges like Chadacre in Suffolk trained hundreds of them.
“For a lot of girls it was a really liberating experience. They had money of their own and made lifelong friends.”
Audrey Baxter followed her older sister into the WLA and was placed on the same farm as a dairy and general farm hand.
She was taught to drive by her sister in under two weeks, and was then given the farm’s newest van to go on a milk delivery round on her own.
“Audrey still lives in Suffolk, and when possible we hope to photograph her in her original uniform to compare with a gorgeous photo of her taken at 18,” says Nicky, who before starting the project already knew some surviving Land Girls.
“I met Hazel Tuffs at an event in Long Melford. She was a tiny little thing, but was one of the first girls in Suffolk to be awarded the WLA tractor driving proficiency badge.
“To remember what she had been told about maintenance, she also wrote her own manual on the Fordson Standard tractor.”
“Hazel married Cyril and settled in Stowmarket to raise her family,” Nicky adds.
“It’s an absolute honour talking to these delightful and inspirational women. I feel like a privileged custodian of their memories.”
Covid has stopped the visits, but research goes on. Nicky and Vicky are supported by nine volunteers who communicate by online meetings.
“I’m also really interested in looking at the women who took on admin roles,” Nicky says. “Ethel Sunderland Taylor was secretary for east Suffolk, and Mrs Lindsay Scott for the west.”
Land Girls’ families are a great source of information. “Daphne Hedges’ daughter, who I met when I did a display at Monks Eleigh, gave me some of her mum’s uniform.
“She told me Daphne, who died three years ago, was so proud of her uniform, and used to put it on for village events.
“I met Joan Mayhew’s nephew when I did a talk. He said his auntie had kept everything, including beautiful photos, and asked if I’d like them because they just sat in a drawer. That kind of thing is like gold dust.”
Nicky, who works for Suffolk County Council in adult and community services, has a massive collection of Land Army memorabilia ... more than the Imperial War Museum.
“My collection is all over the house,” she says. It also includes items from WW1, the USA, New Zealand and Australia.
She has always been fascinated by wartime history and remembers dressing up as a Land Girl for a carnival when she was 10 or 11.
“When I met my husband Nick he was already doing WW2 history. On our second date he took me to an event at Dover Castle and asked if I’d want to get involved in something like that.
“We’ve been married for 22 years, and he’s as knowledgeable about the Land Army as I am.”
Nicky also started a group called Soil Cinderellas which honours the Land Army’s work.
Historical re-enactment came into Vicky’s life through Tudor and medieval events when she worked at Framlingham Castle.
Vicky, from Redlingfield, near Eye, is also a dedicated collector of wartime memorabilia – also including items from the ATS, WAAF and Wrens.
Her former partner was interested in military history, but she realised it could also be looked at from the women’s point of view.
“When you’re doing medieval, everything is reproduction, but you can actually own a piece of history from WW1 and WW2,” she says.
She comes from a farming family, and her great aunt Janet, now in her mid-90s, was a Suffolk Land Girl.
“When Janet joined, she was lucky enough to be able to ‘work from home’ on their farm,” she says.
Vicky and Nicky combine their Land Army project with full time jobs. “We have to do it very much in our own time – we’re both busy people,” says Vicky, a PA at Clarke and Simpson estate agency in Framlingham.
To share memories, or get involved, email email@example.com.