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Wartime Memories

Following the last issue’s article about the Land Girls exhibition at Brighton & Hove Museum, Agnes Wilson was moved to send The Whistler some first-hand memories of life in the Land Army and other jobs she did during WWII.

Land Girls
Agnes (centre) with girls and farm hands

I first joined the Land Army in May 1941, after I received a letter telling me to report for duty at Kinoulton in Nottinghamshire. I travelled by bus and arrived to find a rather large country house which was to be my billet for the next few months – or so I thought. My first period with the Land Army in fact lasted for over a year. I was greeted by a bunch of excited girls, about twenty in all. We were all allocated our bedrooms which turned out to be dormitories on two floors, with about ten neatly made-up beds in each. How different it was from my own bedroom at home which I shared with my beloved twin sister, Joan. No one slept that night – we were at war and we knew nothing about farming! We all met up again the following morning at breakfast, with porridge and toast on the menu. Afterwards, we went into a very large room to try on our uniforms, which varied in size from the large to the small. The uniform consisted of a pair of beige dungarees, a green jumper, knee length socks and a pair of stout shoes. We were also given a pair of beige corduroy breeches for dressier occasions. We didn’t think any part of the uniform was very flattering!

The following day we were all taken to different farms. I was impressed with my first farm – it was homely with a lovely and welcoming farm house. The owner was charming and I met two male farm hands who were very kind and great fun to be with. We were able to go home for weekends. My parents were anxious to hear what it was like to work on a farm.

I was posted to another farm and had to say goodbye to all my girl friends. This one was very different and I found it all very exciting. I joined two other Land Girls to become what was affectionately known as ‘Ditch Diggers’. We were given a small car and had to go around the neighbouring farms, keeping the ditches clear of muck. It was great fun but a very dirty job! My next move was to a very large farm in Melton Mowbray, run by a super family. I was lucky enough to have a room to myself which I thought was wonderful. Later I went on to a milking farm in Retford. I have never forgotten my first experience trying to milk the cows. I didn’t secure them properly with the chains, so several escaped back to the fields. When the farmer arrived soon after he found me in a state of laugher! He soon got the cows back into the shed.

In June 1942 I left the Land Army to get married in August. Two years after my wedding, my husband, Joe, was posted to West Africa and I returned once more to the Land Army in December 1944. I worked in Lincolnshire on several farms along with many Polish prisoners. Joe returned from West Africa and was posted to Cornwall to work at Predannack airfield. I worked in a government office that distributed ration books. It was a wonderful period in many ways: we met a lot of brave people and became friends with the pilots at the airfield and they would often visit us after flying and I would make them all hot cocoa. Sadly though, many of these same pilots flew on their missions, never to return.

Joe’s next posting was to the Air Ministry in London. I worked in the photography department of the same Ministry. War-time in London was exciting but at the same time very dangerous. I remember well the time of the Doodle Bugs – the airplanes without pilots. Many times we would go up to the roof tops of buildings to keep a look out. It was a terrible time, with so many people getting killed and buildings destroyed. Joe was often on night duty and I was so scared to be on my own that, unknown to the Ministry, I would accompany him to work. It was hazardous and we would have to leave the building very early in the morning so as not to be seen by other workers. Often we would go to Westminster Cathedral to attend early morning mass.

The Land Girls – Cinderellas of the Soil

Land Girls strawberry picking 1944
Land Girls strawberry picking 1944
The forgotten army of the land girls tell their story in this new exhibition at Brighton and Hove museum until 14 March 2010. During World War II, over 75,000 women joined the Women’s Land Army [including my mother – Ed]. The heroic image of the land girl standing tall in her corduroy breeches, green jumper and brown felt hat, fork resting over her shoulder, has become an iconic symbol of the triumph of wartime agriculture.
The exhibition highlights personal stories, propaganda, paintings, posters and photographs. It reveals the experiences of women as they leave their pre-war lives to learn milking, rat catching, threshing and tractor driving. At the heart of this story are the surviving items of their distinctive uniform – where it was made, who wore it, what they did, how women felt about wearing it and the reactions they encountered.
The Land Girls also focuses on the contribution in Sussex. Their headquarters was at Balcombe Place; land girls were trained at Plumpton Agricultural College, and lived and worked on the Sussex Downs.

On Saturday 31 October, drop in for free and meet some land girls and enjoy wartime entertainments. Bring along a piece of clothing to alter in our ‘make do and mend’ workshop. 1-1.45pm, 1.45-2.30pm, 2.30-3.15pm, 3.15-4pm. All ages

The Land Girls events programme
The War at Home Saturday 10 October – one day seminar 10.30am-4.30pm The Old Courtroom, 118 Church Street
£40 (£25 concessions) includes tea/coffee. To book call 03000 290902
Marguerite Patten OBE home economist and author of over 170 cookery books, best known for her wartime work as an adviser for the Ministry of Food. In conversation with Sarah Tobias, social and cultural historian.
Professor Dorothy Sheridan MBE from Mass Observation Archive at Sussex University discusses a unique collection of diaries written by women recording their lives during World War II.
Films from wartime Sussex – Frank Gray presents archive film clips from Screen Archive South East.

‘Make do and mend’ clothing workshops at Brighton Museum
Inspired by wartime thrift, dressmaker Theresa Parker revives timeless tricks for today’s fashionable look.
£20 per workshop. To book, and for more information (eg about materials to bring) call 03000 290902
Decorative mending Saturday 3 October 10.30am-1.30pm
Learn how to rework existing garments using simple decoration techniques like stitch, appliqué, button work and jabots
New for old Saturday 17 October 10.30am-1.30pm
Simple ways of converting one garment into another.
Revamping hats and shoes Saturday 14 November 2-5pm
Customise your accessories using simple techniques for a stunning finish.

Study sessions Thursdays 15, 22 & 29 October & 5 November
Keep Calm and Carry On: the Home Front in wartime Britain 10.30am-1pm Course fee £65 (£55 concessions)
A series of illustrated talks with opportunities to handle authentic objects and ephemera from the museum’s collections.
Tutor: Sarah Tobias social & cultural historian. To book call 03000 290902

Wartime Christmas Saturday 14 November 10.30am-1pm £12

Find out how people celebrated Christmas when money and luxuries were in short supply and food was rationed. Includes ideas for thrifty retro gifts and decorations.
Sarah Tobias social & cultural historian. To book call 03000 290902