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U3A Writing: Land Army Girl

...Another winter job was loading muck (or manure if we are being polite!) then carting it by horse and cart to the fields, a lovely warm job on a freezing cold day....

May Cropley recalls her time in the Women's Land Army during World War Two.

I was 25 when the war started and I married soon afterwards. When I had to register for war work in, I think, 1941, I chose the Land Army rather than go into a munitions factory. I was kitted out with two pairs of overalls and two Aertex shirts for summer, and knee cords, a thick sweater, a greatcoat, thick socks and brogues for winter, and a hat and a badge (the hat I never wore, a scarf was better at keeping my ears warm!)

I got a job with a local farmer within cycling distance of my parents' house so that I was able to live at home. Most of the other girls in the area lived in a hostel in the village. A little later my husband and I were able to find a little cottage to rent in the village - for five shillings (25p) a week! It was basically two rooms, no indoor facilities, a shared out door tap etc., but we were lucky to find it as there was very little property available for rent then. The village was in the Trent Valley, in east Nottinghamshire close to the Lincolnshire border. It was a mixed farm, arable, growing a variety of vegetables together with beef and dairy cattle and sheep.

My first job was picking French beans, then on to singling and weeding carrots and sugar beet, either bending over or crawling in between the rows. Later in the season came snapping the tops of the carrots, which then went to the local railway station where they were washed before being sent onwards. The sugar beet had to be loaded and taken to the sugar factory in the nearby town. We picked swedes and fed them through the chopper to produce feed for the sheep, and carted mangolds for winter feed for the cattle. Also in the autumn came potato picking which was hard work on the turned up earth. The potatoes were stored in 'graves' - that is heaped up covered with straw and then earth to keep out the frost. Later we would have to take out the potatoes from the 'grave', a horrid, smelly job if one or two had gone rotten.

Another winter job was loading muck (or manure if we are being polite!) then carting it by horse and cart to the fields, a lovely warm job on a freezing cold day.

Some of the beet was allowed to go to seed and then the stalks harvested and the seed collected. I was told off one day for striking too hard at the stalks of the beet so that the seed that I was supposed to be collecting was being lost, but I dared not tell the boss it was because the slasher I was using, which was his, was so blunt.

The farm fields were scattered over two villages so a good deal of travelling was needed and I had to acquire some new skills. I took a horse and cart from the farm in one village to another field a mile or so away, and went via home to show off my ability - but unfortunately no-one was looking! I also drove a flock of sheep from the farm to a field in the other village, it was difficult to get them to go the right way, and even more difficult to stop them going the wrong way!

Trying to put a collar on a shire horse in order to harness him to the cart was also very difficult, even the horseman needed a box to stand on. The collar had to go on upside down and then be turned, and if the horse was feeling contrary it would toss its head at the crucial moment and down would come the full weight of the collar on to me. The farm had a tractor, although I never drove it, but horses were also used quite extensively. I remember leading one of the horses back to the farm and stopping at the trough for him to drink. In the process he managed to stand on my foot and I could not for the life of me remember the correct command (it was in fact 'stand up') to get him to move! All I could think of was to yell 'Get off my foot you silly thing!'

The most frightening inhabitants of the farm however were the geese. Whenever they spotted you they would rush towards you, wings outspread and necks stretched out in front of them, all hissing loudly. We were all terrified of them.

The girls were kept well out of the way when the bull was operating - no 'man in a bowler hat in those days' - being sent to pick thistles out of the field or to collect and tidy the lengths of twine scattered around the barn.

With fields being so scattered there were no 'facilities' - we had to shelter behind hedges or sheds, and as there was no way of washing hands, and wearing gloves was considered sissy. I am sure we all ate our 'Peck of muck' (it was a common saying that 'you will eat a peck of muck before you die').

I was a 'land girl' for best part of two years. We were 'stood down' for a few months from Christmas each year when there was very little to do on the farm. In the spring of 1943 I became pregnant with my first child and so did not return to the farm. The work was hard but healthy, and I had no trouble going to sleep at night, nor did I catch cold despite the vagaries of the weather.


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