Many people will be familiar with stories of the British Land Girls of the Second World War. This land army fought in the fields of home, keeping the national agriculture going and doing “their bit” as their menfolk battled across Europe. What is less well-known is the tale of their predecessors, brave women of the latter years of World War One, who broke down barriers and forged farmland paths for those girls to follow years later in the second war. In taking on these jobs that were traditionally “men’s work”, they could prove their abilities and contribute to raising levels of production both in factories and fields.
The Women's Land Army began early in January 1917. A Women's Branch was set up within the Board of Agriculture under Dame Merial Talbot as Director, to increase the supply of women workers. Between March 1917 and May 1919, 23,000 women were recruited to work full-time on the land, to help replace men who had left to fight in the war.
In Kent, women were trained at centres in Wye and Swanley. The main aim of this workforce was to increase food production during the war. The majority who worked in agriculture were milkers and field workers, but some were carters and plough women (working with horses) and market gardeners. They trained in agriculture, forage (haymaking for food for horses) and timber cutting. Those working in the Timber Corps were often called “Lumber Jills”.
Country women and children were already working in the county’s many farms, but their ranks were swollen by young girls who had previously led very different lives in towns and cities. They were often treated with suspicion by the locals, abused for wearing breeches (thought of as cross-dressing in those days) and generally underestimated by suspicious farmers. In the context of the times, and in the wake of suffragette violence, this was seen as an attempt to break the boundaries of feminine behaviour and an offence against God. Many male farmers were reluctant to employ a woman to do what they were considered incapable of. Yet the work of these women was crucial, and it would have been very hard to have had the Victory without women.
Hartlip farmer and county councillor George Day was a strong supporter of women in agriculture, while Longfield parish formed a committee in 1916 to encourage volunteering for the Women's Land Army. Throughout Kent, farms employed women to pick hops, harvest fruit, tend livestock and even plough the land. Much of this work, in a less-mechanised world, was hard and dreary. Yet photographs and Pathé films always show them smiling and laughing, enjoying their new-found freedom.
As part of our environmental project, showing the heritage value of our landscape, research has helped us find out more about these forgotten women. We are appealing to the families of those mothers and grandmothers, to look out those old photographs and share their stories. Much has been documented about the girls of the Second World War and many photographs abound online and on exhibition. It is hoped that the pioneers of our modern-day movement may be remembered in this centenary year, marking the end of The Great War and the winning of votes for women in 1918.
If you can help in our research, have a story to tell or something to contribute, please contact Hilary, OCND Outreach Officer: email@example.com