Tuesday, April 9, 2013

Mum Joins The Land Army!

In my mother's honor, here is her own story about leaving home for the very first time.  World War II put paid to Mum's chances of going to university, at least temporarily.  Desperate to get away from a difficult and traumatic family life in the north of England, she took the first chance that came along.

"I joined the Women's Land Army in January 1943 when I was 17 years and 3 months old.

My uniform had arrived in a battered cardboard box.  Any kind of paper or cardboard was hard to come by at that time and everything was hoarded for future use.  I had asked to be posted as far away from home as possible.

I found I was going to Hampshire way down in the South of England which was pretty far from County Durham.  All traveling arrangements were done by people who drew the shortest line between two places with no regard for available transport or the traveler's convenience.  Instead of taking the bus from my house to the Central Station in Newcastle, I was ordered to take it to Durham to catch the London train from there.  No one told me to change my travel warrant for a ticket.  I thought it was a ticket.  At about six o'clock in the morning on a freezing January day, my dad took me to the bus with two enormous suitcases, neither of which I could carry.  I don't actually remember saying goodbye but I do know it was the end of my childhood, my home life and everything familiar to me.  I can't imagine what Dad was feeling as he walked back to what I still call home.  And we never discussed it so I never found out.  That's how it was in England in those days.

I reached Durham.  The railway is on a viaduct high about the road and I had to walk up there, carrying one case at a time, heave by heave.  I got a rocket from the ticket man for not changing my travel warrant and when the train came, I lurched on and found a seat with other Land Army new girls I found there.  Now, how do I say this?  They were from what were still, at that time, the slums of Newcastle.  I was a delicately nurtured, private school-educated girl who had never had to do without.  I stuck out like a sore thumb.  I am surprised I wasn't ignored or laughed to scorn -- but I think that, even then, I was able to lower my sights and be, to a certain extend, "one of them."  However, let us say that we didn't have much in common.

At King's Cross Station, we all parted and I must say, how I got from there to Waterloo Station by Underground is a mystery.  I remember that my luggage was carried by various servicemen all the way.  According to my ticket, I was supposed to catch the Portsmouth train to Rowland's Castle, quite the wrong stop according to the farmer's wife who would have had to go miles out of her way to pick me up if I had actually done that.  But Rowland's Castle had been changed to Petersfield.  I little knew then the part that Petersfield was to play in my life.  By this time I had acquired a navy escort who was so worried about my ability to get to my final destination that he insisted on getting off at Petersfield with me in spite of being on his way to Portsmouth.  I had never been "picked up" in my life.  I knew very little about boys except for people I grew up with.  I did not realize how good all these young servicemen were being to me.  Nowadays I think you'd be taking quite a chance.

At Petersfield it was raining.  It was about tea-time and nearly dark.  "Forlorn" is the word that springs to mind.  After about 20 minutes, a little car rolled up and it was the farmer's wife and her son, Roy.  The sailor was dismissed rather rudely by the wife and I said thank you and off we went.  I think this was the low point.  I was so homesick I nearly wept.  The conversation was stilted; there was little to say.  In the tiny hamlet of Chidden, near Hambledon, where the farm was, I was taken to a cottage where a young mother with a 4-year-old was living, a refugee from the bombing of Portsmouth.  Her husband was in the Royal Air Force.  I was billeted with her.  After telling me to be at the cowshed at 6:30 a.m. the farmer's wife left and I went to my room.  I don't remember any names.  The young mother was about twenty-three, I think.  She was very pleasant and I felt better.  I spent most of the night awake with an alarm clock pressed to my ear.  I was surprised at how quickly I learned to wake at six.

The farm was a small, mixed establishment.  The farmer was really old and having had a heart attack, did nothing.  His wife was much younger and was quite fat -- but strong?  My hat!  Arms like hams.  Always wore a shapeless black dress.  She had asked the Land Army for a 30 year-old experienced milk-hand and she got me.  We were not satisfied with one another.  When I arrived at the cowshed it looked like the Nativity scene.  Soft paraffin lamps, gently breathing cows, the smell of hay and dung.  This reality soon changed.  They gave me a pail, a stool and a cow and the said, "Milk it."  It had long nails that I soon either cut or got torn off.  Innocent as the day is long, I was wearing my complete uniform, every scrap of it.  I soon tore off a good deal of that as well.  It's hard work, milking.  At 9:00 a.m., I returned to the cottage for breakfast.  Then a morning's work preparing food for the animals, dinner, feeding bullocks in the afternoon, the evening's milking and at 6:00 p.m., back home in time for supper.  And me a city girl.

I stayed for 3 months.  I was a disappointment, I'm afraid; they asked to have me removed.  Well, what could they expect?  Talk about throwing someone in at the deep end.  I was sent to a women's hotel in Peterfield, and there my life began!
This is not my mum; this girl looks very cheerful!


  1. This story will continue, yes? Please?

  2. I'm currently working on TEA IN TRIPOLI but will (a) post regular blogs and (b) work on more of my mother's own stories. She was an interesting and witty person though she thought herself very dull.

  3. Really enjoyed your Mum's story; well put and easily imagined down to the dung. Great blogging Bernadette!