Remembering the Land Army Girls

Kathryn CrossThey were the forgotten army, whose services to the war effort went largely unrecognised for more than 50 years. But a Norfolk museum is set to do its bit to redress the balance by creating the country's first permanent gallery honouring the Women's Land Army and Timber Corps.Kathryn Cross

They were the forgotten army, whose services to the war effort went largely unrecognised for more than 50 years. But a Norfolk museum is set to do its bit to redress the balance by creating the country's first permanent gallery honouring the Women's Land Army and Timber Corps. Kathryn Cross reports.

'One of the first essentials of life is food and if this cannot be produced then a great disaster is staring us in the face. To prevent this our womenkind are called to help.'

Those were the words of George Edwards, general secretary of the National Union of Agricultural Workers, speaking from his Fakenham home in 1916.

The threat of real food shortage was not to be underestimated during the first world war. With German naval blockades on British food imports and an acute farm labour shortage with the men needed for military service, famine was a real possibility.

But when the government's food production department set up the Women's Land Army around 23,000 women were recruited for milking, ploughing, herding and even thatching and brought the country back from the brink of starvation until the menfolk returned home.

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So when the country was plunged back into war in 1939 recruitment offices were set up again to encourage women to leave the towns and cities and join the war effort in the countryside from bringing in the harvests, to milking the cows, tending flocks of sheep and looking after pigs and poultry. There were specialists who were trained in rat-catching and there was the Timber Corps which felled, hauled and milled Britain's commercial forests.

They worked long hours for little pay and had to deal with ridicule from remaining male farm hands who were convinced they were not up to the job. Many were very homesick and their living conditions were so basic they rarely had electricity or running water.

But despite this by 1943 there were 80,000 women working in agriculture and forestry, winning the most important battle on the Home Front - to keep the country fed.

What none of these women expected was once their organisation was disbanded they would receive no official recognition for their contribution.

It was not until 2000 that they were given a special dispensation to join in the annual Armistice service at the Cenotaph and only in 2008 were they finally recognised with a service badge.

But for many of these women their memories of their time as Land Girls or Lumber Jills are as vivid as ever and it is these memories that one Norfolk museum wants to capture for posterity and create a lasting tribute to the forgotten army.

Gressenhall Farm and Workhouse is developing a new gallery to celebrate the achievement of these women at work in their own words for future generations to understand how remarkable it was.

The gallery is estimated to cost �80,000 and half the money has already been pledged by the Norfolk Museums and Archaeology Service, Friends of Gressenhall, Department of Culture, Media and Sport and the Wolfson Foundation.

But last Thursday the Friends launched a campaign to raise the remaining �40,000 to complete the project which is hoped will open in spring 2011.

Vanessa Trevelyan, head of the Norfolk Museums and Archaeology Service, said through a series of redevelopments and refurbishments at Gressenhall they realised there was still one story that had not been told.

'One group of people have not received the recognition they should have,' she said.

'It is very important that we celebrate their work and raise awareness. I had never heard of the Timber Corps and I am sure there are many others people like me unaware of its importance.

'Their story must be told for future generations to learn about their important role in the war effort. It will be the first permanent gallery in the country and a wonderful first for Gressenhall.'

In front of Norfolk veterans of the Women's Land Army and Timber Corps as well as costumed re-enactors and museum staff the new patron of the campaign Lord Hastings, Delaval Astley, said it was important to get first hand contributions to make the new gallery come alive.

'It will be a great development to what is already a fascinating and highly evocative museum,' he said.

The gallery will be of local, regional and national relevance and is planned as an interactive journey filled with real-life experiences and memorabilia.

Curator Megan Dennis said through initial research some fascinating stories were already emerging.

'We heard that some girls found a spy in Thetford Forest,' she said. 'They discovered that one of their group was carrying a radio and they found her in a quiet spot trying to send information.

'Although it was called an army it was actually a civilian organisation but that should not belittle it. We have heard stories of women who lost their lives here in Norfolk. One Land Girl who was thrown from a horse and cart and was trampled to death.'

She said it was important to get as many people come forward with information as possible because many official records were lost during the Second World War.

'The records were kept in Sussex but there was an accident when they were moved to London,' she said. 'During the move the doors of the van they were in blew open and lots of them flew out to be lost forever. We have no accurate information about how many Land Girls worked in Norfolk or were from the area and worked elsewhere.

'The gallery will be a fantastic tribute but we are working to a tight deadline and we need more money in as soon as possible because we don't want to get half way through and not be able to complete it.'

For information on how to donate or if you want to contribute to the gallery contact Friends chairman Christine Walters on 01362 860967 or head of publicity David Ashcroft on 01328 701124.