Having recently visited the Imperial War Museum in London to research the Women’s Land Army during World War II, I was pleased to discover that the Shakespeare Centre Library and Archive also holds materials relating to the Women’s Land Army. In addition to several photographs of land army girls showing them doing a variety of tasks such as picking potatoes and driving a tractor, I also came across the memoirs by Dorothea Abbott entitled Librarian in the Land Army. Being a librarian myself, I was intrigued to find out why a young woman aged twenty-two exchanged books for buckets and how she coped with working on a farm without any previous experience.
It was one of the most informative and entertaining books I have read over the past few months. Her descriptions of life as a land girl vividly bring to life her experiences and her humorous observations of farm life made me laugh out loud: “There was a pig careering round the orchard like one of the Gadarene Swine, with the Boss seated on his broad pink back, rodeo style, facing the tail! The pig was shrieking, the Boss was shouting, the fowl were in a flutter, and the gander and Nell, not to be outdone, were joining in the commotion.” Not surprisingly, I very much looked forward to talking to Dorothea Abbott about her experiences as a land army girl.
During World War II, when the men had gone off to fight, over 100,000 British women worked on the land, entering a previously male dominated world and maintaining the nation’s food supply. These women became known as the ‘land army girls’ and learned new demanding skills, often without any prior training.
Dorothea was born in Birmingham in 1920 to a father who was an electrical engineer and a mother who worked as a librarian. She inherited her love for books from her mother and began working in a library while still at school. At the age of twenty, Dorothea, along with other girls of her age, had to register to do some kind of national service. In 1939 the land army was started up again and, being a conscientious objector, Dorothea chose to join the land army. She was looking forward to it, expecting “lovely country life”, and the warning from the Chief Assistant Librarian - “it’ll be cold and bleak. You’ll be wearing little woollen mittens to keep your hands warm, which of course they won’t” - could not change her mind. Despite the hard work and the cold, she stayed in the land army from October 1942 until August 1946, longer than her library friends who joined the auxiliary services.
Dorothea’s first experiences as a land army girl were at the Women’s Land Army Hostel where she lived at the Manor House in Pillerton Hersey with a group of other land army girls. At Pillerton Hersey she very much enjoyed working alongside other young women but threshing was very hard dusty work and she didn’t see much of the lovely countryside. Whilst threshing was one of the tasks Dorothea enjoyed the least, she particularly enjoyed fruit picking at a poultry farm at Pillerton Priors. There she had more responsibility looking after pigs and poultry as well as three orchards.
However, she missed the company of the other land army girls and felt a little lonely with no one to work with or talk to. Dorothea made friends with other land girls, although at first meeting them was a bit of a shock to her, as they were very different from the girls she worked with at the library. The majority of land girls used to work in factories or offices and their upbringing, perhaps, was not quite as sheltered as Dorothea’s. When a fellow land girl learned that Dorothea used to work in a library, she said to Dorothea: “Then that’s why you speak different. Never mind, Dorothy, all the girls have a good word for you.” But despite their differences, the young women got on well and enjoyed working and socialising together. Although spare time was rare, Dorothea took part in dances in the common room and also went to the theatre in Stratford upon Avon where she saw nearly all of Shakespeare’s plays.
According to Dorothea, the most valuable lesson she learned during her time in the land army was to understand people with whom she had previously not mixed before and to look at food with more respect, which is reflected in a verse written for a special land army Christmas card in 1944:
“Be gentle when you touch bread,
Let it not lie uncared for, unwanted,
Too often bread is taken for granted.
There is such beauty in bread,
Beauty of sun and soil.
Beauty of patient toil,
Wind and rain have caressed it,
Christ often blessed it.
Be gentle when you touch bread.”
With many thanks to Dorothea Abbott, John Benson and Mairi McDonald.