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A member of the Women's Land Army ploughing.jpg

Dig For Victory


The Women's Land Army (WLA) was a British civilian organisation created in 1917 during World War I so women could work in agriculture. It was revived from the disbanded World War One organisation in 1939 so that it could again organise women to replace workers called up to the military.

Women who worked for the WLA were commonly known as Land Girls. In effect the Land Army operated to place women with farms that needed workers, the farmers being their employers. They picked crops and did all the jobs that the men had done. Notable members include Joan Quennell, later a Member of Parliament.


Dig for Victory

In the absence of her GP husband Aunty Joan did everything, she continued to keep the rural surgery going for Muriel and kept the small in-house dispensary stocked. She had a household of three boys and my grandmother to cater for, growing all her own vegetables and enough to supply those who had none. She kept a pig and chickens, again supplying the community with surplus eggs and meat.


The government introduced pig clubs during the Second World War years of food rationing. The Small Pig Keeper’s Council (SPKC) was the national governing body that gave advice and rules on how groups and individuals could raise pigs. Pig club members would buy a pig, and provide food waste for the pigs to eat, care for them and ultimately share the meat that was produced.

Every pig had to be registered with the SPKC, and the authorities tracked and controlled what happened to the meat. The club members could keep half for themselves; the other half would be handed over to the Ministry of Food. Every individual family was allowed – encouraged even – to keep a single pig for personal use and every farm cottage could have an allocated pigpen. A Ministry of Food advertisement summed up the value of collecting household scraps and feeding a pig:


Because of the pail, the scraps were saved.

Because of the scraps, the pigs were saved.

Because of the pigs, the rations were saved.

Because of the rations, the ships were saved.

Because of the ships, the island was saved.

Because of the island, the Empire was saved.

And all because of the housewife’s pail.


Image Credit & Credit:


When Churchill announced the ‘Dig for Victory’ campaign encouraging everyone to dig up their gardens and plant vegetables I think my aunt was already there.

Jane Robinson nee Shaw - West Cumbria

The Family of Margaret Benstead-Cross, Maryport


My Mum and Dad met during the war. Mum was in the NAAFI and was at the Lowther Estates in Penrith. Das was stationed there for a short while before going off to India and then Africa. He was in the tank regiment as a wireless operator, and was with the 8th army.

They married in 1946, but Dad never talked much about his time out in the thick of it. We just gathered snippets from conversations over the years. Dad was blown out of tanks three times. The last time he was the only survivor.


My grandma lived on a smallholding and kept pigs and chickens, and already grew most of their own vegetables, so was ready for the “Dig for Victory” campaign.

Hard Work and Happiness in the Country


November 28th 1944 - how well I remember that day! I had joined the Women's Land Army. To me it was the most exciting thing I had ever done in my life. I had always had a yen to work with animals (despite my fear of cows) and to work out of doors. Little did I realise what hard work it would entail. 


So there I was, all set to go. I boarded a train at Newcastle upon Tyne Central Station which was to take me to Carlisle from where I was next to board a bus to an unknown village called Ireby, in the hills to the southwest. I remember the bus conductor asking where I was bound for. “Ireby? Not right to send land-girls to such off-the-beaten-track farms," he grunted. Imagine how that made me worry and wonder. 


Eventually, I did arrive at my destination and found I would be working alongside another land-girl, Dora from Bolton, and Barbara who worked in the house. We all became good friends. On my very first afternoon I was sent out to help Dora to bring in some cows. I donned overalls and gumboots - these were absolutely essential as the fields were a quagmire. There I was shooing the cows and trying not to look too frightened of them. I just kept getting stuck in the mud and losing my boots. My job the following morning, and in fact for the rest of that first week, was mucking out the large cow byre. To lift just the empty barrow seemed an effort, let alone piled up with manure. Back and forth, back and forth to the muck heap. I was completely exhausted by the time the task was completed and there were still the stalls to be swilled out. My hands were in a bad way, covered with broken blisters and I ached all over. I hardly seemed to get off to sleep before it was time to get up - all I heard was cows mooing and hens clucking at some unearthly hour. Why hadn’t I stuck to office work? 


Eventually, I was given another job and one that I enjoyed very much, looking after some ‘dry' cows and heifers at another farm high up on the fells. I remember being out there early one morning busy at work in the byres and singing away for all I was worth when a man appeared from another fell farm in search of stray sheep. "I like to get all that sort of work done first thing," he remarked as he watched my efforts. “By 4.30 at the latest." I think the old-style Cumbrian farmers must have invented the motto, "Early to bed, early to rise.”

And so the weeks went by. In between looking after animals there were always plenty of jobs to be done on the fields. Muck spreading, for example, which was actually a favourite job of mine. I always experienced a great feeling of satisfaction when I looked back over a field of scattered manure! We worked long, hard hours but the good times compensated for the weariness. Most evenings were spent doing mending, knitting, writing letters home and listening to the wireless. Everyone always had plenty to talk about - no television in those days. After six months, Dora, Barbara and I decided it was time to move on. We worked long hours with no time off except on Sundays (and not always then) for £3 per week, thirty shillings of which went to the farmer for our keep. So we went our separate ways, me to a dairy farm just outside Carlisle, a very modern farm with the first machine milking parlour I'd ever seen.


I had to be up and outside in the yard at 6.05 a.m. on the dot. I didn’t mind that so much but, oh, the snobbish people I worked for. I was allowed to take my meals with them, but after the evening meal was expected to stay in my room. By the end of the week I'd had enough of such treatment and asked for a transfer. Needless to say, the WLA authorities were none too pleased. 


But I was granted a transfer, to a dairy farm at Gilsland on the borders of Cumbria and Northumberland. I took to the new people from the moment we met and to this day keep in touch with the widow of the farmer I worked for. Work started at 6.30 a.m. and ended at 6 p.m. Twenty pedigree Ayrshire cows to be milked and cared for. The milk yields to record, the equipment to clean, the sheds to swill, even the cows' tails to wash and brush and the yard to weed (and did those weeds grow fast!). Winters were really hard-going in that part of the country. The cold was so intense it was hard to turn out of a warm bed each morning, and rinsing the milking equipment my fingers used to stick to the churns. But Spring especially was lovely and after work we'd go walking or cycling to spend those precious sweet coupons. Work in the fields depended on the seasons. Stones had to be gathered, thistles cut, mole hills knocked down, muck spread, lime spread, turnips and mangolds to chop for fodder and, of course, Summer’s harvest. Haytime and harvest were extremely busy times and when the weather was good it was all go, through double British summer time, still dark. Such hot dusty work, we were glad when the farmer's wife brought tea and goodies. How good it was to rest with our backs against the haystacks and to ride back home perched on top of a load of hay.

I also enjoyed working among the animals, especially the calves. Unfortunately the bull calves were only kept for a short time after they were born and then taken away for slaughter which made me sad. Same again, when a cow was too sick to recover or got too old. I remember old Hazel (all our cows had names) who had bad feet and could hardly walk. Sure enough the wagon came for her one morning. And I remember pig-killing day. Even now I can hear the awful squealing of the pig as it was led away. For a long time afterwards I couldn't face bacon, let alone the black puddings and sausages which I'd had to help the farmer's wife to make! 


But there were happier memories too, the wonder of seeing the calves born and of teaching them to drink from a bucket. And of Show Day, the great annual event, when the farmers, their families and livestock came down from 'out by' as we called the farms on the fells. On the morning of the show we were out in the yard at 5.30 a.m. to dress up the animals. Blossom, our Clydesdale horse, looked resplendent with her feathers brushed and talcumed and her mane and tail be-ribboned. And Barbara, the heifer I had been "training" to walk properly for weeks, up and down the lanes, was shampooed and brushed, with butter rubbed on her hooves to make them shine. She seemed to know something was afoot and didn't want to behave. So imagine our delight when Blossom and Barbara won 1st in their class. 


It was a long day but no-one was too tired to attend the show dance in the evening. Some of those farmers could dance as lightly as feathers, even in their working boots! Dances were also held from time to time in the tiny village halls. They were filled to capacity ,with every one having a right good evening out. I remember having to hide my arms in long-sleeved dresses as Dora and I had caught ringworm from treating infected cattle at my first farm. Those unsightly ring scar seemed to take forever to fade.


There was modern dancing of course but also the Cumberland Reel, Gay Gordons and “Three drops of brandy" all done with great gusto. What did it matter if we didn’t cycle home over the hills 'til one or two in the morning. No-one minded the long ride. There was always a crowd and we had plenty to laugh and sing about. We used to sing all the songs going at the time, but a favourite, as we bowled along throughout the sleeping countryside, was, "Don't Fence Me In." Every time I hear it these days I think of those happy, carefree times so many years ago.

Story and images provided by Christine Clancy on behalf of her friend Mollie

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