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One mile of potatoes and more: the Women’s Land Army in West Sussex
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Jenny Mason, Assistant County Archivist at West Sussex Record Office explores the Women’s Land Army in celebration of the map that was included in our Sussex Landscape: Chalk, Wood and Water exhibition.
This beautifully illustrated and detailed printed map of Sussex, currently on display as part of the Sussex Landscape: Chalk, Wood and Water exhibition, was drawn by Ernest Clegg, a cartographer, graphic artist, and calligrapher. Clegg designed a series of these illustrated maps (including ones for Norfolk, Kent, and Cambridgeshire) to help to raise funds for the Women’s Land Army Benevolent Fund. The Women’s Land Army Benevolent Fund was set up by Lady Denman, the founder and director of the Women’s Land Army (WLA), to provide financial assistance to Land Girls who experienced hardship, injury (not uncommon in the course of agricultural work) or disability. The fund was also used to provide grants for training and education, particularly after the war as former Land Girls retrained to seek alternative employment.
The WLA was originally established in 1917 but was disbanded at the end of the First World War. It was reformed in June 1939 to increase Britain’s domestic production of food and reduce its dependence on imports, vulnerable as a result of the war. Known as Land Girls, the women of the WLA were civilian volunteers who took on traditional ‘men’s work’ in agriculture throughout the Second World War, replacing those called up to military service. Over 200,000 young women from a wide variety of backgrounds served between 1939 and 1950, and with more than one third from London and other large cities, most had little to no experience of agricultural work. Girls were accommodated in WLA hostels, working long hours on the farms and away from family, and as such, lifelong friendships were formed between young women thrown together by war.
This map (above) highlights the significant contribution that the WLA made towards Britain’s food security in the Second World War. A cartouche at the top of the map provides some statistics: on a national level between 1939 and 1944 the area under the plough increased from 12,900,000 to 19,400,000 acres and the output of food increased by well over 70 per cent. On a local level, Sussex more than doubled its arable acreage and increased its dairy herd. From flax to tomatoes, hops to apples, and Southdown sheep to fat cattle, the Land Girls of the WLA in Sussex helped to keep Britain fed. Notable achievements include the production of one mile of potatoes just outside Brighton and a record yield of two tons of wheat per acre near Bodiam Castle.
There are also nods towards the role that the county of Sussex played in other parts of the war with a detailed illustration of the ‘D’ Day Armada – with Mulberry Dock Sections’. D-Day has been described as the most crucial single event of the Second World War and Mulberry Docks or Harbours played a critical role. They were pre-fabricated ports which were towed across the Channel on D-Day to supply the invasion army; the components for them were fabricated in Pagham and Selsey.
Elsewhere on the map, towards the north of the county between Crawley and Worth, is a stylised maple leaf representing the headquarters of the Canadian Corps who were stationed at Worth Priory and then at Wakehurst Place to act as a line of defence in the event of a coastal invasion. Nearby is the logo of the WLA over their headquarters at Balcombe Place – the home of the WLA’s founder, Lady Denman. Unlike other maps produced for the WLA Benevolent Fund, this map for Sussex includes a tribute to Lady Denman, reflecting the close links between the county and the WLA.
The connection between the WLA, Lady Denman, and West Sussex means that there is a wealth of archival material to explore in West Sussex Record Office. This includes documents and photographs which record the work that the WLA did, all of which contributed to the achievements represented on the map. Land Girls could be expected to participate in all aspects of work on a farm including milking and dairy work, care of livestock, general farm work, tractor driving, field work, fruit and vegetable cultivation, and timber production. Approximately a quarter of all Land Girls did dairy work but, as these photographs demonstrate, they were involved in a wide range of other activities as well.
The work was arduous and involved long days. Doreen Peskett, a Land Girl working near Horsham, kept a diary of her experiences which records unpleasant weather (‘Very foggy until about 10 o/c’, ‘A drizzle wet day’) and days that started at 6.30am milking cows and didn’t end until late into the evening (‘We worked after tea, the others loading while I raked up the rakings until it was too dark to see’). However, for many it was deeply rewarding work which they were justly proud of and which offered opportunities not previously widely available to women.
The WLA was officially disbanded on 30 November 1950 with a final rally for the West Sussex branch taking place at Bishop Otter College in Chichester to celebrate the achievements and dedication of a remarkable group of women.
If you’re interested in finding out more about the Women’s Land Army in West Sussex please take a look at West Sussex Record Office’s blog:
To find out more about West Sussex Record Office please visit their website.
All images in this post reproduced with permission of West Sussex Record Office.