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BOOK REVIEW by Richard Wildman

‘We Wouldn’t Have Missed It For The World’
By Stuart Antrobus
Book Castle Publishing 2008. £16.99. ISBN 978 1 903747 93 3.

It is rare for the author of a local history book to have to start by creating his own archive, but this is what Stuart Antrobus did in writing the history of the Women’s Land Army (WLA) in Bedfordshire during, and immediately after, the Second World War.

In the absence of any systematic official records, Stuart set out to interview surviving ‘Land Girls’ (the colloquial name for WLA members) and to trace other documents in various national and local collections. The card index to the service files of 200,000 national WLA members is held by the Imperial War Museum at Duxford, Cambs, and this (with other information) enabled Stuart (and a team of helpers) to compile a fairly definitive list of all Bedfordshire Land Girls.

The WLA was formed shortly before the outbreak of war, to provide a mobile labour force of young women to replace male farm and market garden workers who would be called up to serve in the armed forces. A separate part of the WLA was the Women’s Timber Corps of about 6,000 ‘Lumber Jills’, who worked in forests and timber mills. Lady Denman, a leading figure in the Women’s Institute movement, was the driving force behind the WLA, which was not in fact an ‘army’ at all, but a civilian organisation under the Ministry of Agriculture. Owing to the need to continue intensive cultivation of the land in the years after the end of the war, the WLA survived until 1950.

WLA HQ in Bedford recruited the Land Girl volunteers (who were not subject to military discipline) and gave them uniforms (including woollen jumpers, britches and dungarees, together with short greatcoat and hat) and training. They were allocated to individual farms, or to the county ‘War Ag’, the War Agricultural Executive Committee, which had draconian powers over food production, and was therefore much resented by many farmers. These ‘gang girls’ were housed and fed in hostels provided by the county WLA, from which they were sent out to farmers according to seasonal needs. In 1943, Stuart records, there were 517 Land Girls working in Bedfordshire, who received, after paying for their billets, a minimum net wage of 22s.6d (£1.12 ½ p) for a 48-hour week. We could say this equates to around £50 in today’s values, so it wasn’t a generous pay packet even then.

Many farmers were sceptical about the ability of girls to do men’s jobs, but these doubts were swiftly dispelled. The strength of Stuart’s book lies in the way he has woven (sometimes bizarre) personal reminiscences into the administrative history of the WLA, and interspersed the story with contemporary photographs, which give great immediacy to the printed narrative.

Apart from the list of Land Girls (already mentioned) the book includes a chronology, notes, and detailed index, making this a valuable work of reference as well as an interesting story told in a lively manner. Stuart’s initiative in contacting as many surviving Bedfordshire Land Girls as possible, and recording their personal memories, is highly commendable. Attractively designed by The Book Castle, this book is a model of how near-contemporary history should be researched, written and published.