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Edith Constance "Connie" Burgess
from:Newcastle-upon-Tyne, EnglandIt was still dark as we walked through the village. Squat, grey stone houses edged the cobbled square, with the war memorial, bus stop and blacksmiths. A small group of men stood around, silhouetted by the glow from the furnace. They stamped, and rubbed their hands, eyeing us as we made our way along the street, laughing and joking in their local dialect. We soon found they would be our workmates, and the blacksmith’s would become a familiar place to call. I had just met Helen the day before, at the land Army hostel outside the village. Now in our dungarees, jumper, coat and stiff new boots, we were on our way to our first day’s work. I was eighteen when the war started, and Bob my boyfriend, later husband, was twenty when he was called up. Because I missed him, and wanted to do something to help, I joined the Land Army, so here I was walking in the dark into an experience that left a lasting impression on my life.
A mile later, away from the shelter of the hills, we looked for our farm but could only find a barn and sawmill. The snow had soaked our legs, and the wind bit through our clothes, as red nosed and shivering we approached some men, who paused to stare in amusement. One asked ‘Ist tha land lasses? His blue eyes twinkled in his ruddy face as he assessed our discomfort, ‘Best find you an indoor job,’ he said and led us into the long, high barn, filled with ‘chop,’ a mixture of hay and straw for horse fodder. We knew we were lucky to have shelter, and our spirits rose as the work, filling hundredweight sacks, warmed us and dried our clothes. We looked out of the window at the fields covered in snow, the sun rising and sparkling in the tree tops, stroking the other side of the valley with it’s golden lustre. This turned out to be one of the coldest Januarys of the war, but in youthful optimism we sang as we worked, and talked of our town lives. Just two days ago Helen had worked in a factory, and I’d been in an office.
Soon we felt hungry, and looked at our lunch boxes. They were big and strong, but our dismay would be hard to imagine when we found their meagre contents. Thin sandwiches of paste and jam, and a square of sponge cake. It was only half past nine and we were ravenous, breakfast was a distant memory as we’d left the hostel at 7 am., and our next meal wasn’t due until 6pm. We nibbled a little, then in a quieter mood resumed our work of filling sacks. After another two hours we tried to straighten our aching backs. The shovels felt heavy in our blistered hands, there was straw and hayseeds in our hair, and they itched under our clothes. We needed the toilet, but couldn’t contemplate asking the men where it was, we guessed much of their laughter was already at our expense. Noon came, and Jack called to us, he said he’d take us to his home across the fields. We trudged across the ice to a terrace where he lived with his wife and family of five children. Though he’d worked all morning in sub-zero conditions he was warm and energetic, and introduced us proudly to his wife, a good humoured and confident lady who welcomed us hospitably. Soon we were sat round a table by the fire with rounds of bread and fried eggs on our plates. The laughing chattering children, faces glowing in the warmth of the fire, were a contrast to the cold of our morning’s experience in the barn.
Jack was a ‘hind,’ in charge of the horses, some of which came to the stables for a rest after working in the forestry side of the business, others came for breaking in. His ‘Boss’ lived with his family in the ‘Home Farm’ on the other side of the river. He was a rich man who drove a hard bargain and worked his men hard, but never asked them to do a job he wouldn’t do himself. He’d had a hard life, which toughened him and sharpened his wits. Born illegitimate, into poverty, he acquired a run down horse and did odd jobs. When the horse’s condition improved, he sold it and bought another, and so his business progressed to include land, forestry, saw mills, quarries and aggregates. He watched his workers through binoculars and sacked those who didn’t come up to expectations. He was respected, but I hoped I wouldn’t meet him for a long time. The lunch hour passed too rapidly, and reluctantly we left, but glad of the invitation to call again. Our spirits lifted, we enjoyed the challenge of the biting wind as we crossed the ice hard fields past a group of huddled sheep as we returned to work. The filled sacks had been removed from the barn, and a larger pile of empty ones replaced them. The considerable hole we’d carved in the ‘chop’ had been filled, so once more we rolled up our sleeves and started to shovel.
As time went on, though the cold persisted, we came to enjoy our morning walks through the village. Though early, it was always busy, and we waved to the men at the blacksmiths, and laughed at their wolf-whistles. Our hands roughened, and backs strengthened, but we got bored filling bags of chop, this wasn’t what I’d thought I’d joined the Land army for. Then, one day Jack said I was to go to the stables with him. I’d expected rows of loose boxes, with horses heads looking over to see who’d come in, I’d imagined they would whinny softly to Jack who fed and cared for them, but my illusions were shattered by two rows of huge buttocks. It was a windowless building with a central concrete path, flanked by lines of huge restless flanks and shuffling hooves. I followed Jack through the dimness to the far end of the building, dwarfed by those strong hindquarters, and horribly conscious of the proximity of those hooves. I was shown the box of chop and oats, Jack measured an amount then slapped a horse on the rump. As it clip clopped to one side, he walked between it and the partition of it’s stall to put it’s food in a manger. That, he said, was all I had to do, and sweep up the muck into a barrow, then dump it outside on the heap. He went to do some other jobs and said he’d be back soon. It seemed simple, so with a measure of feed I approached the first horse and clapped it on the rump. It didn’t move. Another slap, and no response. ‘Move over’ I said, but it was deaf. I tried squeezing through, but it shifted it’s bulk to block my way and lean on me. As I squeezed out fast it stamped it’s hoof just missing my toes. The other horses sensed the situation and became restless too, tails swished and heads strained against their halters, I didn’t fancy my chances with any of them! I thought of the milkman’s horse back home, a sweet little thing, I’d had rides in the float as a child. With fresh determination I approached another horse and slapped it as hard as I dared. A horse further down the line lashed out with both feet, I’d never seen anything like that before, the speed was incredible. If I’d been behind it I would have been a skinful of splinters. Somewhat shaken I appealed to the awkward monster, ‘Oh come along, do move over, I’ve got your food for you.’ An unrestrained chuckle from the doorway surprised me, I turned to see a fat little man with a round face and a horseshoe embroidered down his shirt front, and I guessed I had met '‘The Boss.' ‘T bloody hoss canna understand thee,’ he boomed, ‘Dey it like this.’ He walloped the rump and shouted ‘Git up yer great bugger,’ and the horse clip clopped to one side. ‘Dey it that way,’ he yelled at me. In his dynamic presence one had no choice but to obey, I whammed the horse and bellowed 'Git up yer great bugger' with instant success. He watched me feed three more horses then left, highly amused and chuckling gleefully. That was the worst swearword I’d used in my life.
I worked around the stables for a few more days, odd jobs, cleaning, and taking the horses out to drink at the water tank. Most were large shire horses, resting from their gruelling work in the forests. They were not trusting, or to be trusted, they would kick, bite, and stamp. Jack’s job, caring for them and doctoring them was dangerous, and I was relieved when the next week I was told to report to the Home Farm. Though we were in the heart of the country, it was only forty miles from where most of us lived on the industrial coast. So, if we had our bus fares there was just time to get home after our Saturday morning work then return to the hostel for Sunday evening.
I would usually go to see Jack’s family on my way back from home and sit by the fire in their kitchen, watching the younger children getting washed in the tin bath. The fire heated an oven on one side and a boiler on the other, which was filled by the oldest girl carrying water in a jug from the kitchen tap. When it was hot, the water was drawn off from a tap near the base. After the baby was bathed, and dried on a towel warmed on the oven, he was cuddled by one of us whilst the next youngest was bathed then handed to someone whilst the next was done. It was strange too see Jack who was so tough with the horses, gently nursing his children, their little arms wrapped around his neck, and kissing his rough red cheeks. After the children had gone to bed the rest of us had supper. This was a grand meal as Sunday was baking day. There was meat tart, prune pie, custard tart and delicious home made bread. We relaxed, laughed and talked about the week, then Jack’s wife would walk me back to the hostel, whatever the weather.
The hostel was a busy place on Sunday nights, girls came back in all sorts of moods some were glad to have seen their boyfriends, and some were home sick. The building was L shaped, one arm was a dormitory with forty beds, the other, was the recreation and dining area, each was heated by a coke burning stove at each end. The dormitory was partitioned, we slept in bunks, two pairs to each partition, with a wardrobe, chest of drawers, and a mirror. The recreation area had some chairs around the stoves, and there were long tables and chairs in the dining room. The cook was a young lady from the village, and our evening meals were plain but filling. It was our lunch boxes that weren’t so good. It was alright if we got cups of tea and something to eat from the farmers during the day, but otherwise, the few meagre sandwiches weren’t enough to see us through.
Beyond the kitchen, lived the warden, what luxury! Carpets, tasteful furnishings, and curtains. How easy for those privileged women to be pleasant, it seemed to us too nice a job to be classed as war work. At the end of the dormitory was the ablution area, toilets, basins, baths, sink for washing clothes, and a large hand-wringer with wooden rollers. There was no hint of luxury within the building, but we were glad to gather round the stoves for warmth on winter evenings, whilst those who had the energy could play table tennis.
In the summer we would lie on our bunks and read, or write letters to our boyfriends in the forces. We didn’t argue much, and were a hardworking lot. We elected a head girl each term to deal with ideas and complaints, and mediate with the warden. There were never many complaints, for Britain was at war. Our loved ones were away fighting for us, and our families at home lived with the fear of being bombed. Their nights were often spent in air raid shelters, and there were shortages and rationing. We knew that Britain needed every man and woman to do their utmost to help our armed forces and keep industry moving, and higher food production was necessary to keep it all going.
This is a extract from my Mother's Land Army memorys.
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