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Audrey M Manning
After working in an office for two years, I joined the Women's Land Army in 1942. I was sent to a small general farm near Staplehurst for four weeks' training, after which time I felt as if I had been working on a farm all my life, ready to tackle any job. Some of the old hands doubted whether we'd stick it. I heard such scathing comments, like "What have they sent you for?" or "This ain't no work for you young gals, you won't be able to 'ave no babies!" Then I was sent to a market garden farm at Offham with another Land Girl, Peggy. Along with the local women, we packed lettuces twenty four to a box, pulled radishes and washed and tied them into bundles, packed rhubarb into boxes and spent days at a time picking peas off the bines, which had previously been pulled and left in huge piles. One especially nice job was picking strawberries early in the morning before the sun was hot. We were paid piecework rates for this, so there was only time to eat an occasional strawberry. There was also the onion field, where we spent weeks toiling away at some task or other, crawling along the rows hand hoeing, with sacking tied round our knees, then pressing the onion tops down. Later, we were pulling them and laying them out for drying off, until they were ready for bagging up. It was while we were working in this onion field that we saw the cows, in single file, going into the cowshed for milking. We were told that each cow had a name and made her own way to her stall. We thought this sounded daft, not believing cows could be so intelligent, so the next day we stood just inside the cowshed to see for ourselves. There was pandemonium; two cows came in and on seeing us charged out again and the whole herd went berserk. Needless to say, the cowman was very cross with us! With the coming of winter, there were jobs of a different nature to do. Hedging and ditching were part of this, even in the pouring rain, but we were issued with an oilskin and sturdy gumboots. Brussel sprouts covered in snow had to be picked and when the weather was too bad, we mended boxes under cover. The local women on that farm were not too friendly towards us; I think they thought we were going to take their jobs from them. Towards the end of 1942, I went to a farm near Maidstone with other Land Army girls, to demonstrate our recently acquired skills. This was organised by the Kent Agricultural Committee and among the guests were Lord and Lady Woolton, Lord Woolton being the wartime Minister of Food, also Lady Denman who was the head of the Women's Land Army. I was very proud to win certificates for grooming horses, planting cabbages and lifting and topping swedes. I enjoyed working on the farm at Offham, but after a year or two Peggy and I thought we'd like to widen our farming skills. We were transferred to a mixed farm at Frittenden, where we lived in the farmhouse. There was no electricity on that farm and we even had to pump the water from a well before we could have a wash in the morning. The primitive outside toilet consisted of a board with a hole in the middle! We learnt how to milk a cow by hand as well as by machine. We were a bit slow at first, but with practice we got faster. When all the cows had been milked and fed, we went indoors for our breakfast, a really big breakfast, porridge with molasses treacle, then bacon, egg and sausages. Cholesterol-free diets were unheard of in those days. After breakfast, we returned to the cowshed to muck out. Then came the great day; I learnt to drive a tractor. After ten minutes' tuition I was alone on the Fordson, harrowing and rolling as if I had been doing it for years. That night, I remember dreamimg I was driving round and round the field and woke up sitting on the side of the bed, shouting "I can't stop, I can't stop". We had double summer time in the War years, so this meant we could work until past ten o'clock at night, harvesting. Combine harvesters were new then and only big farmers could afford one. Harvsting meant cutting the corn into sheaves, then picking up a sheaf under each arm and placing them into stooks to dry. This wasn't a very pleasant job as the straw made the inside of my arms very sore. Later, the sheaves were all piled into the wagon and carried off to the barn ready for threshing in the winter, which was a very dusty job. At the end of a day's harvesting, we would all gather in the barn for some home brewed cider and bread and cheese. The farmer was somewhat economical with the sugar, so it was really strong stuff! If we were working with animals, this meant a six-day week, but regardless of the number of hours we worked, we received a weekly wage of £2.00, out of which £1.00 had to be given to our landlady. Nobody grumbled, for we thoroughly enjoyed the life. Working in the open air gave us huge appetites and it was quite a headache for landladies to devise meals on wartime rations. Our only extra allowance was twelve ounces of cheese per week. By exerting considerable will-power I got used to drinking unsweetened tea, thus enabling our landlady to save sugar for jam-making and cakes for tea breaks. Oddly enough, we were never short of energy or a few coppers for evening entertainment; local Army units would invite groups of Land Girls to dances, often transporting us in the back of a lorry. Most of us were mobile, on two wheels not four; we were able to reach the nearest town and spend an evening at the pictures. I also belonged to the local Young Farmers' Club, acting as Press Secretary and I gained second prize at the annual Y.F.C. Public Speaking Contest for a speech on 'Tomato Growing'. Looking back at my years in the Women's Land Army, I can honestly say they were very happy years. When I went home at weekends, I felt really proud walking along my home town Rochester's High Street, wearing my uniform. It was a great honour to have served in the W.L.A.
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