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What Was The Women's Land Army?

The Women's Land Army (WLA) made a significant contribution to boosting Britain's food production during the Second World War.

Before the Second World War, Britain had imported much of its food. When war broke out, it was necessary to grow more food at home and increase the amount of land in cultivation. With many male agricultural workers joining the armed forces, women were needed to provide a new rural workforce.

The WLA had originally been set up in 1917 but disbanded at the end of the First World War. It reformed in June 1939. Women were initially asked to volunteer to serve in the Land Army and, from December 1941, could also be conscripted into land work. At its peak in 1944, there were more than 80,000 women – often known as 'land girls' – in the WLA.

Land girls did a wide variety of jobs on the land. They worked in all weathers and conditions and could be directed to work anywhere in the country.

Here are 10 surprising facts about the work of the WLA during the Second World War.

  • 1. It recruited many women from towns and cities

    Recruitment poster for the Women's Land Army
    Recruitment poster for the Women's Land Army
    Art.IWM PST 6078

    By autumn 1941, more than 20,000 women had volunteered to serve in the Women's Land Army (WLA). One third of these volunteers had lived in London or another large city. Posters, such as this one, suggested that the WLA offered a healthy outdoor lifestyle, which perhaps appealed to many urban women and girls.

  • 2. Many land girls lived in hostels

    <em>Land Army Girls Going to Bed</em>, 1943, by Evelyn Dunbar (oil painting on canvas)
    Land Army Girls Going to Bed, 1943, by Evelyn Dunbar (oil painting on canvas)
    Art.IWM ART LD 3351

    Many land girls lived in at the farms where they worked. However, in many rural areas, living conditions could be very basic and the lifestyle lonely. As larger numbers of women were recruited, hostels were set up to house land girls. By 1944, there were 22,000 land girls living in 700 hostels.

  • 3. There were strict rules about how to wear the WLA uniform

    Overall coat worn by a member of the Women's Land Army
    Overall coat worn by a member of the Women's Land Army
    UNI 12378

    The basic WLA uniform consisted of brown corduroy breeches, woollen socks, green v-necked jumper, fawn aertex shirt and a brown felt hat. Additional items such as dungarees and two styles of overcoat were also available. There were regulations set out for WLA members outlining how they should wear the various elements. Instructions included 'NEVER twist your hat into fancy shapes or wear it at the back of your head'. However, the uniform was frequently adapted by its wearers. The most common alteration was rolling up or cutting off the trousers of the dungarees in summer to ensure suntanned legs.

  • 4. A quarter of all land girls did dairy work

    <em>Women's Land Army Dairy Training</em>, 1940, by Evelyn Dunbar (oil painting on canvas)
    Women's Land Army Dairy Training, 1940, by Evelyn Dunbar (oil painting on canvas)
    Art.IWM ART LD 767

    By 1944, when the Women's Land Army was at its peak, around one quarter of all land girls were employed in some form of dairy work. This painting depicts a scene at Sparsholt Farm Institute near Winchester. This was a former agricultural college which had been converted into a training establishment for members of the Women's Land Army.

  • 5. Land Girls were employed as rat catchers

    The work of Women's Land Army rat catchers, Sussex, 1942
    The work of Women's Land Army rat catchers, Sussex, 1942
    D 11256

    Pests such as rats posed a serious threat to supplies of food and animal fodder on British farms. During wartime, there were thought to be over 50 million rats in Britain. To help counter this threat, teams of land girls were trained to work in anti-vermin squads. Two land girls are reputed to have killed 12,000 rats in just one year. Land girls in anti-vermin squads also were also trained to kill foxes, rabbits and moles.

  • 6. Land Girls were paid less than men for the same work

    Land Girl Iris Joyce receiving her first week's pay, 1942
    Land Girl Iris Joyce receiving her first week's pay, 1942
    D 8838

    Land girls were paid directly by the farmers who employed them. The minimum wage was 28s per week and from this, 14s was deducted for board and lodging. The average wage for male agricultural workers was 38s per week. The basic working week for land girls was 48 hours in winter and 50 in summer. Initially there were no holidays – paid or unpaid, just a free travel pass after six months. However, conditions improved after 1943 with the introduction of the 'Land Girls Charter'. This introduced one week's holiday per year and raised the minimum wage.

  • 7. Land Girls were employed by Kew Gardens

    Members of the Women's Land Army work on a camomile lawn at Kew Gardens, 1943
    Members of the Women's Land Army work on a camomile lawn at Kew Gardens, 1943
    D 16491

    While the majority of land girls were employed on general farm work, many were also given the opportunity to carry out more specialist horticultural tasks. Until 1943, some were employed in private country houses to help maintain extensive kitchen gardens. The famous botanic gardens at Kew in Surrey also employed land girls. The camomile being harvested in this photograph was planted at the request of the Ministry of Home Security for use as a quick-growing, wiry camouflage for new airfields.

  • 8. Land Girls worked on land reclamation

    <em>Land Drainage: Overtime</em>, by Bernard Casson (crayon drawing on paper)
    Land Drainage: Overtime, by Bernard Casson (crayon drawing on paper)
    Art.IWM ART LD 2987

    As part of the drive to produce extra food, the Government needed more land to be turned over for food production. Efforts were made to transform areas of land previously unsuitable for farming. One of the most significant projects was in East Anglia where thousands of acres of fenland were drained. Heavy machinery such as excavators and tractors, often operated by land girls, were needed to carry out this work.

  • 9. The WLA had a specialist forestry branch called the Timber Corps

    Sawing larch poles at the Women's Timber Corps training camp, Culford in Suffolk
    Sawing larch poles at the Women's Timber Corps training camp, Culford in Suffolk
    TR 912

    The Women's Timber Corps was set up in 1942 to help source and prepare wood which was needed urgently for pit props and telegraph poles. The work carried out by women in the Timber Corps, known as 'Lumber Jills', included selecting and measuring trees suitable for felling, sawing and lifting timber and burning brushwood. Around 6,000 women worked in the Timber Corps.

  • 10. Land Girls sometimes worked alongside POWs

    <em>Italian Prisoners-of-war Working on the Land</em>, 1942, by Michael Ford (oil painting on canvas)
    Italian Prisoners-of-war Working on the Land, 1942, by Michael Ford (oil painting on canvas)
    Art.IWM ART LD 1833

    Land girls were not the only additional work force available to farmers. By 1943, there were almost 40,000 Italian prisoners of war working on British farms. In some places they worked alongside land girls. The general public was also encouraged to help out with farm work, especially at harvest time. This was seen as a cheap way of taking a holiday in the countryside. Special camps were set up to accommodate volunteers.