Memories of life in the Land Army

Norfolk's first dedicated gallery telling the story of the Womens' Land Army and Timber Corps during the first and second world wars is set to open in 2011.

Norfolk's first dedicated gallery telling the story of the Womens' Land Army and Timber Corps during the first and second world wars is set to open in 2011.

ELAINE MASLIN spoke to one veteran about her life changing experience as a land girl.

When Bessie Cole took the train from Leeds in Yorkshire bound for Tivetshall early one 1942 December morning it was to the unknown.

When she got her call-up to join the Womens' Land Army, she had been all set to start training as a dress maker in her home town of Huddersfield.

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The furthest the then 19-year-old Bessie was used to travelling was to Scarborough or Bridlington for family holidays.

Now, nearly 70 years later, she is living in Banham having married the farmer's son.

But it was not all smooth sailing.

She had been given the choice between working in munitions or on the land.

'We had to go where we were needed the most,' she said. 'I chose the land army rather than being stick in a factory.

'It was a nuisance, but for all that we hadn't moved about much like people do today. So it was quite something to be sent to Norfolk.

'My parents didn't like it much, they thought it was the other side of the world.'

Land girls had to give two references before they were sent their uniform (minus badges because of a lack of tin) and orders of what train to get on and when.

'I did as I was told,' said Bessie. 'When we got to the farm after being picked up at the station the foreman at Park Farm where we went to work was carrying an old fashioned lantern.

'I thought, 'what have I come to?'. Then we discovered there was no electric, no water, no phone or anything in the village.'

She was not alone. By 1943 80,000 women had been enlisted into the Women's Land Army and Timber Corps.

The minimum age was 17, one year younger than that for National Service. The girls were employed by the individual farmers and were not subject to military discipline.

Bessie's land lady, however, made sure to fill that gap while introducing the northern girls to the likes of rabbit stew.

From the first night it was a steep learning curve for Bessie - from learning how to keep her candle alight as she took it upstairs to bed, to getting used to only being allowed to take water upstairs to wash once per week.

The two sources of water, one from a well across the road to drink and rain water for everything else, took a while to get used to.

As did tricks like putting their trousers along the bottom of the bedroom door so the frugal land lady would not see them reading in bed by candlelight.

Her first morning of work was the thankless task of scraping mud across the yard but soon she was put to cleaning out the cow house and in winter grinding the corn to feed the cattle, on a wage of 48shillings per week out of which the rent was taken.

In summer they mostly worked with the horses. In those days there were still steam engines to power the threshing machines and horses mostly used for the heavy work.

'We used to have to load the sugar beet onto the trains by hand and it was hard work,' said Bessie.

'It was loaded in to high containers on the back of the train. It would have been lovely in those days to stand under a shower.'

But like all young women they always found some amusement. One, Bessie recalled, got friendly with the US servicemen and ended up moving to America.

Bessie, however, met Geoffrey, the son of Sidney Cole who owned the farm she was posted to.

They met at Diss' Corn Hall at a dance before she had worked with him on the farm. Her and friends would cycle there putting their army uniform over their nylon tights to keep warm and - more importantly - keep them in good condition.

'He used to come and set the engine up to thresh the corn and when grinding the corn.'

They married when she was 21, moving in to the family owned Banham Hall, where furniture of bombed out homes on the coast had been stored through furniture firm Wallace King.

There were oil stains left on the carpets from a lawn mower stored in the house but, luxury, they had water and electricity, to the awe of young cousins.

With Geoffrey they joined Diss Young Farmers and Bessie went on to join Diss WI, of which she was president for two stints.

She still lives on the Cole's farm where her son Eric and his two sons still work.

'You do wonder what would have happened if you hadn't been called up,' she said. 'It was hard work but she wouldn't change a thing.'