By Clive Dalton and Donald Clegg
An extract from the book - Daft Laddies. Farming Tales of North Tyne and Rede 50 years on (2003) By Clive Dalton and Donald Clegg. If you would like a copy, contact firstname.lastname@example.org
The Women's Forest Corps - Kielder (1939-45)Whereas the contribution of women in the armed services during the 1939-45 war has been recognised with medals and monuments, it’s sad that those who toiled on farms will probably never achieve the same recognition. The Womens’ Land Army (WLA) we believe deserves similar recognition because of the way they supported the drive to feed a hungry nation, always under threat of being cut off from our food lifeline by a determined enemy.
L to R: Sally Lawrence; Who are the others? Let me know
L to R: Sally Lawrence; Who are the others? Let me know
The Bellingham branch of the WLA did stalwart service without any obvious formal recognition. There are certainly nee monuments or plaques in the valley to commemorate their loyalty and dedication to the war effort. The farmers they worked for certainly appreciated their efforts and told many tales of their good humour, regularly doing hard physical and boring jobs in tough conditions with great spirit.
Who were these women?
The list below are a few that local folk can remember - there may be more that we have missed so please let us know.
- Kate Parker (organiser)
- Violet Mathews
- Lizzie Dodd
- Margaret (Shaftie) Armstrong
- Ethel Colling
- Chrissie Armstrong
- Betty Armstrong
- Joan Coulson
- Maisie Morpeth
- Betty Walton
- Kathy Walton
- Issa Scott
- Kitty Hutton
- Helen Elliott
- Jenny Thompson
- Jean Stevenson
What farm experience did they have?
Some had been hired as a sarvant lass while others were from farming families and had always helped out in busy times. Those with limited experience soon picked up the necessary skills guided by their work mates. Motivation wasn’t difficult when frequently the sad news came through of another village lad having made the supreme sacrifice overseas.
What was their working year?
They started in spring singling turnips and then could hoe weeds amang the tetties and turnips just afore the plants met i’ the drills. If the weeds got away badly, they would be employed to pull them by hand – a hard and often miserable wet day job.
Haytime and harvest would follow – times of major work load especially if the weather was catchy. They would do everything in the hayfield – from pikin hay to leading it home and stacking. In the corn harvest they’d be involved with stooking, leading and stacking. Then in autumn they’d be hired for the tettie picking, pulling turnips and were always in high demand for the threshings to cut bands, carry chaff and pitch sheaves.
The Bellingham WLA didn’t wear the traditional uniform of riding breeches, green pullover and broon felt hat. They were issued with khaki bib-&-brace overalls but generally wore thor aadd claeas, and a head scarf or clooty hat on fine days. Strong shoes, boots and Wellingtons were their standard footwear. They generally carried their baits but were happy to enjoy a bit of farm fair when offered. Up to the time of her death at 95, Issa Scott could still remember the mooth-wattorin apple pies that Hesleyside Mill was famous for.
They were under the control of the “War Ag” – the War Agricultural Executive Committee - and were paid by them. The farmers paid Kate Parker who presumably kept the accounts for the War Ag and did up the pay packets. The War Ag was set up by government to order farmers to plough up pasture land and grow crops like grain and root crops for human and animal feed. The officers were not always the most popular of folk around because of their powers to direct farmers. But it was a tough job trying to bring about change and meet government targets in two very traditional valleys of the North Tyne and Rede.
Nobody can remember how much the Bellingham “Land girls” were paid. And getting to their places of work was no easy feat either, as there was little public transport with petrol rationing and even fewer cars. Their regular work beat of the Bellingham gang covered Hesleyside mill, Hesleyside gardens, Dunterley, Briaredge, Bent House, The Hott, Demesne, Riverdale, Blakelaw, Rawfoot, The Hole, Low Leam and Redeswood. Other farms used them less frequently.
They used the local bus to get up the Tyne, down as far as Wark along to Woodburn. There was the train if they had to go further up the valley and were collected by tractor and trailer by the odd farmer who had transport. And of course they waalked te woork!
Pay tribute to their memory
So let’s end wor farm laddie memories with a tribute to the women folk. It’s mebbe not ower late to erect a monument to the Bellingham WLA in the village – a few female figures in winter garb, huddling together te keep warm with thor bait bags ower thor backs waiting for Norman’s bus, or standin with thor bikes waiting to head oot to take on the challenges of the day.
The surviving members of the Womens’ Land Army and Forest Corps had a letter from PM Mr Gordon Brown on behalf of the British Government enclosing a brooch to recognise their service and an invitation to have tea at No 10 Downing Street. He was reported in the newspaper welcoming them to No 10, and said that he felt they had waited too long for recognition. Sixty Three years! I hope he'd arranged a courier delivery up to the Porly Gates for the Bellingham lasses.
Clive's 92-year-old cousin Mary proudly wearing her brooch which arrived with the PM's letter. She couldn't make the journey to No 10. At least she lived long enough to wear the brooch - few others did. Mary did her service on Northumberland farms from the Stamfordham WLA hostel.
The long-awaited brooch from the Queen.
Womens Land Army and Timber Corps