Jean Proctor nee Jean Young worked on farms between 1938 and 1938. Courtesy IWM / Jean Young
Interview: to commemorate the 70th anniversary of the outbreak of World War Two Culture24 speaks to some of the people featured in the Imperial War Museum's new exhibition, Outbreak 1939. Here Jean Procter née Jean Young remembers her wartime years in the Women's Land Army (WLA). Jean served in the WLA from 1938 until the war ended in 1945, working on farms throughout Cheshire.
“We never had any recognition, we never got a medal and we never had any clothing to come away with, no gratuities. It was a case of ‘send back your uniform at your own expense’ – they never paid the postage of it.
You could buy a second-hand hat, so I posted that one back and kept my original.
It was very hard work, very satisfying, but it wasn’t a pleasure. It was more a pleasure of a job well done, that’s more like it. When the harvest was done and things like that you thought ‘thank God it’s done, I’m glad we’ve got all this beautiful corn in’. It was very satisfying.
But sometimes it was very miserable, it made you weep a bit you know. It depended a lot on your farmer, if you had a rotten farmer you had a rotten do, and that was it you see.
My breakfast was a two inch thick slice of bread fried in the farmer’s bacon fat. He had the bacon – I never even had an egg, I never saw any meat. It was bread and cheese and things like that. We were land girls and we were nothing. Except for the work we did and then they said they couldn’t bear to be parted from us, they said we were more amenable than the men.
On every farm I was on I was the only one. It was just me and an old man – an old retainer. And where I worked it was all manual, there were no combine harvesters or tractors where I was. I had to scythe round the field to start with using a hand scythe and then an old boneshaker thing would come round and cut it. And then I would gather them into sheaves and stump them up, and then you would cart them, and turn it with a pickle to dry.
I was born in Heaton Moor in Stockport and I went to school until I was seventeen and I came out of school and father was very elderly. He was a Victorian and he didn’t believe in girls working, he thought you should stay at home and clean the furniture. But I got myself a job as a hairdresser’s assistant and he didn’t approve so he sent me to live with an elderly aunt in Scotland – she was 86 (laughs).
And I saw this poster for the Land Army and of course I joined up. They said, ‘you will have to go home because you have to go to your own areas and this is the Scottish Land Army not the English,’ so I was sent to a farm in Warwickshire.
When the war broke out the farmer fetched us all in for the announcement and the farmer’s wife said ‘you will have to go home love and get your father’s permission’, because they had written and told her they hadn’t got parental permission.
So back home I had to go and my mother said to my father ‘for goodness sake she’s done it so far so get it signed’, so he signed and I went straight off to the farm.
(Leaning to look at her pass displayed in the exhibition Jean points out the two signatures on her WLA pass).
That’s the second signing. My issue number was 289 and they said ‘we can’t reissue it again’ so they put two noughts on the end, 28900. So I was one of the first and I did twelve months more than it says there.
I think we were marvellous to be quite truthful. When you think about the modern lot, they wouldn’t have a chance of doing that - they wouldn’t contemplate it. I couldn’t contemplate it when I went I went in – all the mud and filth and fleas and what have you. It was back breaking and the sweat would be running off your nose, and then we’d be trembling with cold the next. If you milked a cow, you’d get up and you would be covered in fleas, they got on you.
I also had a tin hat because I also had to turn out to do NARPAC, the National Air Raid Precaution Animal Committee. A lot of the young vets were called up so they fetched out the old retired vets and so to ease it for them they got us to deal with all the cuts and bruises and the bad eyes. I learned all sorts like how to put a Pekinese's eye back in, because apparently they pop and flop out if there’s a loud bang, I never had to do it thankfully. I had to practice on a dummy.
I used to have to turn out every night with my first aid box and a tin hat and you would get the old ladies coming out (I’m ninety by the way). They used to come out and say 'can you put a bit of stuff on our Tommy’s ear? Can you look at his eye, and can you give so-and-so a pill?'
I would then get up at five the next morning, I don’t know how we did it really.
After the war, I got married and I felt like a caged bird. I went to work for my father-in-law and I had four walls around me all the time. There’s nothing to beat morning air you know, it smells gorgeous and you’d see spider’s webs with jewelly bits on them and little lambs and little pigs – I missed it a great, great deal. But I got married and had children – I had my own little piglets!
But it’s nice to see my things here, displayed with the forces, which is how it should be.
Included in the Outbreak 1939 exhibition are Jean Young’s WLA membership certificate, uniform, hat and photographs.
A series of lectures and events has been organised by the Imperial War Museum to help commemorate the 70th anniversary of the outbreak of war in 1939. Follow the links below for more details.
Outbreak 1939 has been developed in association with ITV who will be screening a documentary that tells the story, hour-by-hour, of September 3 1939. Outbreak will be screened on ITV1 on September 3 2009 at 10.30pm.
Find out about exhibitions and events at UK museums and heritage sites with the Culture24 guide to events commemorating the 70th anniversary of World War Two.