Fighting in the Fields: The Land Girls at Brighton Museum

By Caelainn Barr | 16 November 2009
women walking through strawberry field

The 200,000 Land Girls enlisted during World War II worked in agriculture, farming and forestry. Courtesy Brighton Museum.

Exhibition: The Land Girls, Brighton Museum, Brighton, until March 14 2010

Wartime history plays host to a wealth of untold tales and forgotten histories. The case of the Land Girls is one such story, whose efforts were overshadowed by tales of military heroism in post-World War II Britain.

An exhibition at Brighton Museum documents the work, uniforms and accounts of the Women’s Land Army (WLA) in a new show, The Land Girls: Cinderellas of the Soil.

Land Girls worked in agriculture, farming and forestry in the UK during WWI and II, taking the place of 250,000 men who had been called to fight. The exhibition is laid out over three rooms and is illustrated with a plethora of photographs, diary accounts, propaganda posters, manuals, paintings, dolls and uniforms.

What makes the show unique is that it has been hosted while many of its subjects are still alive, so the viewer is interacting with living history. Throughout we see photographs of the women now and then together with video accounts of their experiences.

The first gallery tells of how the women were drafted across the country, first in WWI with 23,000 recruits and later in WWII, when the organisation had 200,000 members.

There are posters showing enlistment campaigns and photographs of volunteers at work in the fields and despite the media’s representation of the work it was far from glamorous.

former land girls outside museum

(Above) Those who worked for the Women's Land Army were not paid any enlisted services benefits following the war and only received recognition from the Queen in August 2009. Courtesy Brighton Museum.

Training took place over a few days and then the women were sent to work on farms around the country. Many were afraid to work in the South of England, known as "bomb alley" as planes flew overhead on their way towards London.

Women volunteers, some of whom had never been in the countryside before, left their families and homes to undertake the work of farm labourers; driving tractors, catching-rats, managing bulls and planting and harvesting crops, the majority of which was done by hand.

The work was intense and the pay was limited and the women had to pay their lodgings to the hostels or families they lived with.

The second gallery shows oil paintings by British war artist Evelyn Dunbar, colourfully illustrating the living conditions of the Land Girls in her work, Women’s Land Army Hostel.

Other pictures show how the women sometimes worked with Italian and German prisoners of war. The room also holds uniforms and mirrors, so visitors can try on the iconic garb of the workers.

black and white image of haystacks being constructed

(Above) The Women's Land Army at work. Brighton Museum

The third and final room tells of how their breeches were skilfully constructed and the fate of the Land Girls following the end of the war in 1945.

Women continued to work to make up for food shortages following the war. It was only in 1950 when the WLA was disbanded that they discovered they were not eligible for any of the enlisted services benefits.

This was an issue that was never rectified, until this August when the women were given medals of honour by the Queen for of their efforts.

A video made as part of a Their Past Your Future intergenerational project presents the Land Girls today, telling stories about their working lives and anecdotes during their time of service, giving the show much relevance to the here and now.

The Land Girls depicts a seldom-explored aspect of wartime history in a detailed and interactive narrative. The show also seems fitting at a time when recognition has finally been given to the Land Girls for their wartime efforts.

Read an interview with a member of the Women's Land Army as featured in the Imperial War Museum's Outbreak 1939 exhibition.

More on the venues and organisations we've mentioned: