Recruitment of women farm workers in WW1

By Jennifer Ayto

By 1915 the population were feeling the effects of war with  food a serious concern.  The Germans were using blockades to prevent imported goods reaching Britain and domestic production was hampered by the enlistment of men who were farm workers.

A War Agriculture Committee was established in Hertfordshire in November 1915 followed by a Women’s Agricultural Council the following year with the Hon Mrs Abel Smith elected Chairman at its first meeting on 12 April 1916.

In June 1916 they set up a county training college at Stapleford where girls learnt dairy skills and the following year responded to a letter from the Board of Agriculture and Fisheries on the employment of women land workers.  Recruits would be required to sign the National Service card which meant that they would be required to serve for the duration of the war and be moved to wherever was deemed necessary by the Board.  Candidates would need a medical certificate and come before a selection committee being set up by the Women’s War Agricultural Committee.  Some interview notes on applicants in Hertfordshire are at HALS (HALS/AEC9) and demonstrate the ladies of the Council’s ability to sum up a candidate in a few words.

Could not make her mind whether to sign on for forage or not – a nice looking girl with a trying Mother who would do all the talking“.

The worst type of munition worker.  Flashy and very yellow as to hair.  Quite inexperienced except as regards to horses, her father was a dealer in them – Not suitable“.

This did not mean that they were prejudiced against munitions workers, in fact they were aware of the costs to a girl’s health and looks, for example

A nice girl.  Looks delicate but this may be accounted for by the fact that she has been working on munitions for 18 months and has lately been on a night shift.  Intelligent and speaks well” and

A big girl, rather anaemic looking but has been at munitions for months.  Previously in domestic service.  Excellent reference from her employer.  A suitable girl and quite keen“.

Motivation was also assessed:

A very nice girl, strangely keen on milking – described herself as having a craze for it.  NB she has no experience of milking or cows”  and a more mature candidate was described as

A self possessed, assured large woman with elbows on the table.  Wants to go for forage – seems entirely suitable“.  And another large woman …

A large plump person with surprisingly good manners.  Appeared to be highly desirable“.

Two who did not fit into the “highly desirable” category:

This girl was sent from Bishops Stortford.  Should describe her as “shop class” – Looked thoroughly bad tempered and bored with life generally.  Desirous of leaving home and going to another part of Hertfordshire – No experience.  Would probably have to work under strict supervision and be firmly kept up to the mark“, and

a very poor rough type – “wants a change”.  Wants to go to another county after training.  Is tired of Hertfordshire.  Would probably get equally tired of anything shortly“.

By contrast, another candidate was described as

A very handsome, superior type.  Has been in munitions – Intelligent and looks strong“, but there were drawbacks to even an ideal candidate:

A very nice child. Intelligent.  Very suitable but will be upsettingly pretty“.

It would be interesting to know how many of these women took up the promise of the Board that “those women who wish after the war to farm on their own account and to form into groups for this purpose will be registered and every effort will be made by the Board of Agriculture to secure for them facilities for settlement on the land either at home or in the Dominions overseas”.

(See also “Women, Food and Farming in WW1“)




This page was added on 06/11/2015.

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