The Memoirs of Margaret Hurst Part Two
One foggy morning… fellow potato pickers got devious
One foggy morning a gang of us were sent potato picking at Wormley. We arrived at the field, and along came the farmer with a pile of sticks. He took so many paces, stopped and put a stick in the ground, and so continued down the field. We each had a plot and after the tractor and potato digger had passed, throwing the potatoes out, we got down and picked them up. I seemed to be picking the potatoes up at quite a rate, but there was the tractor round again and I was still trying to clear my plot. The girls either side of me had finished and were sitting on the sacks of potatoes, smoking cigarettes, waiting for the digger to throw out the next row. As the morning wore on and the fog cleared I realised that they had moved their sticks and I was covering twice as much ground as they were.
The potatoes were carted on trailers to the end of the field where they were put into long heaps (called clamps) and covered with earth and straw to protect them from frost during the winter. In the spring we opened up the clamps and dug the potatoes out with rounded end pronged forks. These forks were used so that the potatoes were not damaged as they were lifted and put through the riddler. This machine sorted out the small and damaged ones, which were put into sacks and marked with mauve dye as they were for pig food only. The straw covering the clamps and the warm sunshine would start some potatoes growing again, so we would find some early new potatoes which were very tasty when cooked. (One of the perks of the job). Today the potatoes are bagged straight from the field and stored in a barn.
Letters led to romance
Around this time I had made a friend of one of the girls in the same dormitory. One day she asked me if I would like to write to a friend of hers who was in the Royal Navy. I said that if he wrote to me I would certainly answer his letter, which I did. We continued to correspond and we were married in 1948.
Songs on the way to work
My sister was still with me at this time and she drove us to work in a lorry if we were working too far away to cycle. We had to climb into the lorry and sit on planks of wood either side. We were allocated a vacuum flask for a lunchtime drink. We also had a sandwich tin which was deep and narrow. We would sit on the tin when the ground was wet. We used to sing as we travelled to work in the lorry, eg. ‘My Girl’s a Yorkshire Girl’ or ‘Maybe its because I’m a Londoner’. It depended on who was in the lorry and where they came from. We eared £2.3s.9d. at that time. I know it was the amount as we used to sing:
“They wake you up at six o’clock in the morning
for forty three shillings and 9 once a week.
They make you work weekends without any warning
for forty three shillings and 9 once a week.
They shove you in a lorry and the driver goes so fast, all of a sudden you find
yourselves sitting on the grass,
For seven days a week they build up your physique,
when you’re in the Land Army.”
When there were a few of us working together, one of us before lunchtime would gather sticks and make a fire, then we would all toast our sandwiches on the end of a stick. The vacuum flasks didn’t last too long as jumping out of the lorry in our black hob nailed boots we would fall all over the place.
‘There was one farm and at lunchtime a farm hand put a kettle of water on the fire. When it boiled he put the tea into the kettle- no teapot!’
If we were lucky enough to be working on a private farm we sometimes has some fresh tea. There was one farm and at lunchtime a farm hand put a kettle of water on the fire. When it boiled he put the tea into the kettle- no teapot! But we enjoyed it, passing the old enamelled mugs round. If you were unlucky, you had a mouthful of dregs- no tea strainer you see!
Going to the toilet was quite a difficult job in the winter. We had to walk quite a distance to a quiet spot and when satisfied there were no men about, started to peel off greatcoat, dungarees, breeches and then pants. At those times I wished I were a man!
Despite the war… I loved it all!
Despite the war being on we had some good times and I loved it all. I remember one sunny spring day going out with some girls to plant a field with seed potatoes. The field had already been ridged up and we were all given a sack apron and it was then filled with seed potatoes. We would walk slowly down the ridges, dropping a potato about every 12 inches apart.
Using the seed drill and spreading muck in the rain
I was sent to a farm one day to work the lever on a corn seed drill. I stood on the platform on the back of the drill, and when the driver put his hand in the air I would work the lever to start the seed running through the spouts. At the other end of the field I would wait for his signal to pull the lever back. Up and down the field we would go, finishing by going round the headland of the field. I love to go back to see the green blades of corn growing and to note with satisfaction that I had done a good job operating the lever! One morning the forewoman came to the lorry where we were waiting for our orders for the day. She grinned and said she had a good job for eight of us. A farmer wanted muck spreaders. We arrived at the farm to see a field of neat rows of manure. We were given a fork each and told to sling the dung about in a given area. That was fine, after all we were in the W.L.A. but after a short time there was a great black cloud overhead and down came the rain. We put our pop fastened oilskins on but the movement of our arms with the forks pulled open the pop fasteners, so without more ado we all helped each other to put the oilskins on back to front, with the pop fasteners now at the back, and we were more or less covered at the front, and so we continued till the field was finished. Needless to say there was a rush for the bathroom when we got back to the hostel, the rota system for baths forgotten as far as I was concerned. My hob nailed boots were never the same again.
‘I remember just having to burst into song’
One day in July, with the sun shining, I was told to cycle to a farm and report to the farmer. He said that he wanted the thistles cut down in a field of wheat, which was golden, and almost ready to be cut. The farmer gave me a sort of hoe and I went around the field all day cutting down the thistles. With the warm sun and the birds singing I remember just having to burst into song myself. I did and still do love the land. The great thing about living in the hostel was that there was always plenty of company in the evenings. If someone suggested a trip to Rye House Roller Skating Rink, off we would go on the old bikes and have a good evening out, or we would go to the pictures or to a dance.
‘I did and still do love the land’
If the weather was too cold or wet for field work we had to work in the hostel grounds, sawing and chopping wood and cleaning the bikes etc. We were never allowed in the hostel until the afternoon.
‘We were quite a nice looking lot’
One tried to keep one’s femininity but it was almost a lost battle as working so hard on the land my hands had corns on them. I had quite big muscular arms and my skin was weather-beaten, but looking back at old photographs, we were quite a nice looking lot.
About this time I decided that I would like to be a tractor driver, so after getting a friend to let me drive her tractor, I liked it so much that I applied to work with tractors.
Working with tractors
I was moved to another hostel in St. Albans with other tractor drivers. The so-called hostel was in fact St. Albans Golf Club house. The W.L.A occupied most of it but members kept one section- the bar. It was a foggy evening with I returned there, after a weekend at home, and the clubhouse was not situated too near the road, and I felt really panicky for a time as all the windows were blacked out so there wasn’t a light to guide me to the building. I was greatly relieved when I found the front door!
A glamorous photo shoot?
Now that I was a tractor driver working for the HWAEC it entailed working all over the county of Hertfordshire, ploughing and sowing land which had lain barren for years. Part of Harpenden Common was cultivated and I went there to harvest a field of wheat. Before starting off for Harpenden common we were told that a reporter from a London newspaper would be coming out to interview us and take photographs. We set off for work as usual in our dungarees and I also wore my old first issue felt hat, as combine harvesting was a very dusty job. The reporter and photographer turned up and demanded to know if we were told that they were coming to take photographs. They were cross that we were not in full uniform, breeches, big socks, brown shoes and green jumper. In all fairness I have to admit that my felt hat had blown off on several occasions and had gone through the threshing drum so it was a bit oily and holey. Nevertheless, our photograph did get into a London evening edition!
‘years later he would tell people that he dare not light up a cigarette in the cinema because of the smell of petrol and paraffin’
A wartime date
At this point I must tell you that I had an awful job to get the smell of paraffin out of my clothes and skin. Soap was rationed and trying to get a lather washing grease and paraffin off my hands was almost impossible. I received a letter from my penfriend Roy that he would be coming home on leave and could he come to the hostel and take me out for the evening. I wrote back and said that I would look forward to meeting him. We didn’t have many clothes at that time, as we were rationed to so many clothing coupons per year, so if anyone had a date, we would lend each other bits and pieces to make a good impression. Roy and I went to the cinema and years later he would tell people that he dare not light up a cigarette in the cinema because of the smell of petrol and paraffin. After that meeting Roy went off to Canada. He was in the Navy, and on the cruiser Berwick. He had been on Russian convoys and was not going to escort Winston Churchill’s ship taking him to Canada. (Of course I didn’t know all this at the time). One day I arrived back at the hostel after the day’s work to find a parcel waiting for me. It had come from Canada and when I opened it there was soap, talc and perfume from Roy. I saved quite a bit of it for his next leave, I had got the message.
‘One day I arrived back at the hostel after the day’s work to find a parcel waiting for me. It had come from Canada and when I opened it there was soap, talc and perfume from Roy. I saved quite a bit of it for his next leave, I had got the message.’
Rushing to find a bottle for shampoo
There was a little general store in the lane at Berry Green and toiletries were more or less unobtainable. One of the land girls came into the hostel and said the shopkeeper had got a large bottle of Drene shampoo. We all rushed round trying to find some sort of container to take to the shop and get a ration of shampoo. That’s how bad things were during the war.
‘The rush of air blew ever bit of chaff off the combine… and nearly my clothes as well’
The land on the far side of the runway at De Haviland Aerodrome at Hatfield had been cultivated and I had to go there to help with the combine harvesting. We had to have ea special pass to get through the gates. I saw their chief test pilot Cunningham taxiing up the runway on a jet plane. As it turned round to begin a take-off the rush of air from the back blew every bit of chaff and corn off the combine, and nearly my clothes as well.
‘my sister (who was still driving lorries for the W.L.A.) tells the tale that she was driving the opposite way one day, saw a police escort coming towards her, and thought it must be someone important, but on looking out as she passed, saw a scruffy oily land girl driving a tractor- her sister!’
A police escort
The Massey Harris Combine Harvester was self propelled and whenever it was moved from one area to another, it was put on a lorry. The international Combine had to be towed with a tractor, which was my job, and so when we had completed one job I would drive to the next. As it was such a wide load the police were always notified that I would be on the move, so they were always there to escort me, sometimes in a car, sometimes on motor bikes. We always had a real laugh about this at home as my sister (who was still driving lorries for the W.L.A.) tells the tale that she was driving the opposite way one day, saw a police escort coming towards her, and thought it must be someone important, but on looking out as she passed, saw a scruffy oily land girl driving a tractor- her sister!
Bombs at Gorehambury Estate, St Albans
We had a foreman at St. Albans who gave us our jobs each day. There had been an air raid during one night and two bombs had fallen on Gorehambury Estate in St. Albans. One had exploded on a well used roadway and a Caterpillar tractor with a blade on the front had been brought to the scene to fill in the hold. I remember being told to start at the bottom and gradually work back, pushing the earth down, and so trying to fill the gaping hole. I believe it was completed, but it was a most horrible sensation on the tractor, as it was at such a precarious angle.
‘I was now digging the potatoes out instead of picking them up!’
Still at Gorehambury, I remember having to drive a Fordson tractor with a potato digger at the back. I was now digging the potatoes out instead of picking them up! There were German prisoners waiting to do the job. We Land Girls never had facilities for washing our hands during the day, so I had got used to eating my sandwiches with my hands smelling of petrol and paraffin, and covered in black oil and earth. I was always so hungry so didn’t take any notice of it. They say you eat a peck of dirt before you die, and I don’t remember ever having stomach trouble. But I felt quite embarrassed with my hands, as the German prisoners washed their hands in an old oil drum of hot water, heated on the bonfire.