13. Women at War

The first time I came home I had me great big haversack, me gas mask and me tin helmet and me Mum looked at me and said “Ooh Rene, whatever have they done to yer?”

East London Teenager   All women under 40 had to do some sort of war work. (1)  We all had to fill a form in – how old we was, whether we wanted to work in munitions, or whatever, or whether we wanted to go in the airforce, or in the Land Army, and so on.  I just put down the airforce.  I didn’t think nothing was going to come of the war, and then it happened – I got called up.  This was when I was working at Rutland in the picture house.

I joined the Land Army to try and get out of it, the airforce.  The uniform in the Land Army was a pair of big socks, riding breeches and a sort of fawn overcoat and cowboy hat, and a green wooly.  I was going to drive this horse and milk cart.  I was frightened of the bleeding horse.  I was shit scared, but I was going to have a go.  I’d rather do that then get called up.  I told them “I can’t go in the airforce now, I’ve joined the Land Army.”  But they said “You’ll have to take your Land Army clothes back.  You’ve got to go in the airforce.”  I was called up two days before Christmas.  I had to go to Gloucestor, and then I went to Morecambe for me training.  We used to march along the front in the wind.

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I’ll never forget the first time I came home.  I had thick grey stockings on, and your heavy shoes and your hat – you don’t know how to do nothing, press your uniform, or nothing.  You’re a sort of sprog, in’t yer?  I had me great big haversack with me gas mask and me tin helmet on me back and me Mum looked at me and said “Ooh Rene, whatever have they done to yer?”

London Clippie  If you weren’t married (I was doing machining – needlework) – and if it wasn’t considered essential you had to go away to work in ammunitions, or something like that.  I didn’t want to go in ammunitions because I didn’t want to go away, which is often what you had to do.  So I went on the buses as a conductoress. I was financially better off going on the buses.  The Rag Trade never was good pay, although I’d been apprenticed to it, and worked in it until then.  When you went on the buses you got a man’s wage.  And you got a free uniform and a pass.

I was in the first ladies that went on the buses.  It was 1940.  There were women conductors but not one woman driver. (2)  The younger men on the buses had been taken for the services.  We were only replacing them.  The drivers were usually older men.

We had a very stringent medical tests before they would allow us in.  I was in Forest Gate, at the Green Street garage.  We had a week out with the conductor, and then we were left to our own mercies.  I did the 25 route which was Becontree Heath to Victoria, through Oxford Street, Bond Street.  I also did the 40 route which was from Wanstead round to Camberwell Green.  We used to get well known people on the buses a lot, especially ’round Bond Street and Piccadilly.  The reason was that they couldn’t get the petrol to run their cars.

I enjoyed the comradeship – being on the same route every day you met the same people and you got to know them.  You got some people who were awkward, like you always get. The day after we got the telegram about Dick, my brother, being killed, someone on the bus said to me “Don’t you know there’s a war on?”  I thought “I could tell you I know there’s a war on.”  But the majority, there was a wonderful comradeship.

We got caught in the raids a lot.  I was on the 25 route when the Bank (3) was being bombed and when St Paul’s went.  It was nothing for people to come on your bus with a roll of lino.  You’d ask them if they were bringing the piano next – probably all they’d got left of their home.  One time, coming down from Aldgate, someone got on the bus and said “I wish you’d hurry up.”  I said “What’s the trouble?”  “There’s a bomb fallen, at Odessa Road”.  That’s where my family lived!  You can imagine how I felt.  When the bus got to the top of Norwich Road I said to all the passengers on the bus “Do you think you can all see yourselves off?”  “Yes”, they said, and I said to my driver “I’m going home”.  “Alright”, he said, “give us the money”, and he took the money, and I got off at Norwich Road and ran like mad, but it was on the corner of Wellington Road that had got it, the pre-fab pub had gone, not Odessa Road – but we did got bombed another time, and I almost got killed.

During a raid my driver and I had a system, ‘cos he liked to get home to his family, and I liked to get home.  The thing was that during a raid, if you stopped your bus, you had to stay there, so you couldn’t get home.  But if you could do your journey, which was your quota for the day, and get back to the depot and pay your money in, you could get home.  So my driver and I never took shelter.  We used to carry on right through it.  I would go upstairs in the bus and if I banged loud with one foot it meant that they were in front of us, and he had to slow down a bit as I could see the flak.  But if I banged twice, he’d got to get a move on because I could see it was behind us.

One time we was belting like mad along the Whitechapel Road – we had a few passengers on board – and a police car came along – Clang! Clang! Clang!.  He pulled us up at the side of the road.  The copper says to Jack and I “I like your guts, you two, but if anybody was to run out into the road they wouldn’t stand an earthly.”

They had bus inspectors during the war and they was as stringent as anything, but as I say, the comradeship on the buses was wonderful during the war, but not after, we was taking the men’s jobs.  It changed.  I left in 1947.  I was getting married.

Winscombe, Somerset Teenager  I took what was called “School Certificate”, and I got 8 credits.  It was then a question of what I was going to do.  There was an advertisement in the paper wanting girls to do radio location in the ATS.  That was radar – radar location.  My parents thought that would be quite a good career for me.  I went to Axbridge to volunteer.  My Mother came with me.  It got me away from the village.  The war gave a lot of women opportunities they’d never had before – to join up and get away from service. For instance, when I went to Honiton for my training another woman came with me who had joined up at the same time.  She had been a parlour maid in a doctor’s house.  She was ten years older than me.  I was seventeen and a half.  I was at the minimum age.

My first night in the ATS was at Honiton, Devon.  It was October.  I remember the beautiful beech trees.  I was terribly cold because I wasn’t experienced with putting our blankets out and making our beds.  But I wasn’t a bit homesick.  At Honiton they gave me aptitude tests and instead of radio location I was put into height finding and plotting, for guns.   I had my medical at Taunton.  It was all square bashing at Honition.  I enjoyed drilling.  Because I was tall I used to be one of the markers.  I enjoyed marching, and we had a band.  It was lovely.  I enjoyed that part of it.  Then we were sent to Reading, to Arborfield and then up to Scotland, to Wigtownshire.  On the coast.  Really remote.  We were under canvas.  It was a firing range.  That wasn’t very nice, actually.

Her Younger Sister  I left school at 14 and I started work in my parent’s shop – it was a newsagents and stationers.  I hated it.  I wanted to stay on at school.   In fact,  I went and took an exam but I didn’t pass it, and because the war had started, the school said they couldn’t be bothered with someone who was a bit behind.  So they wouldn’t let me stay on.   I was very bitter and twisted about that because I didn’t want to go in the shop.  So then I just longed to to go into the services.  I thought how lucky my sister was, to go into the ATS.  Mind you, I don’t think some of them had a very good time of it.  But at that age – 14, you imagine yourself at 14 – the thought of it seemed exciting. And then in 1944 I was called up just after my Father died.  I saw it as my chance to leave the shop.  My Father had died three days after D Day.  I was so thrilled when I was called up because my Father had promised that when I was 18 I could go.  Because Enid had gone in at seventeen and a half you had to have parent’s consent, but because of my Father’s death, they deferred me.  But I didn’t want to be deferred.  I wanted to be a despatch rider on a motorbike!  That’s all I dreamt about!

A lot of women were able to get out of war work by pretending they were ill

London Girl  I’d been evacuated but I came home and started work at 15.  I went into various office jobs.  In one I was very unhappy and I had to fight them to get out of it.  You couldn’t just leave your job like that.  You had to go before a Tribunal.  You had to have a very good reason for leaving your job.  In this particular office the boss was a horrible swine.  I managed to win the case.  The next job I went to I wanted to get out of, so I pretended I had TB.  My sister phoned up.  I think a lot of women were able to get out of war work by pretending they were ill.  Getting a doctor’s note.  There was a certain amount of strictness, though.  My sister had impetigo – impetigo was rampant during the war.  She had to come home, and the police came knocking because she had exceeded her time, her doctor’s certificate.

Liverpool Teenager  I worked at Littlewoods.  We were making what we called sleeves – wind sleeves for aerodromes.  There was hundreds of sewing machines going.  You couldn’t hear nothing.  The hours were staggered.  You’d do four nights on, two nights off, four nights on.  Sometimes you got two wage packets in the one week.  That was smashing when it fell like that.  But after a while I couldn’t stick it any longer.  When I wanted to leave Littlewoods I had to go before a Tribunal.  The Tribunal was in Lece Street.  I was frightened about going before them.  The thought of facing them made me ill.  There was a couple of women and a few men behind a big table.  I was on me own.  Nobody else was allowed in.  I was shaking – more with fright than sickness.

I told them I couldn’t stick it, that I wasn’t well.  They said “We don’t think you could stick any work.”  But I was really ill, with lack of sleep and food was horrible to get.  They said under the circumstances I was only fit for light work.  Ooh, was I glad!  I run down them steps.

I went to work for Rootes, in their aircraft factory.  I think they were making De Havilland Mosquitos.  To be quite truthful, I don’t remember doing anything there.  The hardest job I had was hiding away from the bosses.  I was paid for nothing.  I can picture to this day sitting under one of these aeroplanes.  I didn’t care if they gave me the sack, but they wouldn’t let me go.  I didn’t want the job.  In the end they said the job was too heavy!  A friend of mine worked on the railway, and that was what I was after.  We were on about £5 or £6 at Rootes and I went onto twenty-four bob!  It was no cop job, but you had a good laff.

We emptied all the fruit trains.  Well, you never went short.  The things that went on, it was laughable

I got up at 4 o’ clock in the morning.  There were no buses.  I walked.  I lived in Lodge Lane.  That was about two and a half miles every morning.  I was at Liverpool Central.  They were strict about time-keeping, but if you were late you could always dodge in.  It wasn’t like it is now – then, jobs were ten a penny, and where would you get anyone to get up at four in the morning for twenty four bob?  The foreman was always standing there when you came in.  You had to clock in.  He used to stutter and before he could get what he was going to tell you, to tell us off, we’d be half way down the platform.

I remember falling asleep standing up one day, on the railway.  I was on parcels.  The man would be throwing parcels to me, and you had to put them in a different department in the container for the different towns.  I could hear someone shouting these names out and all of a sudden someone was shouting “Dizzy!”, and that was me!  They used to call me Dizzy.  I was asleep standing up!

We used to empty all the fruit trains, first thing.  Well, you never went short.  The things that went on, it was laughable.  There was one women worked with us – Janie – she was deaf.  In the summer maybe strawberries came in.  We couldn’t afford strawberries – in fact you couldn’t get them.  Or tomatoes would come in, and they were so dear.  The foreman in charge of the women used to watch us – in fact, he could search us if he wanted to.  But Janie was cute.  We all used to take our coats to work, but she used to carry hers around with her.  We weren’t allowed to have pockets, but she used to tie a piece of string ’round the sleeves of her coat and she’d stuff them with all kinds – tomatoes – oh, everything.  She’d throw her coat over her arm and carry them out.

There was one time she put tomatoes down her chest.  She didn’t have her coat with her.  And the railway policeman, Bill Hughes, he wasn’t a bad feller, he had his job to do, he went over to her and put his arms around her waist and worked up to her chest and he squeezed her!   He came up to us afterwards and said he knew she had tomatoes.  He said “It was the only way I could get my own back.”

There was never any fear of me going into the forces as working on the railway was considered essential work.  I wouldn’t have gone in the forces – I’d have emigrated to Ireland before I’d have gone in.  And I wouldn’t have gone on them munitions.  The danger of it.

The yellow stuff was dangerous.  There was a few explosions.  Not very big ones.  It was when they were filling shells, sometimes they blew up

Lancashire Woman  I volunteered for the ROF at Chorley  (3).  I volunteered to get some money.  It was about the middle of the war.  It was after I came to live in Leyland.  I got friendly with some girls that worked there and I went along for a job.  They had two sets of people.  One what they called ROF, and the other was CIA.  That was inspecting the shells and detonators.  I was in the CIA.

We didn’t have no training, except somebody said “You do this” and that was it.  You were left to it, on your own.  I was on some detonators that were all yeller.  They were little things. The ROF filled these detonators, and they went into a box and you had to check ’em.  You had to see they was level on the top and smooth and if they weren’t you had to reject them.  The yeller stuff was dangerous.  It made them all yeller.  A lot of people, you could tell where they worked – they just looked like Chinese.  Yeller faces.  It’s like a sulphur looking colour, this powder.  There was a few explosions.  Not very big ones.  It was when they were filling these shells, sometimes they blew up.  I don’t think anybody got killed while I was there.  I was there twelve months.

They did have accidents but people didn’t bother about the danger.  You were going to work and earning some money.  It was pretty clean in general.  They give you overalls and when you go in you’re to take everything off – all your outdoor clothes, shoes.  I think it was because you weren’t to take dirt in.  They used to have a clean side and a dirty side.  You’d take your things off at that side and put them all there and then you’d stand over a barrier and they’d put all your working clothes on there.

They did nights.  It was more money on nights.  About £12 I got for nights.  We used to think it was a lot of money to have £12!  On nights they used to say there was a lot of carrying on with blokes, with girls.  There was a lot of carrying on at Exton.  They’d say “Oh, you work at Exton?” and give you the eye.  A lot of men and women worked there because of the money.  People travelled from everywhere to work there – Blackpool, Liverpool, Manchester.  There were special buses for some people.  We used to have to fly for these buses to catch them at night, going home.  There used to be thousands going out at night.  They used to search us.  Pick odd ones out and search them.

You had to clock in when you went in.  There were thousands of cards.  You got peoplke clocking other people in.  And they used to pick you out and search you when you were going in, to see if you’d got anything in your bag.  You couldn’t take cigarettes or matches in.  You weren’t supposed to.  But they used to.  They wangled it some way.  The place was in sections and you had to know which was yours.  When you got inside the factory you had to walk to your section, and sometimes it was a long way.  Perhaps a couple of miles. It was a really big place.

On another section, on another side, it was all danger.  They got more money on that side.  I worked there a bit.  Somebody would say to you “You’re on that section today.”  It was doing the same work, but it was more dangerous powder.  It was black.  You were in little rooms and there were machines all around and stools.  They used to fill the detonators with this black stuff, and if it was too full they used to rub it down a bit.  They weren’t supposed to, ‘cos that’s dangerous, rubbing that.  There was a lot of stuff wasted, not done right.  The folk weren’t bothered.  There used to be tension sometimes.  These ROF didn’t like CIA’s.  Know what I mean?  They were rejecting their work all the time.

There was a dark girl working there, a coloured girl.  She was funny.  We used to have some fun with her!  When we were on nights she never used to work.  She was asleep over a machine all the time.  She did used to swear as well!  We all used to sing together.  They had a canteen and they used to have like Worker’s Playtime people there.  They had a big urn where you took your pint cup and brewed yourself some tea.

I left before the war ended.   I can’t remember why I left, unless it was home duties. Looking after a kid. You can’t do it the same on nights, can you?  I wasn’t working before the war.  I never went out to work.  That was the first time I was working.  It was a bit strange, to go out to work and to go into a factory.  You do feel as if you’ve earnt a bit of something.  You don’t feel so dependent for your money.  I bought a new carpet while I was earning that money.

I joined the Land Army to get away from home life.  The opportunity was there so I took it

Yorkshire Girl   My Dad played hell with me – he’s dead and gone now – but I went in service and I had no life at all.  He took every bloody penny off me I earned.  I was more or less grafting for nothing.  He used to say to this here lady where I was in service (this was in Thornton, Yorkshire) – he used to say “Take so much out for her clothes, and that’s it.” No pocket money.  What good was that?  Having to go to Church with these flaming high society people.  Every other Sunday I got off, and you either had all morning off and go to Church in the evening, or we had morning Church service and the evening off.  Bloody hell.  We grafted there for what?  Nothing.  Not much bloody fun it was – black leading grates and one thing and another.  It was living in there.  And then he got me a job in a pub, right on top, and he got my bike and used it, and I had to bus it.  And when he came in pub and had a few drinks he carried on.

I was so scared of going home and getting a belting I used to have a spare key for me Dad’s allotment and I’ve slept in there with the chickens, on the haystack – anywhere, till I found out he’d gone out.  One morning I thought he’d gone out and I crawled through the pantry window.  Oh didn’t he leather me.  He wouldn’t just leather you, he’d tie you to a damn post and leather you.  So I got my name down for Land Army, and that was it.  I was away.

I worked near our kid where she was ATSing at Seaton. (4)   To look at you, you looked like bloody scouts.  You had one of these flaming big hats on and breaches and boots.  I’d helped my Dad on his allotments but I’d never done farm work before.  They had cattle and pigs.  We did a bit of all sorts.  I had to feed the chickens.  I was in digs, in nissen huts.  The girls were from all over.

I thought the countryside was the idyllic scene.  I painted pretty little farmyards.  They used to get stuck up on the walls in the art room

Glasgow Teenager  I decided to join the Land Army and thereupon my dream was utterly shattered.  I went to their recruiting office, which if I remember rightly was in Hope Street.  I’d been working as a tracer in a draughtsman’s office and I saw this as my chance to get away.

The Land Army sent me to the ———– at Dumbarton, about two miles from where I lived.  They had an accredited herd.  It was a beautifully run herd.  But do you know why they engaged me?  His wife was expecting a second child and they wanted me to cook, scrub the floor and do everything.  She had a nurse who had been her childhood nurse, whom she’d had for the first child, and she was going to have her for the second child.  This nurse was an old harridan.  She expected all her orders to be carried out.  I beefed.  I told them I wasn’t going to do it.  I’d signed on for three years of agricultural work and I was shoved into the farm as a domestic.  I got the boat from there. I was sent to ———, which was a hand-milking farm.

It was difficult because there again they couldn’t understand that I didn’t want to do domestic work.  I wanted to learn about work on a farm.  Another girl working there was luckier than me.  She was a great big girl and she made a boyfriend of the First Ploughman, and that was one up for her because she learnt a lot from this wee guy.  It was the strangest business – this huge big girl and this tiny wee ploughman.  She used to sit him on her knee, and look after him like a baby.  She learnt a lot because of this wee guy.  She learnt more than I did.

She learnt milking.  By the time I had gone into a byre and made several cows dry I had got the message that there was no point in me remaining in that part of the Land Army.  I used to get the job of herding the cows up to the big park, at the back of the estate.  There were two two gates.  One led to the estate and the huge house, and the other led to the cows park at the back.  The cows always knew which way to go.  The two gates were always open and they rarely took the wrong road.  But when they were with me they kicked their hind legs up and the tails went waving up and they all went skipping through the wrong gate, up to the big house.

I also had to look after the farmer’s wife’s daughter.  I had all the baby-sitting for this bleeding child, greeting all the time.  I was living in at the farm.  It was rough.  They had all the chickens in the kitchen, practically.  A lot of the farms were employing bodachs.  And there was one bodach at ——– called Jimmy.  He was in love with a tattie howker called Nora.  She came from Maryhill.  In a way it wasn’t too bad.  Ma —– would look after that guy.  He was banned to a wee cubbyhole at the back, but Jimmy didnae mind that.  They’ve got a great conceit of  themselves, these blokes who aren’t the full shilling.  As far as he was concerned he was as good as Wattie —–, the farmer.  And yet he was quite prepared to accept no wage, because as far as I know he didnae get any.  He got his grub and he was given an old bike with an old dynamo, and he thought of this dynamo morning, noon and night.  And his pipe I can see him yet – with his pipe.  Ma ——- would sometimes darn his socks for him.  Wattie ——- was horrible to him.  Apart from that, they had a government tractor man that used to come and do the ploughing.

I said I didnae want to hoe and that was the end of the matter.  He said “Right, you’re dishonourably discharged”

I complained to the Land Army people.  They knew what was happening.  They were sending girls to domestic work, but they didn’t expect to complain about it – it was wartime.  I wanted to market garden.  I said to them “Look, I’m going to leave unless I get some market garden gardening.”  They said “Alright, you can go to MacBrayne’s.”  This was a big fruit farm.  MacBrayne agreed to take me but he warned me that it would be nothing but hoeing.  And it was.  I couldn’t bear it and I had to pack it in.  I went to the Land Army office, and boy, did I catch it!   I wasn’t loyal – I signed a contract – I should keep my word – Blah, blah, blah!  I said I didnae want to hoe and that was the end of the matter.  He said “Right, you’re dishonourably discharged.”  I went back to the same draughtman’s office.

In your contract with the Land Army it said you were supposed to learn something about the land, but they never taught you anything.  You were cheap labour.  Often my money was short, but who could you complain to?  I never even got my uniform.  I was dying to wear it.  All I got was a pair of dungarees and gumboots.

Where I lived there was far more resentment about Land Army girls than ever there was about evacuees

Somerset Levels Girl   Like the evacuees, they were accused of bringing lice to the village.  They were considered tarty.  I’ve got two brothers and I can hear my Mother now.  I was a lot younger than my brothers.  They were in their late teens.  My Mother used to do my hair because it was very long and in platts.  Whilst she did it she used to take her vengeance out on these Land Army girls as she platted it – really pulling my hair.  “Bloody Land Army girls.”  Tug, tug.  “I told —– and —– to keep away from them.”  Both brothers got girls pregnant.  She was really tugging my hair.

The Land Army girls were down at Steanbow (5), which is still a farm. It was a great motorbike age and after work they used to fly down there on their motorbikes and go to Wells pictures and all over the place.  Whereas before they had a selection of village girls which was very limited, they now had a vast harem of girls from as far away as Newcastle, which was a foreign land to them.  Because at that time there wasn’t the pill and what have you, you automatically married them.

Somerset Farmer  The first Land Army girl we had, she was a lovely girl in every way, but she was absolutely hopeless when it came to working on a farm.  She came from London.  She came down to Steanbow Training Farm because she was afraid she would have to go to Manchester and for some reason all these Land Army girls had a horror of going to Manchester. (6)  

This girl’s parents was not very practical because the girl didn’t know the way to boil a kettle to make a cup of tea, or to boil an egg.  She couldn’t fry a rasher of bacon – she didn’t know the way to do anything.

We were married, my husband and I, the beginning of 1940.  We had a local boy, to start off with, but he decided to join up.  He wanted to get married, and if he got married, and if he got married his wife got an allowance – a separation allowance, and she could save that until such times as he came out of the war.  So then we had the Land Army girl.  She was eighteen or nineteen.  She was hopeless.  She couldn’t tie a cow up.  She was afraid.  In the cow stall you had chains.  You had to take a chain off a nail, you put your arm underneath her neck and slip it through to tie it.  She wouldn’t do that.  She was afraid the cow was going to swing her head and hit her with its horns.  She was afraid to sit under a cow and milk it.  She was terrified she was going to get kicked, though you put a span on its’ legs so it couldn’t kick very well.  If a cow did move she’d run and fling her arms all around my  husband’s neck.  “Mr Boyce!  Mr Boyce!  Help me!  Save me!  Save me!”  Absolutely terrified.  No good at anything.  You couldn’t send her out with a horse to chain-harrow a field.  She couldn’t do anything so we notified Steanbow and they had her back and we had a second Land Army girl.

She came from Greenwich.  She had the same tale – she joined the Land Army because she didn’t want to go to Manchester.  She was a good girl for farm work.  She took to it.  She could do milking, though she didn’t like a kicking cow.  If my husband was busy mowing and I had to take his part in the cow stall, any cow that was difficult to milk, or any cow like a heifer that hadn’t been broken in, or you were breaking in, that was my lot to milk. But even so, she was a good girl.  You could send her out with the horse.  With the Land Army girls you had to pay them a regulation wage, and there was an amount fixed how much you could deduct for board and how much you had to pay for overtime.

1.  Britain (excluding Northern Ireland) was the first country to conscript women into the services and key wartime industries when the National Service (N0 2) Act became law, 18 December, 1941.  By July 1943 the Act was extended to cover all women between the ages of 19 and up to 51.

2.   It was not until 1974 that London Transport allowed women to drive a bus.  This despite that women drove military and ambulance vehicles during the war, and flew planes.

3.  Royal Ordnance Factory.

4.  Devon.

5.  Pilton, near Shepton Mallet.

6.  Metropolitan Vickers (Spitfires) and A.V.Roe (Lancasters) were engaged on aircraft  production in the Manchester area.  One reason for extending the age of conscripted women up to 51 was to release younger women for aircraft production, where there was a chronic shortage of workers.  The Royal Ordnance Factory at Chorley was also 19 miles from Manchester.

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