August 23 2014 Latest news:
Saturday, May 3, 2014
Being dispatched to Clacton-on-Sea changed the life of teenage Land Girl Vera Robinson. The place captured her heart and 70-odd years later the area is still home.
She tells Steven Russell of a magical time – and about meeting that special someone.
Vera Robinson was 17 when she and pal Rose arrived at Clacton station in the summer of 1942. They were Land Girls, reporting for duty to help the war effort by taking care of vital agricultural work usually done by men. The men, of course, had gone off to fight. The two friends – excited by this great adventure – got off the train to walk to Duchess Farm, out St Osyth way. It was a longer hike than they suspected – especially as their new shoes hadn’t really been broken in. They had to keep asking for directions. People told them “It’s just around the corner… just around the corner…”
Vera, now 89, remembers: “On the corner there was a big sign saying ‘St Osyth Dairies’, and we thought we were there… but it was only a poster!”
Eventually they reached Duchess Farm – home of nice couple Maurice and Greta Clifford and their children. The girls would be lodging next-door, at Elsie Moss’s bungalow. Over lunch, they met co-workers Charlie, Bernard and Renee, who had been there some time, and fellow new arrivals Ethne and Veronica (known as Ron).
Vera found herself in charge of sow Lassie, responsible for feeding and mucking out. Although she hadn’t had much experience of farm animals, she didn’t mind her new role. “It was a lovely life,” she says, and the needs of the animals didn’t require their human carers to get up especially early. “They had to fall in with us, like.” The sow might have been a pedigree pig with Cambridgeshire roots called Histon East Lass, or perhaps one of her offspring. Whatever her origins, Lassie would have litters that also had to be looked after.
There was plenty of other work to do, alongside their specific duties – particularly at harvest time. “We had to stook the sheaves,” says Vera, who had come from Rayleigh, near Southend, where she’d been working for the Ministry of Food – issuing ration books, coupons and so on.
The stooks were triangularish arrangements of the sheaves of straw or corn, stacked that way so they dried out.
As harvesting progressed, and the area of cover available to them shrunk, dozens of rats and mice made a desperate run for it – which made some of the people watching scream and scatter!
If you’re squeamish, or an animal-lover, look away now, for folk used to stand around with clubs or whatever else they could lay their hands on and try to lump the vermin on the head as they ran.
Ploughing was another job that had to be done, with the volunteers taught to drive an old Fordson tractor. They pulled on a rope to lower the plough at the start of a furrow, and pulled again at the end to lift it up. “I only had two shares on mine, and when you see the ploughs today it doesn’t take long to get the job done,” says Vera, who found it relatively easy to get the hang of tractor-driving. “Never learnt to drive a car, though!” she laughs. Her ploughing was pretty good, most of the time, but things did sometimes go askew. “Once, I missed a bit and there was a whole hunk of dirt not ploughed. So the next morning, when we were getting ready to go to work, the farmer said ‘You want the spade.’ Do I? ‘Yes, you missed a lot. Do it by hand this time.’ It took a while, but it learnt you.”
The centre of the social scene was The Flag Inn, still there in St Osyth, where Vera and her friends went several times a week. It was a hub for the agricultural community. Vera and her pals got lifts from farmers who drank there, and used to enjoy a sing-song and a chat. The gang also went to dances at the old village school.
These were all good breaks from the work – which, on a farm that grew crops such as oats, wheat and maize, and had its dairy herd of perhaps 25 cows, never stopped. There was brassica to be cut, for instance – to feed the cattle. “I’ve got a scar there,” says Vera, nodding at her right hand. “We were cutting the kale and had to throw it on the trailer. The bloke next to me, what he was using came out of his hand and cut my knuckles.”
The wound was tended there and then, and she didn’t go for stitches. “I probably should have done!”
There’s another story. “One day, when it was pouring with rain, Rose and I thought we wouldn’t do the kale in this, so we took shelter in the barn. The farmer came along and said ‘What do you think you are? Hot-house plants? Go out and cut it!’”
Vera had volunteered for the Land Army because she wanted to do her bit for Britain. “My brother and my sister were in the air force and I’d wanted to go in it, but you had to be 17-and-a-half to join. The Land Army was the only one that took you in at 17.”
The war over, she applied to leave in the spring of 1946. She wouldn’t leave the St Osyth area or – not quite yet – agriculture, though. She’d met (at The Flag Inn, of course!) a farmer living nearby. He had a herd of Friesians but was failing his milk hygiene tests, and asked Vera to help get things back on track. She worked there about 18 months.
While she finally left farming, Vera never left the St Osyth area – never wanted to. Having arrived on August 3, 1942 – nearly 72 years ago – she saw it become her home.
She became immersed in local life: supporting the Royal British Legion; being Brown Owl with the Girlguiding movement for 19 years; working as a cook at the school.
She was thrilled, six years ago, when a campaign won belated official recognition for the role played by The Women’s Land Army and Women’s Timber Corps. She was proud to attend a ceremony at Clacton Town Hall to receive her commemorative badge from a grateful nation.
“Everybody grumbled because the Land Army wasn’t recognised. There was quite a to-do about it,” says Vera, who did feel they were neglected a bit. “We were out in all weathers.”
How does she sum up those days of hard graft and camaraderie in the 1940s? “Smashing. Really lovely. Enjoyed it. Friendly.” The best of times? “Yes, it was.”