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The Women’s Land Army in Torrington

The Women’s Land Army was formed in 1917 during the First World War.  In June 1939, with the threat of war looming again, the organisation was re-formed so that by September 1939, when the call came, 1,000 volunteers could immediately be sent into employment, many of them already trained.

Thelma was sent to Torrington in February 1944 to join the Land Army.  She was twenty years old and came from London where she had seen the first doodlebugs (flying bombs).  She arrived by train and, as she emerged from the station with her luggage, it was raining and she looked up the long blank hill in dismay.  ‘Where on earth have I come to?’ she wondered.  As she walked into the town she didn’t see a young man standing outside Pope’s garage (where Lidl is now) but he noticed her and thought to himself, ‘She’s the one for me.’  As it turned out, he and Thelma got to know each other and, eventually, they married and had two children.

Thelma stayed with nine other girls in a hostel in New Street opposite the Royal Exchange pub, while some of the girls were billeted in private houses.  They came from various parts of the country and were of different ages and backgrounds.  Ann Spenceley was the oldest at thirty-two and was in charge of the canteen.  Ann de Haviland was a member of the well-known aircraft family and was one of the drivers.

The girls did ‘gang work’ in a group of eighteen and cleared moors and planted them with potatoes or wheat.  They did four months forestry work at Okehampton, lopping off branches, and lived in freezing cold Nissen huts at Moretonhampstead.  At other times they would do re-stooking work, picking up sheaves and leaning them against each other in stooks of eight to finish drying off.  Walking all day on the stubble was hard work but the feeling of camaraderie between the girls kept them going.  They went down to Sidmouth and Countesswear to dismantle barbed wire coils and wind the barbed wire around ‘grannies’ (granary sticks).   

They worked with gangs of boys and conscientious objectors who were billeted down near South Drive.  They also worked with Italian POWs from the hutments by the senior school, who were ‘lovely’ and courteous, and with German POWs who were billeted out of town and driven to work by lorry.  They were good workers but, unlike the Italians, weren’t allowed to talk to anyone.

Every day the girls had spam, jam or cheese in their sandwiches.  Rationing wasn’t as hard in Torrington as in London and, although food was restricted, no-one went hungry.  Land girls were allowed 12 oz of cheese a week whereas it was 2 oz for other people.  Chickens were kept to supply eggs and milk was available from local farms, although no-one was allowed to make cream.

The only entertainment in town was the Saturday night dance at the drill hall (now the Plough) and the pubs.  The Setting Sun at 24 Cornmarket Street was a favourite.

Three thousand Americans came to Torrington, virtually doubling the population at the time, and they were good fun.  They had lots of food and supplies from their quartermaster’s stores which seemed to stock just about everything.  They were billeted at Porch House and at number 88 New Street where a ‘Red Indian’ could be seen sitting in his window gazing out and smoking a pipe.  The land girls cried when the Americans departed and later wondered if they had been involved in the disastrous operation at Slapton Sands which happened soon after they left Torrington.

I asked Thelma how she felt, looking back, about her time as a land girl.  She said it had been ‘bloomin’ hard work’ but they all liked the life, even though they were often muddy, soaked or sunburnt.  It had been the first time away from home for all of them which was wonderful!

The Women’s Land Army was disbanded in 1950.