Forgotten army remembered at Gressenhall museum
A new gallery celebrating the work of Norfolk's 'Land Girls and Lumber Jills' during the two world wars has been opened at a museum in Gressenhall.
When farming men were called to fight on foreign fields, a female workforce rolled up their sleeves to feed wartime Britain.
Although their efforts were overlooked for many years, they won the most important battle on the home front – to stop the country from starving.
Now the toils of the 'forgotten army' of Norfolk's Land Girls and Lumber Jills have been celebrated with a new exhibit at a museum near Dereham.
The gallery, which pays tribute to the work of the Women's Land Army and Timber Corps during the two world wars, was formally launched at Gressenhall Farm and Workhouse yesterday.
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About 30 proud land army veterans were invited to share tea and scones – including two of the women whose stories are featured among the displays of vintage photographs, farm tools and uniforms.
It was a chance to reminisce about days spent providing for an embattled nation whose survival depended on self-sufficiency, as U-Boat onslaughts against merchant convoys prevented supplies arriving from overseas.
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Kay Barnard, 86, joined against the will of her father in 1943. She left her home in Yorkshire and made the long journey to work on a dairy farm at Fritton, near Long Stratton, looking after 56 cows.
She said: 'I arrived at half past two the next morning, with a knock on the door at half past four to get up and go milking – thrown in at the deep end!'
'They were the happiest days of my life in one sense. The hard work didn't bother me. I was responsible for what I was doing, and no-one could dictate to me.' Mrs Barnard now lives at Oulton Broad, near Lowestoft.
Mary Smith was a land girl who moved to Norfolk after the war and was instrumental in gaining recognition for her former colleagues. Her letter to North Norfolk MP Norman Lamb resulted in the production of a service badge for land army veterans in 2007.
The 89-year-old, who now lives at Lloyd Court in High Kelling, near Holt, said she was 'thrilled' with the new gallery.
'It is wonderful,' she said. 'The young people will be able to see what life was like and what we had to do. We were so close to running out of food, so we just got on with it. I am just so pleased to be here to see this. I will be dreaming about it tonight.'
Other exhibits include a voice recording of landswoman Olive Crosswell – the only surviving oral account of life in the land army during the first world war.
The Women's Land Army started during the first world war and was reformed in June 1939. At its peak in 1943, more than 80,000 women from all backgrounds classed themselves as land girls.
By 1944 there were about 1,650 land girls in Norfolk. Some worked on individual farms and spent long, hard days looking after animals, ploughing fields, digging potatoes, harvesting crops and killing rats. Others lived in hostels and moved from place to place doing 'gang work', pulling carrots, chopping sugar beet or building hedges.
Across the country, about 6,000 women also worked for the Timber Corps, felling trees and running sawmills.
The Land Girls and Lumber Jills Gallery was constructed with the help of �40,000 from the Department for Culture, Media and Sport and the Wolfson Foundation and �10,000 raised by the Friends of Gressenhall.
Friends chairman Christine Walters said: 'With the museum being at the heart of Norfolk's rural history this was such a fitting location for a gallery dedicated to recognising the contribution of these women and it has been a wonderful project to be involved with.'
?The museum is open daily from 10am to 5pm until October 30. For more information visit www.museums.norfolk.gov.uk.