From the records held at the Norfolk Record Office.
Before the First World War food production was largely unregulated. However Germany’s submarine warfare resulted in an increasing loss of food imports and food shortages became commonplace from 1915.
These shortages led to the creation of the War Agricultural Executive Committees. These were established in Autumn 1915 by the 2nd Earl of Selborne in collaboration with the Board of Agriculture and County Councils and backed by the government. The committees were made up of those with local knowledge and expertise. Their objectives were to increase food production in each county and to manage the country’s limited wartime agricultural resources.
The Norfolk War Agricultural Committee was chaired by the Right Honorable Sir Ailwyn E Fellowes. There are no records of their early meetings but the minute book for 1917 gives some insight into the wide range of work undertaken which was all linked to the land. This included the cultivation of cottage gardens for food production, the increased use of mechanization on farms, the use of prisoners of war and reviewing mustard seed production. (C/C 10/15).
Under the umbrella of the county committees, Women’s War Agricultural Committees (WWAC) were set up. With many agricultural workers away on active service, the WWAC were involved in the placement and welfare of women to work on a range of tasks linked to food production.
Few records remain of the WWAC. However the Norfolk Record Office is fortunate to have records relating to the WWAC and the women of Brampton and how they played their part in the war. (PD 445/34, PD 445/35 and PD 445/36).
The Norfolk County Committee produced a document setting out its aims to recruit women for war work and specifically for work in agriculture. The Committee wanted to raise awareness in women of the need for them to work, to increase the number of women workers from each parish and to organize them, to educate women and girls in dairy work, gardening, light farm work, fruit farming, fruit picking, poultry farming etc. and to economise in the home.
Norfolk County Committee’s aims. Norfolk Record Office PD 445/34
The Norfolk WWAC worked with each parish in the county. It was chaired by the Hon Lady Fellowes and Miss Frances W Burton and Mrs Parish were joint honorary secretaries. Each parish or group of parishes would have a representative who was required to keep a register of women age 16 to 60 who would be willing to work in agriculture, gardening, dairy or other work either locally or in other parts of England.
Brampton’s register lists nine women willing to volunteer. Their ages ranged from 19 to 50. The women indicated a preference for the type of work they would prefer, what experience they already had and how many days a week they could commit. Seven offered to work in agriculture, one offered gardening and one offered work as a grocer’s assistant which was work she was already doing. All of the women were prepared to commit a large proportion of their week to the work ranging from four to six days.
Brampton’s Register. Norfolk Record Office, PD 445/34. The register allowed for additional comments such as expressing a preference for school hours.
In March 1916 the Board of Agriculture decided to issue an armlet of green baize bearing a red crown to all women who had registered their willingness to work on the land and who had worked at least 30 days. Miss Frances Burton, joint honorary secretary of the Norfolk WWAC, wrote to each parish in August 1916. In her letter she requests the total number of women who have registered, the total number who have worked or continue to work whether registered or not and the number who have earned their armlets.
Letter from Frances Burton sent to each parish representative. Norfolk Record Office, PD 445/34
Armlet awarded after 30 hours of service. Norfolk Record Office, PD 445/36
Those receiving armlets in Brampton in 1916 were Mrs E Bircham, Mrs Mack, Mrs Watts, Edith Watts, Edith Mack, Mrs J Bircham, Alice Bircham, Mrs J Helsdon, Mrs Wright and Mrs George Spink (junior).
As the war continued, the need for women trained in specific skills was identified. In December 1916 Miss Frances Burton wrote again to parish representatives to inform them that Norfolk Education Committee were prepared to fund girls and women to attend Chelmsford Agricultural College for a 4 week course in milking etc. However Norfolk Education Committee needed at least 12 recruits for the course to be viable and only on condition that the women would return to work in Norfolk. Burton’s letter asked the parish representative for any nominations. “I should be very glad if you could find out if there are any girls – suitable – in your district. . . . Please tell your secretaries to choose suitable girls only”.
In February 1917, in order to maintain an accurate picture of women agricultural workers, Burton wrote to each parish asking for the names of possible volunteers and for a revision of the village registers. She instructed each parish to cross off names “of those who did not keep their promises to work when work was offered them. . . . Should sufficient local women’s labour not be available in your village, would you please find out from the farmers if they would be willing to employ whole-time women imported from elsewhere. In some districts the women working on the land have expressed a desire that the winter school time hours should be continued through the summer. Would you be very kind and find out if they have any wish for this in your village; if the wish was general all over Norfolk, we could bring the matter before the Education Committee; but we only want to do so, if the Mothers really wish for it”. PD 445/34
In January 1917 the Women’s Land Army was formed by Dame Meriel Talbot on behalf of the British Government. It was a civilian organization run and staffed by women as part of the National Service Scheme and it formalized the work that women had already been doing.
Keeping the home nation fed throughout the war years was of critical importance. As with many other occupations where women stepped into roles which had traditionally only previously been done by men, it contributed towards a growing awareness of women in the workplace. The women of Brampton rose to the occasion as did countless others in parishes all over the country.
Certificate awarded to female agricultural workers. Norfolk Record Office, PD 445/35
Complied by Daryl Long, NRO Research Blogger.