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Tanners Farm, Arborfield Cross

7 April 1941

7 April 1941 to 29 March 1942 Tanners Farm, Arborfield Cross

In her later years, Mary went through her diaries for these years and summarised her war-time land girl experiences. These are extracts from that later summary (we do not have the original diaries for this period).

Monday 7 April 1941
Pa was worried about my departure to country living – no electric or gas light, no upstairs water, copious cow muck and mud, but he didn’t let on to me then. I only discovered this seven decades later when letters which he wrote to mother from Henley came into my hands! …

I would be living with the cow man, his wife and son. The ‘boss’ was a bachelor with a room on another of his farms. I assured them of my satisfaction with candles and sploshing through mud in gumboots, which, very incompetently, were not supplied by the WLA although the most essential part of our kit, whether on field work or yard work or swilling down dairies.

Case and kitbag securely packed, I was delivered to Tanners Farm by car on Monday 7 April 1941. I was to be boarding in the farmhouse with the head cowman, Willie Watts, his plump little wife, and six-year-old son Ivan. I tried my luck, milking 2 cows and explored through woods and fields to Farley village.

From Town Bred, Country Nurtured:
In response to my knock, a man of about thirty appeared from the back of the house, tousle-headed, blue-eyed and pale for one of his trade. This was Willie Watts, the cow-man and my immediate boss-to-be, as my main work was with the dairy herd … He was a man of few words. Taking my bag, he led me upstairs to my room. The wallpaper was discoloured with mildew where rain had leaked in and the great grandmother of all spiders peered down from above the dressing table. A bed, a wash stand with jug and basin, a small table for the candle (there was no electricity, gas or mains water) and a hard chair and that was it. The ‘wardrobe’ was a hook on the back of the door.

As always in a strange room, I crossed first to the window to survey the scene outside and gain reassurance from the longer view. My gaze swept across wintry fields to a belt of woodland and the red rooftops of the next village. A hay stack stood boldly in the centre foreground and the naked limbs of an old tree reached in from the side …

My hours were to be long, but not hard, the general atmosphere about the yard being very easy going, with plenty of convivial chats and the chance to snatch a short nap on the hay in between jobs. I was allowed one half day a week off and the middle part of Sundays between the morning and afternoon milkings, with one Sunday afternoon a month free. Days started at 6.30am (earlier for the men) and finished around 5.30pm if we were lucky, but there was an hour and a half for breakfast and the same for lunch. This left as much time as I needed for exploring the environment, making half day trips to Reading or Maidenhead or visiting my father in Henley, the indispensable mode of travel being the push bike. My weekly stipend for these services was the standard wage of thirty six shillings (£1.80 in modern parlance), most of which went to the Watts for my keep.

Tuesday 8 April 1941
I was up at 6.30am, a bonus because my 3 workmates, Willie, Neville and Buck, started at 5am bringing the cows up through a sequence of fields from the riparian woods by the River Loddon and slipping the chains round their necks in the various milking parlours and sheds used as shippons. None of the taking turns to file into the same battery of teat cups as with modern electric milking. Ours was all hand milking at that time although simple hand-held ‘bucket units’ were beginning to appear on some dairy farms then.

Shorthorns, red, white and roan, formed the bulk of our herd (of 50-60 milkers), with a few Friesians to increase bulk, a few Jerseys and Guernseys to increase butter fat content and an Ayrshire, ‘Scotty’, for cheese making.

On my first morning I got a full bucket of milk from 4 cows, which was regarded as not at all bad for a beginner.

Wednesday 9 April 1941
On my third evening I was out with Peter and Malcolm, My Pyle’s two nephews, between school-leaving and calling-up age, having a lesson in how to drive the new little Fordson tractor. (This modern innovation and the larger Massey Harris were new to everyone at this period – the ‘hinge’ between medieval farming with horses and the mechanical monsters of today.)

[From a letter to friend Mollie] Tractors are grand fun to play with but you have to hang on awfully tight if you’re a passenger. I got on very well with the driving – the only accident was when I charged into a dung heap full speed ahead and nearly tipped the 2 boys off.

From Town Bred, Country Nurtured:
Set down in black and white, the seven-day-a-week routine of the animal husbandman, milking, feeding, scrubbing, forking and sweeping, seemed drearily samish, but it was not like that. Cows had livelier characters than council agendas. Seldom a day passed without some unforeseen happening – a chase after errant heifers, helping with a calving, tending a sick cow or makeshift measures to circumvent some minor disaster.

Some of the work was strenuous, but I was young and fit and had always enjoyed physical activities. There were pauses when I could ‘stand and stare’ and there was always something to stare at: a kitten stalking a sparrow, a puppy teasing a horse or a hovering kestrel. As I waxed fitter, I found great satisfaction in vigorous labour and never knew a sleepless night.

Monday 19 May 1941
It seems I had aspirations as a writer even then, my entry for 19th May including ‘Started writing “A Land Girls’ Diary”’. That was the day I was entrusted with the milking of nine cows, mostly new calvers, and the last of the WLA socials in Shinfield, this one focussing on ‘Soils’.

Mary was already writing poems and other interesting pieces about her life, like this one ...

Thursday 5 June 1941
… My Pyle took the three of us [Mary’s mother and father were visiting, camping out on the farm] to Shefford where he ran another farm. We walked all over it, discussing crops. Very knowledgeable and managing a lot of farms, Mr Pyle was nothing like today’s idea of a ‘gentleman farmer’. His Berkshire dialect was as broad as any I encountered anywhere, his battered trilby hat more soiled than most and his muddied tweed jacket holed at the elbows. The benign face had been shaped and coloured by wind and weather. Not so today’s landowners who ‘farm’ mainly in closed cabin tractors or on computers in the farm office. Seventy years has changed the face of farming completely, beyond all recognition. No way could the amalgamation of massive machines, mechanised harvests and computerised form filling attract me into a land army of today.

Nevertheless, as reported in my book of this period, which bears little resemblance to this day-by-day account, I was roped in this very week as a sort of ‘farm secretary’, to deal with the mounting pile of paper work accumulating from the War Agricultural Committee, necessary in wartime but so foreign to this born-and-bred ‘man of the soil’ who knew what he was about so much better than they.

From Town Bred, Country Nurtured:
[Mr Pyle] “You bin to school since I have. I can’t make head nor tail o’ all these bits o’ paper. They come at ee all ways, from the Ministry, the Advisory Service, dealers, agents, Milk Marketing Board….” his voice tailed off in despair.

He led me into his office opposite the kitchen, to a veritable scene of chaos. The table was submerged in a jumble of letters, empty enveloped, old Christmas cards, parish maps, ‘Farmers’ Weeklies’ and much more … It was a cleaning job first, then a tidying one, then down to the clerical.…

Once the back log had been levelled, I spent two half days a week indoors as ‘farm secretary’ for the nine months which remained before I left Tanners Farm….

July 1941
There was a change of scene when I got back to my new country home on Monday morning [after a weekend at home in Ealing], when I was taken to Twyford with Mr Sale to pick up a cow and calf. Next day saw Peter and Malcolm, Tip and me splashing in the River Blackwater.

Thus continued this balmy summer. Stolen evening hours of sunshine, with sundry groups of both sexes, walking, bathing, larking and visiting the cinema, were the order of the day. Jobs between the daily milkings changed – sometimes hay making in a gang, myself driving, Dolly on the hay rake or swathe turner, or cutting thistles with my sickle or hedging hook when it was too damp to continue bringing the crop in.

The two farm staffs got together for these seasonal operations. Sometimes I tossed the hay up to Tip [Madeleine Tipper, land girl on the other farm] while she loaded. At others I was cart loading or rick building and she throwing forkfuls of hay or corn sheaths up to me.

January 1942
I was offered the opportunity of staying on at Tanners as company for the cowman’s wife but concentrating on field work while the milking and yard work was shared by the five men. I had indicated that it was time I moved on to learn other facets of farm work, if that was okay by Mr Pyle.

In the event it transpired that I stay put for now, while the weather prevented most field work apart from mending fences, cutting fire wood and jobs in the barn.

Saturday 15 February 1942
… it was all spit and polish for me, Tip and Barbara, the new land girl at Rowe’s farm. We were marching in Reading in the parade for ‘Aid to Russia’ week. A Salvation Army band was in front, the military behind. Represented were all the services, trade unions, scouts, guides, post girls, woodcraft schools, bus conductresses … They mustered 27 of us land girls from the farms roundabout …
At that stage I was seriously considering going to work for the Chandlers – nice folk who all mucked in together and the work was very varied – milking, corn crops, market gardening, strawberry growing, dog breeding (retrievers), calf and pig rearing, hens, ducks, geese, turkeys and riding horses. Two land girls were urgently required.

The previous day I had arranged to join two agricultural evening classes, one on dairying (£8) and one in mixed farming (£14). I phoned Chandler but he was not very hopeful that the WLA would allow him to employ a bona fide land girl with so motley a small-holding approach. Next day he phoned to say the jobs had been taken by a free land girl and a man.

Friday 6 March 1942
On my half day, I visited the blacksmith and also Mrs May, the WLA local representative, to ask her help in finding a new job. She came up with one at Streatley, further along the Thames Valley with Mr Savoury – milking, tractor driving and all outdoor work. A gentleman farmer on spacious open downland very different from our humid part of the Thames Basin, and a good class billet. One land girl was there already. I was to be allowed a week’s holiday between jobs. I contacted Mr Savoury who seemed very pleasant, to arrange an interview on the Friday.

Friday 13 March 1942
I took the bus to Reading and train to Goring, where I was met by Mr and Mrs Savoury. Tea (brought by a maid) and a walk around the farm, which carried 300 ewes with lambs, dogs, cats, hens, chicks, calves, eleven horses and one donkey. I didn’t see the cow sheds but these housed a pedigree Guernsey herd, machine-milked. It was arranged I should start work there on 30 March, then Terry, the tractor driver, took me to the station.

I still had a fortnight to go, a week’s notice and a week’s holiday [at home in Ealing with her parents] …I was pressing on with my agricultural correspondence course, setting this up with the HQ at Bath.

Sunday 29 March 1942
I made my way back to Arborfield Cross by public transport, collecting my bike from the Bull Pub on the way back to the farm that had been my home for the last year … Mr Pyle took me by car to Warren Farm at Streatley, where I was ushered in to the Lodge for supper. There is where I was to live.