During the Second World War, around 80,000 girls signed up for the Women’s Land Army to help with the demanding, manual work that was necessary to help keep Britain and the British people afloat. A good number of these Land Army members would have found themselves based in rural areas of Devon.


During WWI in 1917, Sylvia Calmady-Hamlyn, whose family owned a large estate on the edge of Dartmoor, established the first of it’s kind women-only working farm at Great Bidlake Farm near Bridestowe, Okehampton. The success of this farm silenced many of the protests against women as farm labourers in Devon, and paved the way for many more female farm and timber workers in WWII, when demand for labour was even higher.


THE land girls

In June 1939 the government reinstated The Women’s Land Army in response to the threat of a second world war and the requirement for food to be grown within Britain. The Land Army had originally been set up in 1915, during World War I but was disbanded when the male troops returned from the war and were able to take back their agricultural roles.

A common misconception regarding the need for Land Girls is that they were replacing the men who had gone off to fight, however this wasn’t usually the case.

“Before the war, Britain had imported about 60% of all the food eaten in the country, and so Land Girls were needed, not because either the farm men or the farmers were called up, they were reserved occupations, but they needed more labour…” – Mona McLeod, interviewed by the BBC in 2017.

The Land Girls would do the same work as the men had done; milking the cows, mucking out the animals, bringing in the harvest and driving the tractors.


Land girls carrying bundles of straw in 1941 (Credit: Maeers/Getty Images)


Despite what you may imagine, the Land Girls were usually young women who had been billeted in from cities all over the UK. They would sign up for the WLA under the understanding that they would need to leave home, and in most cases this was seen as a form of evacuation with a means of getting them out of areas in danger of bombing. Girls from rural areas were less likely to be accepted into the Land Army or Timber Corps as they were already based in a place considered to be safe and where they were likely to be working on their family farms. This led to some division between the local village girls or farmers’ wives and daughters and the WLA members who had often come from grammar school education or work as a secretary in a town or city.

Private farms would take on a member of the Women’s Land Army to help them with their general labour, and farms all over Dartmoor and Devon would have had one, sometimes two, young women staying with them.

In most cases, only one girl would be at a farm at a time and so it could be a lonely existence, particularly on some of Devon’s most rural farms. Often too, the local girls would see the Land Girls as snobbish or promiscuous and they would be treated unfairly if they went into the villages.

Culford, 1943 (Credit: The History Press/BNPS)

Would you like to find out more about the Lumberjills in general? Take a look at Joanna Foat’s website, affiliated with her book Lumberjills, Britain’s Forgotten Army:


Alongside the demands on agriculture and an increase in food growth, the government recognised that they needed to increase the number of forestry workers to keep up with the timber demands required for the war effort. In 1939, the Control Labour Officer wrote up a list of sources for new workers to replace tor support the farm workers where required, and members of the Women’s Land Army were added to the list. In December of that year, the Timber Production Department found that they were desperately short of forestry workers, and although Canadian allies arrived to help, there was also a call for members of the Women’s Land Army to join them in the forests.

For three years, it was up to the Women’s Land Army to delegate some of their number to forestry work, but with the desperate need to produce more home-grown timber and a shortage in labour, 1942 saw the official formation of the Women’s Timber Corps, and the affectionate nickname, ‘Lumberjills’ was coined.

By 1943 more than 12,000 members of the WTC were recorded throughout the UK, with some of them working locally to the South West in Holsworthy and Kingston in Devon, Launceston and Lanhydrock in Cornwall and in Dulverton on Exmoor.

Reluctancy in Devon to Accept women as labourers

At the start of WWII there were a lot of objections to welcoming the Land Army into the worlds of farm and forestry labour. Firstly, many people believed that women would only be able to do a small percentage of the work that a man could do and that the effort in training them would be wasted as they wouldn’t last five minutes. But some members of the public had also formed an unfounded reputation about members of the WLA and their conduct, with many believing that they could behave promiscuously and would stay out late and therefore be unreliable for work.

The article to the right, published in the Western Morning News on January 4th 1940 tells of the Newton Abbott Farmers’ Union annual meeting during which the idea of welcoming the WLA onto Devon farms was discussed:

Discussing alternative sources of labour for the farming industry, Mr. W. B. Hallett. vice-chairman of Devon Farmers’ Union, observed: “There is also the Women’s Land Army.” Laughter greeted his remark. Mr. F. J. Marshall. Ashburton, interposing Don’t mention it.” to which Mr. Hallett riposted: “We cannot help admiring the splendid spirit of these girls in offering their services.” “The trouble is they are not home early enough in the morning to get on with the job,” said Mr. S. Courtier, Ilsington. Mr. Hallett told him it was not intended they should take the place of skilled men. “There is no doubt they can be of much assistance to a farmer, and I sincerely hope you will avail yourselves of their help when you are short of labour. We made use of women in the last war, and there is no reason we should not do so again.” Mr. Marshall declared it was a “crying shame” there should be a Women’s Land Army while men on the dole were idling on street corners.


Baronness Denman, known often as ‘Trudie’, was a British women’s activist who had been heavily involved in the promotion of women’s suffrage in the years prior to the wars.

Lady Denman played an instrumental role in setting up the Women’s Land Army during WWI and had also become head of the Women’s Institute Sub-Committee of the Agricultural Organisation Society in 1917. So when conversations were had in 1938 regarding the establishment of a women’s branch of the Ministry of Agriculture, she was the obvious choice to take the lead.

With resistance coming from many members of the agricultural and governmental communities, Trudie had to fight hard and keep pushing for the Women’s Land Army to become a viable solution to Britain’s lack of resources. Fortunately, a threat of resignation in 1939 was taken seriously by the Ministry and Lady Denman was allowed to officially set up a Land Army Headquarters, with members of the Women’s Institute at the helm.


turning heads in uniform

For many of the nation, one of the most shocking things about young women taking up employment in agriculture and forestry was the clothing that they were required to wear. Before this time it was unthinkable for girls to wear trousers, they would even wear skirts for horse riding and would ride side saddle. Certainly in the small rural villages and towns of Dartmoor and Devon it would have taken many residents aback to see groups of young women moving about in their ‘masculine’ Women’s Land Army uniforms.

The WLA uniform included jodhpurs, a white shirt, red tie, green wool jumper and fawn coloured trilby hat. Meanwhile, the Women’s Timber Corps wore a very similar outfit but often with dungarees in place of the jodhpurs and a prized green beret rather than the trilby.

Badges were also given to the women to be sewn or pinned on to their uniform, for the WLA these badges showed an image of the crown with a sheath of wheat, while the WTC showed two axes crossed over one another.