Chosen by Louise Goldsmith, Leader of West Sussex County Council
One of my most favourite pleasures is visiting our Record Office. It never fails in providing interesting snippets of what was happening in the county at any one time and I naturally feel very proud of WS Record Office.
As a local politician I am interested in the role that an authority had to play in a significant time, such as the First World War. It was a war we will always remember, not only because of the significant loss of life, but also so many changes were brought about because of that war.
One that has particular resonance with me is the significant changing role for women. Women’s work was absolutely essential and while it may have challenged some very traditional thinking, the contribution they made was valued and laid a long path to the role women now have in 2016. At the outbreak of the First World War, West Sussex was a very rural and farming county. It also grew fruit and vegetables; grapes were grown in Worthing and sold in London for instance. But as more and more men were called up there were fewer working the land to provide the food which was so badly needed.
The response, as our records show, was the establishment of the Women’s Agricultural Committee for West Sussex in 1916, chaired by Lady March, and a canvass of women in West Sussex to work on the farms; the minutes reveal what that really entailed. Later entries refer to uniforms and armbands for women as part of the newly formed Women’s Land Army, established in 1917. Not only does this minute book reflect the impact of the First World War on the changing role of women, it also emphasises the long standing importance of agriculture to West Sussex and the role that the County Council played in managing the county’s agricultural resources at a time of food shortages.
War Agricultural Committees were established in the autumn of 1915 with the aim of increasing agricultural production throughout the country. This was an essential job but a huge challenge with many farm labourers away fighting in France, a problem that intensified when conscription was introduced in March 1916. The army also requisitioned large numbers of horses, still vital for farming at that time, and the supplies needed to feed them.
The uphill struggle to feed the nation is captured in this minute book. One of the earliest entries, from 22 October 1915, refers to the shortage of horses, with a newly invented motor plough suggested as a possible solution. However, a later entry from the same year records that the manufacture of motor ploughs was not keeping pace with need as the production of munitions had to take priority.
The shortage of labour was also a constant issue. Efforts to recruit women to undertake agricultural work proved successful with 1,600 women employed on the land in West Sussex by May 1917. The War Agricultural Committee minute book records that farmers also turned to convalescent soldiers, schoolboys, and even prisoners of war to undertake necessary agricultural work. The use of prisoners of war was controversial, with an early minute from March 1916 stating that the use of German prisoners of war was forbidden. However, in January 1917 Steyning expressed a wish to employ 75 German prisoners of war on the land. Later in the year, the committee agreed that prisoners of war could be employed to break up grassland and turn it into farm land.
The involvement of women in war work, including agricultural work, was a pivotal change, allowing women to emerge from their traditional roles as wives and mothers, and move away from domestic work. They played a vital role in enabling West Sussex farms to continue producing much needed supplies. The contribution of women was recognised in 1918 when the vote was granted to propertied women over the age of 30.
The war also wrought many changes to farming in West Sussex, including the expansion of wheat, oats and dairy cattle but a decline in numbers of sheep, as grazing land was turned over to arable and pigs. It is a sad fact that the war meant that the agricultural communities of West Sussex were deprived of their next generation of farmers, as many of the men who left to fight in France never returned.
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