Born in 1884, Gertrude Denman (neé Pearson) was the daughter of Weetman Pearson, Liberal MP and supporter of women’s suffrage, and Annie Cass, a charitable worker and active member of the Women’s Liberal Federation. Being raised in such a politically active and openly feminist home, it is little wonder that the influence of Gertrude’s parents, later the Viscount and Viscountess Cowdray, with extensive estates in West Sussex, is evident in the causes she later chose to support herself. As the founding president of the Women’s Institute, and director of the Women’s Land Army during WW2, Denman devoted her life to the rights and roles of women in society.
Following in her parents’ footsteps, she served as a member of the Executive Committee of the Women’s Liberal Federation (1908-10), and was active in supporting their refusal to support Liberal parliamentary candidates who refused to answer the Executive’s questions on suffrage. Gertrude also became involved in many charitable and community organisations, and reportedly believed that the only use for the wealth her family possessed must be to serve the greater community, a cause which she devoted much of her life to.
Marrying Liberal peer Baron Thomas Denman and becoming Lady Denman, Gertrude accompanied her husband to Australia upon his brief appointment as the 5th Governor General in 1911. On her return to England in 1914, Denman resumed her positions both in society and in philanthropic and political activism. Wasting no time, she swiftly became chair of the Smokes for Wounded Soldiers and Sailors Society (1916–17), which operated from her London home, the ballroom acting as a packing room. With Queen Alexandra as patron, the ‘SSS’ supplied free smokes to service hospitals, with volunteers meeting hospital trains and ships to supply wounded soldiers and sailors with much-needed cigarettes.
Not content to take on just the one wartime project, Lady D was at the same time Chairman of the subcommittee of the Agricultural Organization Society (AOS) which had undertaken to found Women’s Institutes in 1915. The role led to her eventual appointment, at just 33 years old, as the first Chairman of the Women’s Institute in 1917, a position to which she was re-elected annually until her voluntary retirement in 1946.
Celebrating their centenary last year, the first Institute in England was the Singleton WI in West Sussex, and in 1917 the sixteen East and West Sussex WIs united forces to form the first County Federation. With the organisation expanding and developing rapidly throughout the country, Denman was keen to retain the democratic and independent nature of the institute. She saw the movement as an opportunity for social reform, and embraced the opportunity for a female-only forum to be used for the benefit of widening women’s knowledge and for improving their standards of life.
Alongside her work with the WI, Gurtrude was a founding member and later Chairman of the National Birth Control (later Family Planning) Association, another office which she held until her death. The stated purpose of the association was “that married people may space or limit their families and thus mitigate the evils of ill health and poverty”, a belief that Lady Denman shared having witnessed in Australia the suffering caused to women by too-frequent childbirth. Her support for this controversial cause was unwavering and highlights her dedication to the most basic needs of women from all social backgrounds; she considered it to be the most difficult job she had ever undertaken.
In perhaps her most well-known role, Lady Denman, as head of the women’s branch of the Ministry of Agriculture, helped re-establish the Women’s Land Army (WLA) and became its Honorary Director in 1939. She lent her home, Balcombe Place near Haywards Heath, as its headquarters, and was actively involved in both recruitment of girls and the management of their duties.
Known as Land Girls, the women of the WLA were civilian volunteers who took on traditional ‘men’s work’ in agriculture throughout the Second World War, replacing those called up to military service. Over 200,000 young women from a wide variety of backgrounds served between 1939 and 1950, and with more than one third from London and other large cities, most had little to no experience of agricultural work. Girls were accommodated in WLA hostels, working long hours on the farms and away from family, and as such, lifelong friendships were formed between young women thrown together by war.
The official national archives of the WLA appear not to have survived, and few counties have recorded in detail the activities of the WLA. For many years, the Land Girls’ dedicated role in the social history of wartime Britain has largely gone unrecognised. However, with her connections to the county running deep, West Sussex Record Office is lucky enough to
hold several deposits of Lady Denman’s personal papers relating to the WLA. Her correspondence in particular (Acc.5926) offers us a unique look at the administration of the WLA, and the issues faced with running such an organisation. In her letters, Denman personally discusses wages and health insurance paid to Land Girls and the Women’s Timber Corps, there are notes ensuring the standards of living in WLA accommodation, including the amount of sheets and towels required at hostel accommodation, even the inadequate depth of pans (apparently it was difficult to ladle out soup from a 5 inch deep pot) at the WLA Canteens. She was clearly a hands-on Director, and the records show evidence of her dedication to everything from uniform supplies, clothes rationing, repairs and bicycles, to the gift she personally sought and gratefully received from the British War Relief Society of America to obtain two ‘rest-break houses’ in Torquay and Llandudno for Land Girls (1944). Lady Denman was well known for being a champion for the Land Girls, and waged constant battles for their proper recognition in the face of a government who ultimately refused to award them the grants, gratuities, and benefits which it accorded to women in the civil defence and armed services, forcing Lady D to resign in protest on in February 1945.
Throughout the many roles she held in women’s organisations, Denman is remembered for her unwavering determination and dedication for all women’s rights, during a period of history when social and political change was more possible than ever before. Involved at every level of the causes she championed, she used her astute administrative drive, formidable committee leadership, and intolerance of dishonesty and pretension to ensure the firm guidance of women’s social and cultural rights towards the recognition they deserved. The ongoing success of female-only organisations such as the WI, and associations concerned with the sexual wellbeing of women whose origins lie with the National Birth Control Association have much to thank the pioneering Lady D for. However her lasting legacy remains that of the Land Girls, and the success of the movement in improving employment rights for all agricultural workers, destroying stereotypes of women working physical and traditionally male roles, and offering thousands of young women the chance to claim their own space and identity in a country torn apart by war.