Diary of a Horsham Land Girl: 1939-1942

By Alice Millard, Research Assistant

Doreen Peskett (née Strange) was an avid diary keeper throughout the Second World War. So avid, in fact, that this blog focuses on her entries up to December 1941. She was one of many thousands of women who joined the Women’s Land Army and provided much needed agricultural support. The organisation was lead by Gertrude Denman of Balcombe Place, not far from where Doreen spent much of her time working on farms in and around Horsham. She also documented her experience through photographs, some of which you’ll see here.

Prior to the war, and like many young women of the time, Doreen was working in an office and studying short hand typing –

January 9th, Monday, 1939 – Dull, with fine drizzle in patches. Very mild. Got through a lot of odd filing today. In the evening I altered the noses in The Angel & Child picture, from Miss Devitt, & went to shorthand.  I took down three letters, which I have to read back for homework. 50 is the speed.”

Doreen attends to a vegetable patch. From Doreen Peskett (PH28830)

Doreen also her free spent time, again, like many other young women of the time. She was a ranger in the Girl Guides, enjoyed trips to the cinema, reading, and meeting with her friends. She was also a follower of the Women’s League of Health & Beauty and attended ‘keepfit’ classes –

January 18th, Wednesday – Rather wet again & mild… after tea went to the League of Health & Beauty Party, at 7 o/c. They were doing tap dancing when I arrived, and then all the members there did a demonstration of keepfit – like an ordinary class… We had some nice games (there were lots of people, the place was full up) … & there was a skipping exhibition & the teacher of the classes did some tapdancing.”

Yet, war was looming in the background. Brian Strange, Doreen’s younger brother, had already joined the Territorial Army in early 1939, several months prior to full conscription in September. He spent much of that year in training camps and making frequent, yet brief, visits home.

September 1st, Friday, 1939 – WAR STARTED TODAY between Germany & Poland. Its the beastliest day of any I know, – it rained nearly all day & Hitler marched into Poland & bombed ½ dozen towns early this morning, & the Army & Navy & Air Force, & Territorial’s & Reserves – every soldier in fact is called up. Brian will have gone too – goodness knows where, and heaven knows when we’ll see him again.”

Photo of Brian (taken from Doreen’s diary)

Soon after Brian was called up, Doreen also received papers regarding service in the Women’s Land Army. As autumn arrived in late 1939, another way of life had already begun –

October 7th, Saturday, 1939 – A beautiful morning, but rather dull afternoon with some heavy rain & thunder… My Land Army particulars arrived – they get a minimum of 28/- per 48hr week over 18, so the pay is better than I get at the office.”

Parade of the Women’s Land Army in Arundel, c.1940. From Doreen Peskett (PH 28858)

After several months of eagerly waiting to hear about local positions within the Land Army, news finally came –

March 18th, Monday, 1940 – I had a letter from the Land Army in the morning, asking me to call about a prospect, so I went down there after work. It’s a farm at Plummers Plain called Willis farm, & I’ve got to pass a medical exam first, then I can go there for a month’s training & continue if satisfactory afterwards. They said they’re nice people there, & Plummers Plain is not far from here either. I shall be starting a fortnight today if the medical doings is OK.”

Sussex Agricultural Express 31st May 1941

Doreen later describes the uniform that she is sent, “there are 2 shirts, a pair of breeches, a woollen pullover, 2 pairs dungarees, 3 prs. stockings, 1 pr. shoes, & 1 pr. gumboots, 1 mackintosh & 1 overall & 1 hat.” She shortly began working at Willis Farm.

March 22nd, Friday, 1940 – I’m to byke [sic] to & fro instead of staying there, at first, getting there at 8 o/c… The farm is in a glorious position, looking right across the valley to Plummers Plain church, etc & the Downs beyond, & the air must be marvellous. I shall chiefly do dairying, they said.”

Poster – Burrell Mss Acc 5926

April 13th, Saturday, 1940 – We had a good chase after a calf that got out last night, today… we got him cornered by a large clump of gorse & the wirenetted fence, & he was led struggling back to his stall. Beryl, the landgirl at Frogmore Farm, came & saw me about 2 o/c… There’s a lot of fighting going on up Norway way.  I don’t know what all this will lead to – some say a World War.  It certainly looks very bad & likely to spread.”

Two Land Girls with plough horses, c.1940, taken by Doreen Peskett. (PH 28857)

July 9th, Tuesday, 1940 – My work today before lunch was putting up the hay in the field down the road into cocks… I had a treat going back – I rode back on the mare, cloppity-clop up the 200 yds or so of road & down the cart track to the stables. It was good. Tea is to be rationed now, from yesterday (or today) & also margarine & cooking fats, etc. soon (next week, I think)…The tea is 2 oz – 3 cups per day. I only have one, so suits me.”

October 5th, Saturday, 1940 – The bombs we heard yesterday, before the plane came over, were at Pulborough, & the Vicar & some other people were killed. At Plummers Plain they’ve had incendiary bombs; a Molotov breadbasket (with 100 incendiaries in it)… 2 landmines, which fell in the hollow, valley place between Smith’s & Highgates & so didn’t harm anything.”

Despite the constant strain of life during wartime, it’s clear that Doreen was enjoying the demanding world of agricultural work. Yet, milking cows was becoming a bit monotonous so the following year she applied for a position on a more active farm –

March 15th, Saturday, 1941 – I gave in my notice to Mr Manktelow when we got our money today.  Mr. Brown agreed with me about a job on a proper farm, & didn’t seem very surprised when I told him I was going to go. I went straight down to the Land Army office & said I’d done it, & they looked up the books & found an attractive sounding job at Roffey Home Farm, Faygate, just beyond Roffey corner.”

A group of Land Army girls pose with two farm workers. Probably taken by Doreen on one of her later farm positions. (PH 28835)

March 24th, Monday, 1941 – I started at Roffey Home Farm this morning at 6.30 & milked 4 cows.  They are crossbred Shorthorns & a Fresian & several Fresian calves & bulls. After breakfast I filled all the water troughs, etc. for calves & bull & littered them… & got sugar beet in a truck for the cows (they eat them whole, untrimmed & uncleaned, & so do the calves.)”

A farm worker stands in a pig sty on an unknown Sussex farm, c1940. By Doreen Peskett (PH 28849)

“July 18th, Friday, 1941 – A drizzle wet day.  We hoed mangles in the morning, but in the afternoon swapped nettles & thistles in different places. In the evening I changed the books & went to choir practice, which I’ve been missing rather badly lately. We had an air mail letter from Brian today.  Of course he doesn’t say where he is, but it’s in Egypt & has a cathedral & is near a very famous place, & we strongly suspect that it’s Cairo.”

The raking and bundling of hay, a strenuous but vital part of Doreen’s Land Army duties, c.1940. Taken by Doreen (PH28835)

September 22nd, Monday, 1941 – Very foggy until about 10 o/c & then very hot & lovely.  We unloaded the barley & then got the rest from the plain. In the afternoon I had a new & enjoyable job – horseraking. Had to horserake into windrows until milking time, which lasted until about 6.30 as only Renee & I were present. We worked after tea, the others loading while I raked up the rakings until it was too dark to see. The two “Lancashire Lassies” arrived. Margaret Munro is one & the other’s called Gertrude.”

Doreen often documents the illnesses and injuries that she and her colleagues sustain from Land work. These entries highlight the hazardous nature of working on a farm –

December 15th, Monday, 1941 – Rene told me Sally has had an accident & hurt her leg. She was knocked off a wagon by a barn door & can’t walk. She also cut her thumb a day or two before… My cold has descended in earnest & I didn’t go to Rangers.”

Doreen’s wartime Christmases were spent with her immediate family. Her holidays were never long, however, and she was back to farm work within a day or two, preparing for another year of Land Army service.

Doreen’s diaries are a time capsule of rural life in the South of England during the Second World War. They give us a glimpse into the personal lives of young women who were being offered responsibilities and opportunities not widespread beforehand, and they illustrate the impact of the Land Army. The entries in this post are just a taster of 11 year’s worth of Doreen’s diaries, written between 1939 and 1950.

N.B. 27/05/2020 – Doreen’s diaries will be available to read in the searchroom once the Record Office reopens.


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