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Ada Proctor: Digging for Victory

In 2005 Hartlepool's Museum and Library Services worked together on a project called 'Their Past, Your Future', which commemorated the part played by local people in the Second World War. As part of the project Ada Proctor from the 'Writing Together' group reminisced about the Women's Land Army. This is her story, as told to Chris Eames and Margaret Sanderson

During World War Two, several cries went out to the nation: ‘Dig for Victory’ and ‘Your Country needs YOU!’ were just two of those cries.  Owing to a shortage of able-bodied men (they were mostly in the armed forces), the Women’s Land Army was set up, enlisting young women to work on the country’s farms, in an effort to boost the economy and food supplies for this country.

A local young lady – Ada Proctor, (nee Tennicke) – was one among many, including her twin sister, who answered the challenge.  Ada, age eighteen, was already working for the war effort, in a munitions factory in Leeds, but, filled with patriotic zeal and youthful energy, she was quick to exchange a factory bench for what must have seemed a more exciting way of life, as the Women’s Land Army promised plenty of fresh country air, plus many new experiences.

The uniform was attractive; fawn cavalry-twill breeches worn with smart polished brown boots, bottle green jerseys over crisp white shirts, finished off with the regulation tie.  A fawn overcoat and broad-brimmed hat completed the ensemble.

Ada was offered no training ‘plunged in at the deep end’, she laughingly recalls, remembering the first farm she was sent to.  Threshing, which meant working on top of the stack and forking down barley, oats or wheat, was one of her first tasks.  A heavy job for a slip of a girl; no mechanical help in those days!  Fortunately, an older girl who knew the ‘ropes’ took Ada under her wing and was a great help to her.  Only when she was back at the hostel in Wolviston (where all the girls stayed), could she soothe her aching muscles.

Dairy farming and work with animals was next, work that gave Ada a lifelong love of animals and the countryside, which eventually led to her marriage with Bill the local blacksmith.

Working with cows, learning to milk, cleaning out and handling milk churns, which held five gallons of milk, each.  She learnt to harness the pony in the trap – a Rolley – and deliver the milk from door to door, using a special ladle to measure out the milk.

Ada can never recall being allowed to have her meals with any of the families she worked for.  Her lunches were packed up by Polly, the cook at the hostel, and were chiefly beetroot and cheese sandwiches, washed down with tea from her flask.  Sweets and any sort of dessert were in short supply because of rationing; one jar of jam per month was the allowance!

Work on the farm began at 8 o’clock, and most of it was back-breaking especially during the potato picking season, as it was all done by hand, the same as gathering leeks and sprouts.  Ada mostly enjoyed the contact with livestock – though one cow, she recalls with horror, had its own livestock, running all over its body – mites!  Nevertheless, she took to milking and dairy work as if born to it.  What she didn’t enjoy was the occasional slap round the face from a dirty, wet, cows tail!  That, she says, is where the notion of the job being romantic ended!

One memorable Christmas Day, she spent in the cow-byre, washing and grooming the herd, and the winter of 1947, when snow fell all over the country to a depth of 4 feet, making roads, lanes and fields impossible to reach, Ada and friends had, somehow, to feed and water stranded animals.

Land Army girls were not the only ‘helpers’ on farms during those years.  Prisoners of war appeared on many farms where Ada worked.  Asked if she ever felt threatened by their presence – they were after all, our enemies – she replied that she never had, and furthermore, found the men polite and courteous, despite the language difficulty.

As the war continued, so did Ada’s education on the land.  She learned to drive a tractor, herd sheep, harness horses – and discovered the cure for a sprained wrist! (Her own sprained wrist)!  An old farmer urged her to try his favourite remedy for sprains – maiden’s water and barley! 

All the farms were without electricity.  Oil lamps, flat irons and earth closets were the order of the day.  Despite the hardships of rural life, there was great camaraderie among the Army girls, who usually met up for some social life, dancing and meeting young men, at the Sappers Camp at Greatham.  Great friendships which last to this day, were forged during those times, and the ‘girls’ still meet up at their annual reunions.  Sadly, the Women’s Land Army and stalwarts like Ada Proctor, have until recently, gone unrecognised.

Only in recent years, have these proud and courageous women taken their rightful place at Remembrance Services and such.

Those gallant girls worked their hearts out, playing their part and digging for the victory that this country of ours accomplished, and we salute them all.


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