World War 2 Stories for Sheffield

                                         Mary Cooper

Oh Happy Days (Part One)

By actiondesksheffield

People in story: Mary Cooper (nee Bell)
Location of story: Oxfordshire, England
Unit name: Women's Land Army
Background to story: Civilian Force





This story was submitted to the People’s War site by Bill Ross of the ‘Action Desk – Sheffield’ Team on behalf of Mary Cooper, and has been added to the site with her permission. The author fully understands the site's terms and conditions.

Part Two is at:

http://www.bbc.co.uk/dna/ww2/A4431638

Oh Happy Days

By

Mary Cooper (nee Bell)

The year was 1942, everywhere was uneasy and we were already at war. Naturally, in the unease, we were wondering what would be happening from day to day. All able men and women were called upon to do their duty. We had a choice: army, navy, air force, land army or munitions. Even housewives with children were asked to help their country in various ways, one of which was to take in evacuees from London and other cities.

I elected to join the Land Army; first, I had a medical, then my uniform was posted to me, and I was told to report to Slough in Buckinghamshire. There was to be a team of us who were required to live in tents and do fruit picking. However, a last minute telegram arrived, instructing me to report to Oxford where I was to be met by a Land Army representative.

At Oxford station, I met the lady who was in charge of the Women’s Land Army. She informed me that I had to go to Waterferry Horticultural College, in a small village not far from Thame in Oxfordshire. She put me onto a coach and told the driver where to drop me off.

When I got off the bus, I felt like weeping. I was in the middle of nowhere; there were just trees and fields. I looked around and spotted a chimney smoking, so I walked towards it and there, amidst all the trees, was a bungalow. As you can imagine, it was quite a relief. A maid answered the door and I explained everything to her, and asked her if she knew where the cottage was. Suddenly, Arthur Askey was standing there. He said, “I’m sorry, but I’m on my way to London to do some recording, but our maid will take you to where you need to go.” I was extremely grateful. I wonder if you remember Arthur Askey; his “Busy, Busy, Bee” song that he used to sing. He was a great entertainer (Playmates). During my stay at the college, at weekends, we would see Arthur, his wife and daughter strolling though the grounds.

After the stint at college and having been trained to do all the jobs on a farm, plus market gardening, I was sent on my way to Oxford once more. There, I was met, along with another W.L.A. girl, by the agent and his wife. They took us by car to a little village called Swalcliffe, and showed us around a very large estate, where we were to be working. This was a very large house that had been given over to the Red Cross, by the owners, for the duration of the war. It was to be used for the benefit of wounded soldiers, R.A.F. and navy personnel. Our job was to cultivate the land and the garden, and to produce fruit and vegetables etc. for the wounded and convalescing people.

We were billeted with a farmer and his wife in the village; they were a couple of old miseries. All we got to eat was bread and jam and fatty old mutton. Being farmers, they had plenty of everything, but we never received any of what they had. We had been picking sprouts with frost on them, and our hands were blue with the cold all day. We would have welcomed a nice hot meal of some kind, but it never happened.

We did get a bit of social life however; we were invited once in a while, to a dance at the big house. Matron was very strict; the ladies had to sit at one side of the room and the lads at the other. We could dance with them, but then it was back to our places. There was the Village Hall, where the locals held dances and we could have a few laughs and make friends with them. I once won the Spot Waltz; my partner and I were given five Woodbines each, but as I didn’t smoke, he claimed them all.



 

The local bus ran once a week and went into Banbury at 2 p.m. It returned at 6 p.m. That was the highlight of the week, but more often than not, we’d miss the bus and then we would have to walk the six miles home. Oh, what happy days.

We changed our digs and made a good move. I was billeted with a lady and her three boys. Her husband was in the R.A.F. They had left Chesterfield for work in Banbury. We all got along very well; she was a good Yorkshire cook and she looked after me very well. In return, I did baby sitting for her and helped around the house. We became good friends, which we are to this day; I still go to Banbury to visit her. When I lived with her, her boys were aged 2, 4 and 6. Today (2005) they are family men in their sixties with children of their own. I have such happy memories of them all.

Whilst on a neighbouring farm, I learnt to milk, and the minute the W.L.A. Headquarters heard of this, they started to send me all over the county to help out with milking. I would have to be up at 5.30 to milk 100 cows, up to the knees in muck and slosh. For some reason, I loved every minute of it.

One place I was sent to go milking was for a General. He was an old tartar who lived in a converted barn. He had his batman to look after him; the poor man, he was terrified. Although the General had a false leg, he could still do things such as ride a horse, drive a car and a tractor. Sometimes I had to go with him, either on horseback or in the car, to round up the cattle on his land. Being a typical General, he would get very cross, then he would soften up and say, “Go and make yourself some butter in the dairy and send it home for your parents.” It went all the way from Chipping Norton to Barnsley.

My final move was into a hostel where I became a forewoman in charge of forty girls. I had to learn to drive a little Hillman Minx van. Just two weeks on the road and I was away, driving in the blackout, with only tiny slits of light being allowed to show during the blackout.

We received lots of invitations to the R.A.F. and Army camps, to their dances and parties, where we had a wonderful time. I had to drive the little van which was supposed to hold only eight people, but more often than not, there would be twelve piled in, all coming home from the dance. One night, we were all singing away merrily, when suddenly, there was a flat tyre. I was dressed in my party dress, but I had to get out and change the wheel. As it was in the blackout, the only light I could use came from a tiny torch. The matron was waiting and she accepted no excuses. We were grounded as punishment for being late.

It was a good thing we had a bit of social life because we really had to work hard for our 25 shillings (£1.25p) a week. We ploughed the land, milked the cows, did threshing, thatching, hedging, ditching, in fact, you name it and we did it. We also had to work with the German and Italian prisoners; they used to share their food with us. They were treated far better than we were.

I could go on and write a book, but I will stop now, but I would just say that after all the hard work, I regard my days in the W.L.A. as some of the happiest days of my life. We are still in touch with each other and remain friends. I will finally add that I have sung in the presence of the late Queen Mother at the Royal Albert Hall in London. We sang the songs, “Run Rabbit, Run Rabbit” and “The White Cliffs Of Dover” at a Land Army Reminiscence, comprising of five hundred Land Girls.


 The above photo is of a Driving Licence issued by the Oxfordshire War Agricultural Executive Committee.

The text is as follows and is as "warts 'n' all", as originally printed (note the spelling mistake in clause 5):

Drivers Authority.
Must always be carried when driving any vehicle of the committee's.

Petrol.
May only be drawn from the following garages.
Bates, Cowley Road, Oxford.
Griffiths, Stone, Aylesbury.
E.H. Sumptier, Southcombe Garage, Chipping Norton.
Durrants, Garage. Kidlington.
Youngs, Service Garage, Banbury.