29 December 1995

Suffering of a Land Girl

DEBORAH Jackson admits she was always a bit of a rebel.

Although her parents told her not to, she would always fly out of the farm gate into the lane on her bicycle – until one day when she was eight years old she went too fast and over the hedge, breaking her arm in the process. The break was never set properly. Her arm remained crooked and this injury thwarted her from realising her dream of joining the air force as a driver when war broke out.

She was 20 when World War II was declared, the younger of two sisters who lived with their parents on a small rented farm in west Norfolk. They grew corn and kept cows, and she and her sister Mildred helped their mother make butter. Her parents turned to poultry, goats and pigs in the 1930s.

Deborah remembers those early days before the war as happy ones. While her sister Mildred remained on the farm to help their parents Deborah chose to go into domestic work, working in a manor house at North Walsham, and then becoming a companion and driver to a woman who owned several hotels in Lowestoft. But the coming of World War II changed all that: "War was declared on the Sunday. The family I was working for decided to evacuate from Lowestoft, so I went back to the farm," Deborah recalls.

She was soon back into the swing of farm work again with its long hours, seven days a week, a far cry from the more carefree days in service. But though work on the farm was hard, it was nothing compared with what she was about to endure after having volunteered to become a Land Girl.

"When I could not get into the air force I decided I would try the Land Army. I went to a farmer who daddy knew – but, of course, he didnt know of his bad ways. He did things others farmers did not do to try to save money. He was very mean."

Although Deborah had pains in her arms, she worked alongside the men, doing heavy work on the farm, including cleaning ditches, stacking corn, cutting chaff, grinding mangels and making silage out of meadow grass, vetch and surplus peas. When tossing sheaves of corn on to the wagon the farmer would put large wooden hurdles on three sides in order to pile up as much corn as possible, she remembered. "Somebody, and it was nearly always me, had to get on top of the load to straighten up. It was pretty high up."

Her day began at 6.30am, when she had to milk the cows and feed the calves and pigs. "We spent the day in the fields, for instance chopping out (thinning) sugar beet. We did it all with hoes. You finished when you finished. We were supposed to leave off at 4.30pm but I had to do the milking in the evening."

One of her most vivid memories is of walking young bullocks to the farm from Norwich market 15 miles away. She remembers one particularly freezing winter day well. "They had come from Ireland and were absolutely exhausted. I dont know how we got them home. It was frosty and they were in a terrible state. We got them in the cow shed and covered them up with loose straw. We boiled water on an open fire in old copper pans and added treacle to it and we gave them warm water and treacle. Gradually we got them back on their feet."

Deborah had one half-day off a week, on Saturday afternoons, and sometimes there would be a night out at a club in a nearby village for the Land Girls, but generally it was a lonely life.

"I was happy at first, but when I was, shall I say, imposed on to do the heavy work, I was not happy. The men were extremely kind to me. I used to enjoy the midday meal with them. I was the only girl and the farmworkers wives used to bring me extra food."

The final straw for Deborah came when the farmer decided to use a cultivator which was not suitable for a very muddy field of peas. He told Deborah to lie on the cultivator as it was dragged behing the tractor, her task being to clean the mud from the "tines" as it was turning the soil. The memory of the agony of being jolted for hour after hour, lying face down on the cultivator with no more than a sugar beet pulp mat to lie on for comfort, still shows in her face as she talks about it.

"The jolting was pretty ghastly. I said to the farmer I just could not do it but he put me on it for two whole days, as none of the men would do it," she says.

After two days she was too ill to continue but a neighbouring farmer who had seen her on the back of the cultivator reported what he had seen to the landowner. Eventually, the authorities were notified and the farmer was told he could no longer have a Land Girl and Deborah left.

She was X-rayed in hospital and told she had spinal and stomach injuries but there was nothing doctors could do. She never recovered from these injuries and has remained in pain all her life as a consequence.

After leaving the farm, Deborah was moved to a market garden at a manor house in Norfolk where she spent the remaining war years. The hall was largely self-sufficient, as it had three cows, 100 poultry and a few pigs. There were 2ha (5 acres) of walled garden and the surplus produce was sold at market in London.

"We bought sugar, tea and flour to make bread and otherwise managed with what we had. I really enjoyed it, as there was one other Land Girl there who showed me what to do and we became good friends – we are still in touch today.

"Part of the hall was commandeered by the air force. It was terrible to hear the poor boys, as they had been on raids and used to come to recover from the stress. They had 48 hours of complete rest, and I could hear this yelling the whole time and shouting. They used to have to put them to sleep, poor fellows. They were sent back out to fly again.

"I was there two years and I was very happy," says Deborah, who is 77, and now being cared for in a nursing home where she moved earlier this year after having hospital treatment for her damaged back.

"I am under strict instructions not to do too much, as I need rest. But I find it hard to have to sit still," she says.