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An account of Mary Tustians life as a land girl

Image 1 for An account of Mary Tustians life as a land girl
Mary Warren, Landgirl

In June 1940 a seventeen-year-old convent schoolgirl called Mary Warren heard the broadcast of Winston Churchill’s Dunkirk speech. “Being highly patriotic,” Mary recalls,” I went to the Women’s Land Army recruiting office the next morning.” She had developed a love of the land and an affinity for animals as a youngster when she had spent time with relatives on a farm in Dorset. As a small child Mary was often asked the age-old question, “what will you do when you grow up?” and she would always reply, “I’m going to marry a farmer and have lots of children.”

Mary was the only girl of three children born to the vicar of the Parish of Hammersmith and was brought up in the city. She was very close to her father but her mother was a distant figure who didn’t involve herself in day to day child-rearing – the family’s nanny did all that.

With the outbreak of war, the Hammersmith Sacred Heart School, where Mary was studying for her Higher Certificate was moved en bloc to use the facilities of Oxford High School for Girls, and the nuns, teachers and girls were accommodated with families in the city.

Mary’s decision to join the Land Army did not meet with universal approval. It was a bold step and meant abandoning her books and her studies. She was a bright pupil and her teacher was disappointed. She tried to discourage Mary by telling her that she was too small.

“They won’t want you,” the teacher said. Mary’s mother merely made the comment, “you won’t stand that long”.

This opposition only strengthened Mary’s resolve. She filled in the application forms and when the telegram summoning her to London for a medical was delivered to her lodgings, she didn’t hesitate. The joining age was supposed to be seventeen and a half. Mary was only seventeen, but no one asked.

Seeing Mary’s determination, her father was supportive and offered her practical advice.

“If you’re going to work on a farm,” he said, “you’ll need a good leather belt,” and so saying took her along to a leather shop in King Street in Hammersmith and bought her one. “Wasn’t he right,” Mary reflects. The belt cost 7s 6d. (37.5p) They could have got one for 1s 6d (7.5p) but he wanted her to have the best.

Before a ‘Land Girl’ was allocated to a farm there was a month’s training to be undergone. Mary was sent to join three other girls on an estate near Shipton- under-Wychwood. She was issued with a standard kit of clothing that consisted of:

2 short sleeved shirts, I green pullover, 2 pairs of dungarees, one pair of breeches, 2 pairs of socks, one pair of shoes, a pair of rubber boots and a coat.

There was also what Mary describes as ‘a useless hat’ and the girls were expected to wear a tie.

The strength of Mary’s enthusiasm to work on a farm was about to be tested to the limit. The working day started at 5am. There were a hundred Jersey cows to be attended to. They had to be herded to the milking parlour and washed until they were spotless.

“Beautiful cows, they were,” recalls Mary.

Then they all had to be milked – by hand of course. This was a skill that Mary mastered quickly. Only at about 9.30am when the herd had been dealt with, was it time to pause for breakfast. The girls had handed in their ration books and were occasionally given bacon but the meal usually consisted of bread and jam. Occasionally this was supplemented with scraps provided by the butler from the ’big house’ who took pity on these poor young girls who were always hungry.

After breakfast Mary and her companions would go into the fields for haymaking. This was backbreaking work, as they had to use pitchforks to get the hay onto the top of an enormous baling machine. Mary remembers that on one occasion one of the girls accidentally put her fork into the machine. This was not a popular move.

It was the middle of June and hot in the fields, with no access to water. The ale that was brought to slake their thirsts was Mary’s first introduction to beer. A short break was allowed for lunch that was usually bread and cheese. There were never any cooked meals.

The rest of the day until teatime was spent baling and then in the evening the milking routine with the Jersey herd was repeated. To be ‘ticked off’ as a competent dairy maid a trainee had to be able to milk ten cows morning and evening. After that it was back into the fields and the working day ended at about 10pm. It was exhausting work but Mary was determined to carry on.

Some of the men treated the land girls as skivvies and gave them a hard time, but others were helpful. One gave Mary lessons in tractor maintenance that proved very useful later on.

When the month was up it was time to be allocated a work placement. Although it hadn’t been included in her training Mary had a yen to work with sheep. “There is a Mr P Tustian of Swerford needs someone,” she was told.

Where on earth is Swerford, she wondered? Looking at a map wasn’t a great deal of help either except that she could see that Swerford was pretty much in the middle of nowhere. She was given a travel voucher to take first the Kingham train and then the Hook Norton ‘bone shaker’ and her journey to Buttercombe Farm and a new life began. A local worthy who collected her from the station remarked as she drove Mary down the long drive to the farm, “you poor thing.”

What was Mary letting herself in for? Inevitably it was hard, dirty and often smelly work. There was no kitchen no bathroom and no tap in the house and Mary didn’t have many changes of clothing. To get herself clean she would have to fill the big black kettle with water from the pump in the out- house, boil it on the sitting room fire and then take it up to her bedroom. First she would wash her top half and then her bottom half.

Toilet facilities were basic. A bucket served the purpose and another bucket filled with ash from the fire was used instead of a flush. The result was buried.

After Mary had been working for a few weeks at Buttercombe Farm for Percy Tustian and his wife Frances, Percy’s first cousin Jim from Leys Farm in Great Tew asked about her.

“Where’s the new land girl then? Would she do for me?” he queried.

“No, she wouldn’t. She’s a city girl,” was the reply.

Percy had already realised what an asset Mary was to the farm and didn’t want to lose her. She would turn her hand to anything, even helping to cut wood with a crosscut saw. Winters were cold and chilblains on hands, feet and even knees were a fact of a land girl’s life. Wages were £1 4s (£1. 20p) with deductions of 1s (5p) for insurance and 7s 6d (37.5p) for board, which didn’t leave much for personal expenditure. Even toothpaste was considered to be a luxury. Not that there was much opportunity to spend the meagre earnings as there were no days off.

Despite the rigours of the life, Mary was happy. She was doing the work she had always wanted to do and felt she was doing her bit for the war effort. It had been a leap into the unknown but as it turned out she couldn’t have wished for a better employer. Even today at the age of eighty-six she has fond memories of those farming days and describes Percy as ‘an angel’. He for his part appreciated his good fortune and nicknamed Mary, ‘Kruschen’s’. “Kruschen’s salts were a tonic, a kind of pick-me-up,” Mary explains.

In 2007 the government eventually decided to recognise the tremendous service both the Women’s Land Army and the Women’s Timber Corps had given to their country. They are no longer ‘The Forgotten Army’. Mary is proud of the badge she has received, which was designed by the Garter King at Arms and bears the Royal Crown. She also has a certificate signed by the Prime Minister.

And what of the young Mary’s ambition to marry a farmer and have lots of children?

Percy’s cousin Jim from Leys Farm was not easily put off, and in 1943 he and Mary were married. They received a card from the Queen when they celebrated their diamond wedding. Sadly Jim died in 2005, but together they raised fourteen children.

The above article by Maggie Chaplin appeared in the April issue of the Four Shires Magazine.