Land girl, bibles and the civil service (1938-1951)

Location : Middlesex, London

My husband was at sea most of his life. He joined when he was fifteen; he was on a training ship. His father was in the navy, grandfather in the navy, he spent his whole life in the navy. My son he wants to put out to sea, he wants to go out there, because that’s where my life was, at sea. Not all his ships.

Because your husband was in the navy, did you go on a lot of tours, did you go from place to place?

I used to go on the ships with him, yes. He was out there for a year and I didn’t see him. Because I had a baby. He used to write lots and lots of letters, writing to me. I used to go and see him off at airports, railway stations and all over the place. He came out of the navy just before my son was born.

You were a land girl?

Yes, I was in the Land Army for four years.

Do you remember what year that was?

I was 19, I think.

Was it in the Second World War?

Oh yes.

And where were you a land girl?

Well, I started off with Middlesex County Council. What they did during the war, because they couldn’t get the food from other countries they wanted to grow all the vegetables in this country. And that’s why we land girls were for and any place, any grounds, they dug up. Any playgrounds, they dug up. Then I was on a tractor ploughing up the fields.


So you were a land girl in Middlesex. Did you do that for four whole years? On the tractor?

Well, no, I was on the drills, picking up potatoes; the tractor would go along and dig up the potatoes and we’d have to pick them – a backbreaking job. And cutting cabbages. Little mice underneath used to run out. All sorts of things.

And that was the Middlesex County Council I was working for. Then I went to a private farmer, ‘cos he wanted a tractor driver. His tractor driver had left, he went off to war, you see. A chap used to drive it, but of course he was called up so he needed someone. I offered my services – never driven a tractor before! I got on it and had a go.

Where was that?

That was still in Middlesex, a private farmer.

Were there many land girls on the farm?

There were about four or five of us on the Council. But when I was on the farm, I think it was just three of us.

And where did you live?

I lived in digs all over the place. Moved around. I’d go to one dig for so long and then I’d have to move on, because … I don’t know, you was always moving on. I had about six different billets when I was there. Very nice, I got on well with all of them.

Were you married then?

I had a boyfriend then, not my husband. He was in the army and he used to hitchhike all the way to Middlesex to see me. But the person I was with, her husband in the army but away – she wouldn’t let my boyfriend come in because the neighbours were shocking! I’ve never met people like it. They were so narrow minded. She said, “I can’t.” But it was only … he was getting cold and he’d come a long way; he’d hitchhiked all the way to see me and she’d let him walk around because she wouldn’t let him come in because she said the neighbours would see him and think bad. They knew I was there. You know how it was in those days.

So after you were a land girl, what did you do then?

I was a civil servant then. Her Majesty’s Stationery Office.

What did you do?

All sorts of things. Typing, and that sort of thing.

Did you tell me that you were a bible maker?

Oh yes, that was before the war.

What happened you see, I left school at 14 and of course mother needed the money; she was a bit hard up. Took in laundry and washing. I couldn’t stay at home, so she found me a job in a factory making corsets. A corset factory – oh it was shocking. I certainly learned my lesson there, they were rough girls.

That was in London. I had a job there … all I did was getting the material for the older people and had to sweep up afterwards, do all the dirty work.

Anyway I was only there for three months, because I didn’t go into the bible factory because they weren’t ready for me and I had to wait. Mother didn’t want me to hang about at home so she got me the job in the factory.

Then I went into the bible factory – lovely the bible factory. Much different. The girls were different, everybody was different. You weren’t even allowed to use make-up. Miss Turner, she was the head one, she was over us. She’d sit up there at her desk, and watch around, and if she thought you were putting powder on … oh, no, nothing. You weren’t allowed to use make-up, you’d have to go out and wash it all off.

But I served my apprenticeship there until I was 14,15,16 and 17. And then the war came and I went one morning to go to work and it wasn’t there, it had been bombed! So of course I had to go to the labour exchange. That’s why. I could go in the ATS or in munitions factories, or the Land Army. So I chose the Land Army. My father said, you won’t last in that, he said, you’ll be home. But I stuck it for four years.

Tell me about making the bibles.

Well I had to go through the apprenticeship. You’d start off, the girls were on a machine and you’d have to run about feeding them. They’d put them through, you’d take them off and pack them. You’d go through everything. You did the folding, ever so tricky. You’d have the big sheets of print. You had to find, to match it up, and then over like this, then over again, until it became a book. Then it went to the men and it was cut.

So we went through all that, and then the finished items they put me in the place when they were finished. Beautiful bibles – in fur, lovely bibles. I made them for royalty, beautiful bibles. And you used to have to go through to make sure all the pages were right. Because they sometimes had bits sticking out that had to be cut off. I enjoyed that, I liked being in the bible factory. Because the girls there were very good and the men too. I was young.

I did all that but of course when it got bombed that was that. It was only a small factory, but it had a direct hit. That was why I went into the Land Army. I was about 18 I suppose.

And I got a job with […] Her Majesty’s Stationery Office. That was paperwork, typing and that sort of thing. I stayed there … how long did I stay there? I used to go round opening different offices. They used to start offices. A couple of times I went to places where they had an office and I had to go there and I had to teach the girls what to do. Then I was in charge. All these girls used to come and I was the head one and teach them what to do. I did that until I got married.

When you got married did you work?

My husband was still in the navy. He came home on leave and we got married by special licence because he had to get back again, if we wanted to get married. And we got married. That was in 19.. (We would have been married 62 years – 1951 or somewhere around that.) Then he was off again and I didn’t see him for quite a little while. And I was upset. And my brother said, it will be lovely on leave because when he comes home, it’s all new again. It’s like being married again. He said, you know, you should enjoy one another then. And he didn’t come out of the navy until just before my son was born. He came home because he’d had enough. Then after that he did jobs delivering these posh yachts. People had these yachts – well-to-do people bought these beautiful yachts and they wanted them taken to Margate, Yarmouth, or anywhere. Isle of Wight. And G. had the job of taking these yachts to where they wanted them. And when he came back they paid him for doing it. He did that for quite a while. Of course, that’s about G., not me.

I didn’t go to work after I’d had the children.

I suppose I had an interesting life, really.

I think you had a very interesting life.

I did all sorts of things really. I liked the Land Army. Out in all weathers. We had nowhere to wash, we used to wash in the puddles. [laughs] Muck spreading – of course we used to smell shocking. Used to go home at weekends to see my mother. We’d get on the train, two or three of us, used to get on train to go into London, and we always got a coach to ourselves because as soon as we got on we got on we smelled terrible. [laughter] Couldn’t wait to get home and have a good wash.

I met Mountbatten during the war. He was my husband’s captain. G. was his pilot, navigator. Navigator to Mountbatten. When Mountbatten died he went to his funeral. And I met him. Every year they all came together on a big ship in London. You’ve got the ships all alongside the Thames there. We all used to go there, have a meal, meet up with all the other people that were on the Kelly. G. was on the HMS Kelly. That was Mountbatten’s ship. I’ve got a book on it as well, here. This is all about the Kelly.

My husband was very fond of him, he was a good captain.

Irene (b. 1923) was interviewed in Norwich for WISEArchive in January 2014


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