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Hastingleigh in World War II
Recollections of the war years by a member of the Womens Land Army:
It is a delightful account of life as a land girl during the Second World War years,
written by Josie Kurton (later Mrs Allsop) in 2000.
I have adapted it for printing here, to condense it slightly.
Her family have kindly sent the photographs shown on the right, of Mrs Allsop
in her land army uniform and a photo taken in 2000.
"At the age of 19 in March 1943 I decided to volunteer for the Womens Land Army.
Apart from patriotic reasons there was a dream of living in the country one day. As a child in Shadwell, London E1, we sometimes went to Epping Forest in Essex for walks and picnics. My grandmother on my fathers side inspired me with a longing for the country. I loved fields and woods and also tales of her beautiful homeland of forests and lakes of Lithuania. They were immigrants fleeing from the domination of Russia. My mothers father originated from Cornwall.
We were given a large canvas bag which contained our uniforms and working clothes. Our Land Army togs were all of top quality, our thick woollen overcoats were lined with white flannel, brown lace up shoes, studded and strong, corduroy breeches and knee high beige pure wool socks. For work we wore a bib and brace trousered overalls and a long sleeved belted jacket of very thick cotton.
Another girl named Phyllis, [probably Phyllis Ridpath 1925-2006 - see photo of land army girls below] and me were assigned to a Mrs Clark [Nellie Clark nee Prebble] in her three bedroom council house [Folly Town] in Hastingleigh. Our landlady fed us well, on pay day we were given two envelopes, £2.00 for our keep and £2.00 for us as far as I can remember.
Our first job couldn't have been more unpleasant to say the least; we were thrown in at the deep end. The frost had got into a very large clump of potatoes destined for the army; we were requested to sort them out. There weren't many good ones. The putrid smell and the sliminess of the rotten ones was a culture shock, but we were all volunteers and got on with the job, I would not say without complaint.
Other jobs were planting potatoes in March and gathering them in September, thinning out sugar beet and then leaving one strong seedling to grow.
Later we were told by another farmer that we had been trained well by our foreman named Mr Langton or Langford. [William or Bill Langford] He was rather surly and reminded me of a picture of Stalin including moustache, he used to walk up and down and tell us to "bend your backs". In cold weather we kept warm by chopping off root and leaves of the grown and pulled sugar beet and left them in heaps ready to be taken to factories to be made in to sugar or to feed the animals.
Another job we did was weeding fields of partly grown wheat or barley, with a thistle spud, a tiny spade two inches by three inches on a long pole; we sliced through the weeds near the roots. Stooking the sheaves to dry out and then loading them on to a wagon, (tractor drawn), to make a stack. Loading the wagon was an art, we were taught how to layer it and corner it in the proper way and I will say our loads never collapsed. When threshing time came round we wielded our pitchforks and sheaves with energy and zest.
The job of removing the chaff was not very popular. My mother had instructed me to wear my wool vest, the hairs from the barley somehow, got stuck in the vest, and was very itchy and scratchy, it also got into the eyes. The home remedy was to smear Vaseline into your eyes and tie a scarf tightly round your head, compressing the eyes before going to bed and keeping it there all night. Next morning all the irritating bits came out with the Vaseline when you washed.
Phyllis and I contracted scabies, our legs itched unbearably, we had to wash all over with lifebuoy soap every day and smear on sulphur ointment. It soon cleared up but we had a few days off and one day cycled all the way to Canterbury and back, we went to the cinema whilst there.
On Saturdays we went by the weekly bus to Ashford or Canterbury, strolled around the town did some shopping had a nosh up in a cafe and went to the flicks. It was said by Mrs Clark [Nellie Clark nee Prebble] that Phyllis and I were as different as chalk and cheese. She was giggly and outgoing and I was thoughtful, serious and quiet. Of course I did have my lighter side too, and a sense of humour.
The village had a good number of bachelors who were exempt from being called up as they were tractor drivers and did the ploughing, heavier work and were called key workers. Phyl and I were called the "Heavenly Twins" because we dressed alike in our uniforms, but Land girls showed their individuality by wearing their hats differently. Phyllis wore hers in Humphrey Bogart style and wore a tie. I wore my hat on the back of my head with a bunch of curls up front, my top button undone and my shirt collar outside my coat. Don't get the wrong impression, Phyllis left the land army before me, got married and had twins[*]. I also had my hair longish in a thick pageboy roll. We wore powder and lipstick which was fashionable then in London. I'm sure some of the older locals must have thought we were Scarlet Women, but in my case at least that wasn't so, we had worn make up since leaving school.
[* Phyllis Ridpath did not get married and have twins - and Phyllis' family suspect Josie's memory on this aspect was a bit muddled with someone else.]
Ron Martin and I were courting and saving up to get married but parted just before V.E. day, the war was almost over and certain enemies had long been our allies... I moved from the council house into a tiny farm workers cottage, one of a semi-detached pair. An elderly man called 'Old Tom' was the tenant and he lived with his housekeeper who came from up north and had a Lancashire Accent. She and I shared the bedroom and Tom slept in the space over the kitchen, the staircase was a ladder type and one came down backwards. The kitchen had a shallow clay sink with a cold tap. The living room had an open fireplace, (not an inglenook it was not that type of cottage). The ground floor was all brick. Previous to me lodging there, two very large and tough Land Girls had stayed there, larger than life characters, whom I imagine made a deeper impression on the villagers than we did. I left there because the house keeper played her wireless in the bedroom into the early hours of the morning. I needed my sleep, especially after working out in the field till nearly dusk at harvest time, she didn't realise how hard we worked. I was thought to be a good worker which in those days was high praise. I know that self praise is no recommendation, but it is true.
The RAF targeted flying bombs as they came over the channel. One evening while strolling out with Ron, one came down with an almighty explosion. Next morning I found that where I had been hoeing the previous day in a field on my own, many turnips had been blown out and the doodlebug was nearby in a small wood. It had my name on it but came at the wrong time, lucky me. If the wood still exists then the remains of that bomb may still be there. After 50 years, maybe not.
On the other side of the road near this happening was a wild land, sloping down to a big hollow called the 'Devils Punchbowl', where we foolishly sunbathed and couldn"t walk properly for days. Near there was an exceedingly steep hill, even the young hunks of Hastingleigh had to get off their bikes and walk up. One day I got off my bike and old Tom passed by. He was over 70 and rode all the way up the hill without getting off. I think he may have been showing off. This was before I went to lodge in his cottage. I watched him and thought If he can do it, so can I. It required every ounce of strength and will-power but I made it, a small triumph of mind over matter. I suppose the hill is still there and maybe people are still getting off their bikes to walk up it. There were almost no cars around then.
Old Tom was an articulate, slightly eccentric and well known character. I heard later that he went to live with his son. Tom had vein trouble in his legs and used to operate on them with a razor blade! His housekeeper moved on to lodge in a house on a smallholding nearby. On the left hand side of the road which leads down to Brabourne was a little wood, in the Spring we used to pick primroses, numerous then, (naughty now), I used to send some in a cardboard box in dampened leaves to my Aunt, she put them on her desk at work and people marvelled at their freshness and they brought a little breath of the country to smoky old London.
The air was really wonderful at Hastingleigh then. I had a lift on a tractor once from Wye, I had been home to London for my weeks holiday. I can recall how the air seemed so cool and fresh, smelling of pine on our slow journey up that long hill. A young man [Sid Andrews] from Brabourne drove that tractor, he had one arm, having had an accident. when young, he did not let that deter him in anything. He was given responsible jobs such as ploughing on steep ground with a caterpillar tractor , (like a tank). He had two sisters, one's name was Cathy [Andrews later Southen] who married a red haired man [Leslie Southen] who lived next door to Clarks in council houses. Nearly everyone worked for the Kent War Executive Agricultural Committee. Cathy and husband had plans to go to Canada, Cathy was very strong and worked almost like a man. Names escape me. Once I could remember the names of everyone I knew there and the names of the villages all around, but old age has finally caught up with me.
[Cathy and Les Southen did emigrate to Australia, along with Doris Bidwell and her husband.]
The other brother in the council houses [Sid Southen] married Joan [Bidwell, sister of Doris Bidwell], a village girl.Phyllis and I would go to the Bowl Inn after work and play darts with the locals. We were sometimes treated to a drink by someone or other, if it was spirit I used to give mine to Phyl. I wish now I'd drunk it myself, I would have felt happier, silly me! The older men used to sit by a roaring fire in winter with a drink all evening and smoke their pipes. Not much was said, they were just there. In the other bar the landlady's daughter used to play records on a wind up record player (gramophone). Some popular tunes and songs at that time were Bolero, Always, Tangos, Russian Rose, White Cliffs of Dover, and When the Poppies Bloom Again, which I think must have been resurrected from the First World War based on the poem,
In Flanders Field the poppies grow,
Between the crosses row on row,
That mark our places here below
And in the skies the lark still merrily singing flies
Scarce heard amid the guns below [these are the words as written in Josie's memoire. The corrected poem lines are below]
In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.
The song is just as poignant as the poem. That reminds me, there were larks singing in the skies around Hastingleigh. We use to lie on our backs and watch them ascending in a vertical line upwards, singing. One doesn't see them much anymore. Sometimes we would see hundreds of planes in formation in the evening going out to bomb Germany. We watched them and used to shout Good luck boys!
We would worry about our relatives. Many flying bombs got through to London, they were programmed I suppose by the amount of fuel in them to drop all over London. They were hellish things, especially at night. The sound of them is almost indescribable, a sort of whirring clacking sound, like some old Heath Robinson machine, they had a flame shooting out of the back. While you heard the noise you knew you were safe, when the noise stopped, there was an ominous silence, then you worried. We land army girls had all experienced the bombing of London earlier in the war.
Once an American plane had something wrong with it and the pilot baled out and the plane was left to circle round and round getting lower and lower over Hastingleigh. It was a good thing it landed where it did, no one got hurt. An American guarded it until it was moved.
One day Phyllis and I were pushing our bikes up the hill from Brabourne and tanks came down the hill. We had to squeeze up against the bank, they were almost as wide as the road, sometimes there was barely a couple of feet between us and them. Dozens and dozens of them came down the hill; I now think they were heading for the coast just before D day. It was a good job they had good drivers, it was a bit scary at the time.
Just before the war ended the Germans invented a rocket bomb (V2). They were directed at London and were so fast that you heard the swish after they had dropped.
One farm we worked at was owned by (name forgotten) [Cold Blow] consisting of a very old grandfather [Edward Phillips b.1853 d.1944]. I once saw him, brimmed black hat; whiskers sticking out the edge of his face, moustache. Wearing a milking smock, all ruched and embroidered at the front. He had been born 1855 or thereabouts. He had two sons [Frank b.1884 d.1945, Harry b.1885 d.1947]. There was also a married granddaughter [Eugenoe White nee Phillips], her family , her brother named Charlie, who was tall blonde aged about, 30 then key worker. Their land was requisitioned by authorities to be used to grow wheat, barley, kale, oats, sugar beet ,peas and lots of potatoes. Early one morning Charlie's uncle, [Frank Phillips] was cycling down to Brabourne [New Barn Hill] with some eggs to sell, when he had an accident. His head injured, he was killed. All his life blood must have drained out on that steep hill, because a wide stream was there for ages. No one ever knew how it had happened. An official of K.W.A.Ex [Kent War Agricultural Executive] found him as he came up in a car to inspect our work. It was early, no traffic on roads then, in and around Hastingleigh. The old Grandfather died soon after the sad and shocking tragedy. [The Phillips family are buried at Tunbridge Wells - names kindly supplied by Bill White, in 2017, great grandson of Edward Phillips. ]
Some little things in a lighter mood.
There was a land girl, who was extremely Cockney, from Bermondsey in London. In the evening with her boyfriend she would cycle up to Hastingleigh from Brabourne to an obscure lane, to an even more obscure pub, [The Woodman's Arms, Hassell Street.] where she said they had excellent ale, better than anywhere else. How she discovered it I dont know. We never even knew it was there. Jessie must have been a connoisseur of the stuff. The obscure lane was on the left hand side of the road which let out to Canterbury before Howards Farm.
After hearing about it I went there one evening and this Pub was the barest most dimly lit place imaginable. No fire or horse brasses, no electricity whatever anywhere up there then, just oil lamps and candles. The pub, or ale house was like something left over from the seventeenth century, talk about atmosphere of the past.
I once lived in a remote cottage up on Kingsmill Down. I lodged with an old woman whose name I think was Josephine Smith who had a granddaughter who was training to be a nurse in London. [The two Kingsmill Down Cottages are now derelict, surrounded by woodland] The water was drawn from a well which served the two semi detached cottages. I slept in a tiny bedroom facing North East. I've never been so cold in a house in all my life, it kept me awake at night. Even a hot brick was no use. In summer it was gorgeous, so I was told. In the evening I would go downhill to meet my friend. Through a field of cows then through a track way between two high hedges which divided a field then down another lane then out on to the road through the village near Tappenden's shop cum post office, near the Bowl Inn. The most wonderful thing about all this was that I felt no fear whatsoever. Most times when there was no cloud the whole countryside would be lit up with bright moon light, when there was no moon or cloud the countryside was lit by starlight, dimmer of course but magical light. I felt that the countryside was my home and I belonged to it.
Mrs Clark's brother who lived in a remote cottage made the remark that a tractor tears the soil up, a horse treads gently. [one of the Prebble boys.]
Once we were given the job of spreading artificial manure over a field about to be sown with potatoes. We spread it by shovel, it must have been uneven. When the potatoes came up, many had blackened and roughened insides like a cankerous growth. This was about the time when farmers stopped being organic. We ingest the unnatural stuff. It cannot do our bodies any good in the long run.
My father volunteered in the 1914-1918 war, he was only seventeen (he fibbed about his age) and joined up with his friend Anthony, who was killed. My Dad was wounded in the head, but went back again. He was in the Royal Artillery. He took ammunition from the depot to the front line and was in shellfire the whole way. His two horses were named Cherry Blossom and Boot Polish.
A character who worked with us was Billy O'Donnell, very Irish, a likeable lad. I think he lodged in the village.
Other memories: Glow worms at night on the grassy bank near Follytown. The road towards Brabourne again, the field on the left side of the hill going down seemed to have a lot of Hares. Honeysuckle growing wild in the hedge of the Hastingleigh crossroads (gorgeous scent).
I used to send a rabbit occasionally through the post to my mum to help out with the rations, wrapped in thick brown paper and tied with string with the legs sticking out each end."Update October 2010:
We were informed by Josie's son that she died suddenly in mid September 2010 aged 86 years.
RIP Josie - thanks for your wonderful memories.
The Kurton family have sent me this photo of four land army ladies, who were billetted at the Land Army Hostel in Wye, but they did work up at
Hastingleigh. The two on the left are twin sisters, if that jogs anyone's memory. Please email the website if you can put names to faces
and we will pass the information on to the Kurton family.
Update May 2015:
I received an e-mail from JM :-
Identifying great aunt Phyllis Ridpath as the lady 2nd from the left, and the two ladies on the *right* hand side of the photo were her close friends
twin sisters Peggy C. Robinson (later Dalglish) and Joan A. Robinson (later Wilson) who hailed from the Margate area of Kent.
Thankyou so much for the update JM.
A touch of propaganda to encourage recruitment: