Former Land Girl remembers the fighting spirit they showed during the war as we look ahead to Remembrance Sunday
- Credit: Archant
Former Suffolk Land Girl Phyllis Rose says young people today would struggle with the hard physical farm work the Women’s Land Army used to put in.
But she reckons it’s the reason she’s still going strong at 91. That and jam sandwiches! Liz Nice reports.
Phyllis Rose had a fall last week. She also got stung by a hornet: “He left two holes, like a vampire!”
However, the only evidence of Phyllis’ mishaps is the hornet himself who has been captured, dispensed with and neatly placed in a little jewellery box for visitors to admire.
Phyllis shows him off saying, “I like a laugh!” and dismisses what must have been quite a frightening experience – she fell down the stairs in the middle of the night – as “just a few bruises”. Laughing again, she adds firmly: “I’m still here!”
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Unlike the hornet.
Phyllis’s refusal to succumb to any form of disaster seems to have been formed a very long time ago.
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She moved from Yorkshire to Suffolk to join the Women’s Land Army aged 17. She had been living in Huddersfield with her brother and sister after being evacuated from London during the Second World War.
“We lived with my grandmother near the Woolwich Arsenal until they evacuated us,” she says. “My grandmother took us in after my mother was killed by the first bomb they dropped on Bognor.”
Phyllis’ friend, Tamara Unwin, who is with us for the interview and has known Phyllis all her life, looks surprised. “I didn’t know your mother was killed by a bomb.”
Phyllis looks at her knees. “I don’t tell people about that,” she says and there is a small pause before her face brightens and she nods at my notebook and smiles. “But I guess everyone will know now!”
She then insists on getting up to make us tea, bringing out the rock buns she has made especially for our visit. “Let me!” Tamara says. But is ignored.
Phyllis is spellbinding when she talks to us about her days in the Land Army. She decided to join after her neighbour came home in the Land Army uniform and Phyllis admired her green beret.
“She said she was a ratcatcher, so I thought, I would like to do that. I wanted that hat! And she was getting three pennies for every tail and I liked the sound of that too.”
Phyllis only weighed ‘about six stone’, so she was deemed too small for the job of ratcatcher “though later I was pretty good at catching rats with a pitchfork!”.
She was accepted instead for work on the land and was dispatched by train to Marks Tey, then by truck to Leavenheath, near Stoke by Nayland to a hostel for the women workers.
A loud, clanging bell rang almost immediately and a girl called Lillian Hart, who became her great friend, told her not to worry. It was just ‘nitty’, where all the girls got checked for nits!
“I thought, I’ve not got fleas!” says Phyllis, still mildly indignant after all these years. Her other great friends in her dormitory were Mabel Causton and a girl they called ‘Butterfly’.
Rations were slim. They got 2 oz of butter, 4 oz of sugar, about one sausage of meat and powdered egg. Phyllis always enjoyed the visits of one local helper from Stoke by Nayland who used to bring in pots of jam made by his wife.
“I love jam,” Phyllis grins, revealing that after rationing ending she practically lived on her favourite jam sandwiches.
“They seem to have worked,” she says and who can argue - she is now 91.
Phyllis and her friends worked on the farm attached to the hostel, rising at 6am to the sound of the bell, and working until 8pm whatever the weather.
One of her jobs was to help with the ploughing: the plough was led by a pair of shire horses and Phyllis would lead the horses while the local farmhand, Lol Tricker, operated the plough. This would go on all day and sometimes they still wouldn’t have ploughed the whole field.
Her wages were a guinea a week. With this money the girls had to buy their own toiletries and under-clothing. The WLA supplied only the uniforms, overalls and footwear. Phyllis also used to send 10/- home to her grandmother.
Another time, Phyllis and her friend Kathleen nearly lost digits while cutting the sugar beet. Phyllis lost the top of her thumb and Kathleen “nearly down to the bottom.”
“We went and got bandaged up and then went back to work,” she says.
Tamara was amazed. “The same day?”
“Oh, you didn’t have time off,” says Phyllis. “We didn’t worry in them days!”
Another time Phyllis was on top of the wagon, helping stack wheat sheaves when she fell and hurt herself. The doctor felt she was ‘only bruised’ so she returned to work, unaware that she had dislocated her shoulder –something she didn’t find out until she went home for a week’s holiday.
“That’s why I have a little hump,” she says, cheerfully, showing me her right shoulder where a bone does indeed stick out slightly. “But I didn’t take any notice. Well, you can’t, can you?” There was also the day, during the winter, when the carrots froze solid in the soil, so the women decamped to the local pub for a beer.
“The landlady was Mrs Stribling, a nice old dear,” says Phyllis. “I didn’t drink or smoke so I just sat there, like a ‘nana. Then we went back to the hostel and the warden took a day’s pay off us! That’s how it was.”
Another job was feeding the bullocks. Once, one got in the yard and messed on the gate. Phyllis had to clean it off with a piece of straw!
The only relief from work was going to the local cinema or dances. There were two cinemas in Sudbury, one near the Head Post Office, the other where Winch and Blatch now stands. And on Wednesday nights they would catch the bus to the Colchester Barracks for dancing. Other dances were at Whatfield and Acton. The Acton venue was actually a USAAF Hospital for wounded airmen. Phyllis vividly remembers dancing with a young lad with a withered arm.
“The Americans used to give us peaches and pears!” she recalls. Rare delicacies. But it was a boy called Percy Rose who won the then Phyllis Seymour’s heart.
He gave her a ride on the crossbar of his bicycle. Then she progressed to the back of his motorbike. At one point they stopped and Percy said, “It has a very severe clutch so you had better hold on tight”. Percy revved up the engine, engaged the clutch and was off. Unfortunately Phyllis dropped off the back as he set off and Percy disappeared up the road. Later, he realised his pillion was missing and came back for her.
“I was sitting in the road!”
They got engaged in Bures, went to Colchester to get a ring and stopped at the Yew Tree. “I had a lemonade and he had a beer.” They were married for 59 years and had two daughters, Rhona, now 63 and Carol, 67. Percy died in 2003 aged, 75.
“He was a good husband,” Phyllis says, looking up at the large photo of Percy that has pride of place on her mantelpiece, along with the horses and carts he made, replicas of the wagons that were used in the land army days.
“For our diamond anniversary I saw a ring in the window and he said, ‘You’d better have that.’ When we went in the shop, I said there was another I liked and I couldn’t decide.” She grins mischievously. “So he got me them both!” She wears them on her hand now.
After Phyllis left the Land Army because of her pregnancy “although I was still lifting hay bales right through it!”, she and Percy went to work for Tamara’s parents, Devora and Bill Peake who bought the buildings and land from the WAR-AG Dept in 1950. Percy became the Maintenance Manager for the Peake’s fruit growing, arable and livestock farm and eventually helped build the original golf clubhouse for the Peakes at Stoke by Nayland Golf Club – which later became part of Stoke by Nayland Hotel, Golf & Spa.
Phyllis went on to help the Peake Family by working in their apple orchards – picking, pruning and driving tractors – and working in their dairy to produce cheeses.
One of her jobs in the early 70s was to help Bill Peake to plant thousands of trees over what are now the two championship golf courses at Stoke by Nayland.
When the Peake family launched Copella apple juice in 1969, Phyllis worked in the production plant helping to run the apple press and hand-label the bottles. She then worked behind the bar for 12 years at Stoke by Nayland Golf Club during the 70s and 80s and travelled with Devora promoting Copella at food exhibitions. She was also Devora’s hairdresser and helped to look after Devora’s children, including Tamara who looks at her fondly and says, “She was like a second mother to me.”
She clearly still is.
Now living in Boxford, Phyllis has her family close by. Her daughter Rhona lives in the village and runs the post office, her daughter Carol lives in the next village.
While I’m there, Phyllis’ grandson Sean, a BA Purser, rings to ‘let me know where he’s going. He always rings before he takes off and when he lands,” she says, proudly.
And there she sits, in her sitting room, surrounded by photos of her daughters, her five grandchildren and her three great grandchildren and Percy on the mantelpiece.
But she isn’t sitting for long. Soon she is up again, keen to be ‘doing.’
The house, I notice, is perfectly tidy, which Phyllis is scrupulous about. “And she still insists on coming to my house every week to do the ironing,” Tamara says, shaking her head in admiration.
Phyllis grins. “I like to keep busy. I don’t think people would want to do all the work we used to do nowadays. But it was different then. We were used to it.”