A new book shines the light on North Yorkshire's land girls, forgotten heroines of Britain during wartime

MARION Jefferies had a very good reason to write the first book about the digs of women in Yorkshire's Land Army.

Her family home, Stockton House, at Stockton on the Forest, just outside York, had been a hostel for the Women's Land Army (WLA) during the Second World War.

It was one of 50 in Yorkshire used to accommodate some 5,000 land girls in the region.

Life was tough for many of these young women - mostly single females aged under 30, many of whom were from cities such as Hull and knew little of the countryside.

Marion, a historian and teacher, tracked down 100 former Land Army members for her research. Most were in their nineties and their recollections are shared in the 225-page book, Yorkshire Women At War (Pen and Sword, £25).

York Press:

Clearing snow, working the fields and life in dorms - how the land girls of the Second World War lived

Besides their stories, black and white pictures vividly turn back the clock to the 1940s to show what life was like for these hard-working women, whose wartime efforts, many believe, did not generate the publicity they deserved compared to other service personnel.

Local resident Dorothy Buckton was a land girl stationed at Stockton House and shared her tales and photo album with Marion. The pictures show the girls in their uniforms - breeches, long socks, shirts and pullovers - lined up for a group shot by the annexe built at the back of the house.

Dorothy was originally from Scarborough and was working in a fashion store in the seaside town before signing up. Her first posting was to a remote farm in the Yorkshire Dales, where she was lonely and found the work hard.

Luckily, Land Army organisers kept a close eye on the girls, visiting them regularly. Dorothy's unhappiness was noted and she was moved to Stockton House.

The work was just as arduous - labouring in the fields for long hours and in all weathers - but at least she had the company of fellow recruits. There were up to 35 land girls billeted in the house with eight - including Dorothy - living in the Nissen hut annexe in the garden. The outbuilding had electric lighting, a bathroom with running water, and was heated by a centrally placed iron stove, kept stoked with coke.

In winter, Dorothy and her comrades would make extra gloves from old socks and tie old brown sacking around their waists to protect them from the cold and mud. The young women slept in bunk beds.

York Press:

Stockton House, above, and the land girls who lived in its annexe, are all featured in Marion's new book, Yorkshire Women at War

Marion said life in Stockton House during wartime would have been hard. "It was very cold and the house hadn't been well kept at that time. Bats came into the girls' dorm and flew around quite freely and the warden did nothing about it until they came into her bedroom."

The Stockton girls went everywhere on heavy black bikes. Some had quite a distance to travel to their farm. On Friday nights, they went out en masse to dances at nearby Gate Helmsley and had to come home, giddy from all the fun, down narrow country roads in the blackout, often giggling and waking the neighbours.

Piecing together the locations of the Yorkshire hostels has been a labour-intensive job stretching over four years for Marion. Records on the Land Army were poor or non existent, says Marion, who slotted her story together mainly from newspaper clippings, personal interviews and archives at places such as the Yorkshire Museum of Farming at Murton and Eden Camp, Malton.

Besides Stockton House, there were other local hostels, including purpose-built ones at Knaresborough and Ripon. Houses at Alne, Malton and Selby were also requisitioned for the purpose.

Marion's book also explores the roots of the Land Army which, although mainly associated with the Second World War, dates from the First World War and firmly has its roots in Yorkshire. As men went off to fight, women needed to take over their jobs. In the agriculture sector, many farmers, and their wives, did not wish to have young women living with them. In response to the lack of accommodation on farms, special hostels were created for the land girls, the first of which opened in 1915 at Aldborough, Boroughbridge.

Marion is in no doubt about the importance of the Land Army's role in the war effort. "Britain would have starved in both world wars and afterwards, that is why the Land Army continued after the Second World War until 1950."

Despite the hardships endured, Marion discovered the land girls had fond memories of their war years. "Everyone I interviewed all said it was the happiest time of their lives. They enjoyed the company and the social life and the fact they were doing something useful."

It is only in recent years that their contribution has been officially recognised. And yet, Marion believes they still have not been adequately honoured. She says: "After the Second World War ended, letters of thanks were sent to land girls from the then Queen. Unfortunately, some of the women's names were not spelt correctly and their full service history was not recognised. When, in 2008, the British government tried to make amends for their oversight, they showed further indifference. Medals were sent to surviving members, along with a certificate signed by the Prime Minister, but the name of the recipient was left blank and they were expected to have their own names inscribed. This upset many veterans."

A long-awaited memorial to the women of the Second World War, including the Land Army, was unveiled in Whitehall in 2005. Two more memorials have since been created to commemorate the work of the land girls and their forestry counterparts, the lumber Jills.

Marion hopes her book will give us all an insight into the lives of the land girls who helped feed our nation in its darkest hour.

The book is available from Amazon and selected book shops.