Towards the end of last year, I had the wonderful opportunity to visit a museum that has been on my bucket-list for a long time. The museum in question is the Museum of English Rural Life or ‘The MERL’ based at the University of Reading. The MERL is ‘Twitter-famous’ for its Twitter campaign using photographs from its photographic collection to promote the museum with the most famous being the ‘Absolute Unit’ of a large sheep which blew up over twitter in early 2018. The MERL has a vast collection and archive of items relating to life in the English countryside that span decades and centuries. A more detailed discussion and review of the MERL will be coming up in the blog over the next couple of months.
This blog post features items from the museum’s collection that relate to the Women’s Land Army (WLA) in World War Two. The WLA was originally formed during World War One in January 1917 under the directorship of Meriel Talbot. Between the formation of the WLA in 1917 and it’s cessation in 1919 over 20,000 women joined to help with farming, foraging, and timber felling. . The WLA re-formed in 1938 under the auspices of Lady Gertrude Denman and by November 1950 when the WLA was formally ended over 200,000 women had once again taken up work on the land and in the forests of the United Kingdom. .
Women’s Land Army Uniform consisting of brown overcoat, brown hat, green V-Neck jumper, white shirt, and green tie. Mannequin wears a floral face mask
as museum was visited during the Covid Pandemic of 2020-2021. (c) Rachel Sayers, 2021.
Central to the image of the WLA is their distinctive uniform brown brogues, thick woollen socks over corduroy breeches, a green V-neck knitted jumper, white aertex shirt and green tie with WLA emblem, sand coloured great-coat, and distinctive matching hat with yellow band and enamel WLA band. There was also a brown coat for milking, brown cotton dungarees, boots, and unofficial items of knitted jumpers, shorts, and pull-overs. The unique uniform of the WLA features in the MERL in the form of a full-length mannequin dressed in dungarees, brown milk coat, jumper, shirt, tie, brown shoes and socks, and hat and holding a metal lantern. The mannequin is positioned as to look at the viewer and is in a square, full-length glass case that the viewer can walk around to get a full 360 view of the uniform. The mannequin gives the impression that she is looking at you and that you are getting in her way when she is on her way to the milking parlour early in the morning!
Mannequin in a life-size glass case wearing the uniform of the WLA consisting off; onsisting of brown overcoat, brown hat, green V-Neck jumper, white shirt, and dark green tie, biege
dungarees, grey woollen socks, and brown-lace up shoes. There are other tractor related and WLA items including booklets also in the case.
Photograph of bottom of glass cabinet consisting of brown lace up shoes and grey woollen socks of the mannequin. There is a close-up
of a red and white tractor driving licences, some multicoloured badges, and some blue postal stamps.
The inclusion of WLA related ephemera within the glass cabinet enhance the story of the women with the WLA with the inclusion of the WLA instructional manual, a bright turquoise backed booklet on ‘Getting the best out of ‘Your Tractor’’, badges, and what appears to be a driving licence for driving a tractor. Adjacent to the glass case is a navy-blue World War Two sit-on tractor along with contextual imagery of a similar tractor and a photograph of WLA members working in the fields. The inclusion of contemporary photographs from the period gives the viewer an idea of the weather and conditions that the women of the WLA had to work in. Sitting a top a sit-on tractor in the freezing January cold with the wind biting round you is not an attractive prospect but the women of the WLA got the work done and continued to feed Great Britain throughout the War.
This is a photograph of a navy-blue metal tractor with very large wheels to the side of the driver. There are
black and white photographs of the WLA in a field and in a hay barn. There is also a label which
details why the WLA was formed and why women joined.
A larger glass fronted cabinet is situated towards the entrance of the museum and features collection items relating to the production of food in Great Britain, food rationing, and the role the WLA had in providing food for the citizens of Great Britain. Prominent to the left-hand side of the display is a large Women’s Land Army recruitment poster that depicts a blonde haired WLA girl holding a pitchfork looking at admiration at the field she has just turned soil over in. Though the reality of the work was far from glamour when your daily job involved muck, manure, and angry farmers who did not want women to work on their farms.
There are two photographs here. The top photograph is of large WLA poster of a women wearing the WLA uniform holding a pitch-fork, some multi-coloured food advice leaflets,
an assortment of small toy farmyard animals and a bucket. All these items are in a glass case. The bottom photograph is of the brown WLA ‘great-coat’ with red and green arm-band
on the sleeve with a small ceramic pig on the base of the wooden mannequin. Also in a glass case.
Additionally in this display the WLA great-coat and arm band is featured on a headless mannequin to the centre of the display cabinet which if interpreted correctly could emphasize the WLA’s central role in the production of food when so much food was previously imported prior to the outbreak of war in 1939. There are also ration books, cookery books, and a modern albeit WW2 inspired advice poster on how modern people can be like the women of the WLA and grow their own food and be watchful of their food consumption and waste.
Although the inclusion of items belonging to women of the WLA is relatively small the display methods, lighting, and exhibition text is insightful, precise, and thoughtful regarding the importance of the role of the WLA throughout World War Two. The inclusion of items relating to women’s role in the countryside is also a theme that I saw concurrent throughout the entirety of the MERL’s exhibition displays and a theme I will touch on in my future blog post.
This photograph is of a poster with a cartoon of a blonde women with a WLA uniform telling the viewers ways to prevent food waste in 2020.
Below the poster are several knitted vegetables including a turnip, cauliflower, and radish. My reflection in a beige coat is discernible in the glass cabinet’s reflection.
 – Employment Figures, Women’s Land Army & Timber Corps, <https://www.womenslandarmy.co.uk/first-world-war-womens-land-army/employment-figures/>
 – World War Two, Women’s Land Army & Timber Corps, <https://www.womenslandarmy.co.uk/world-war-two/>
-Formation of the WLA.
-Discussion of the WLA in Reading.
-Discussion of the objects, displacement of objects, text, lighting, contextual info.