Working in the women’s land army

In  ‘Seems only Yesterday’ Hilda Handscombe, now living in Crabtree Lane, remembers her wartime years in the area 1996


It was the very day war broke out, 4th September 1939, that Hilda – then Hilda Knight – started working on the land having joined the Women’s Land Army five months previously.  ‘I worked at Halls Green, filling in for a boy due to start at Christmas’  Then, on 4th January 1940  her association with this area as a landgirl got under way.

‘I was sent to the Hexton Road Smallholding near Pirton Cross (now farmed by Jill Williams) to work for Arthur Burton.’ For the next six years she lived and worked at the farm  in Britain’s great war-time effort to feed itself.

‘There was much more mixed farming then than now’, Hilda recalls. The farm was then a little bigger, around seventy seven acres, and grew wheat, barley, root crops and potatoes with some cattle and pigs. During those tough wartime years virtually every part of the work rested with  Arthur, who was also in the homeguard, and Hilda. Hilda delights in recalling the joys of farm machinery. Ploughing, harrowing, rolling and cutting the corn were all part of Hilda’s work. Indeed so proficient was she that she won a ploughing competition at St. Albans.

But , of course, much depended on human physical work fifty years ago. Harvest time was particularly busy. As the sheaves (bundles of wheat) came off  the binder, Hilda ensured that six to eight  of them were made into one shock (or stook) and left in the field to dry. Then Hilda worked on the tractor and trailer as the sheaves were tossed on board. From the field the trailer took the crop to the elevator in the farmyard where the stack was made. Stack-making needed much skill  as the stacks were built to  around room high. ‘Next it was  time for me to  thatch  the watertight roof. This was completed by pegging with two foot long hazel twigs’, Hilda explained.

After the corn had been brought into the stack-yard, an elevator was used to build a straw stack. This horse-powered elevator at Highdown Farm shows how the horse gear was linked by a driving rod which the horse walked round and round thus working the elevator gears. Farming was long and hard work at harvest time. The workers drank plenty of ale; a pint before they started and one more at 7.30am. At lunch time the women brought hot dinner with dumplings and another pint. At 4pm you had “beavers” plus a pint and one pint more at teatime 6pm, and another at 8pm. After the farms stopped brewing their own ale, they bought in beer from Lucas Brewery of Hitchin at a shilling a gallon. At the end of harvest, the men would collect their extra money to go “larging” in Hitchin. Here they would make purchases and drink an unlimited amount of beer to celebrate the end of the harvest. Often the farmer would pay for a barrel of beer, so the word larging would refer to the farmer’s largess

At harvest time around ten local workers joined Hilda and Arthur, including George Trussell from Pirton. After threshing the main crop of barley – ‘we also grew wheat’ – all was sacked and samples taken to the corn market in Hitchin on a Tuesday. Much of the crop that Hilda had harvested was bought by Tom Whitmore (father of writer and broadcaster Richard Whitmore) for Bowmans Flour Mill.

Threshing machines used to go round the farms in the village.

‘Then there was the busy potato time’, continued Hilda. She recalled potato setting, the very busy time of  potato picking in October and the art of potato clamping.  She explained how  casual labour for the picking was provided by boys from Hitchin Grammar School, including a young Michael Hill who now lives near Walnut Tree Farm. Hilda remembers how  she and Arthur kept the store pigs for a few months before they were taken to Hitchin market (near Woolworth’s present car park). ‘ We also kept some cattle which were fattened  and  sent for sale at Hitchin. I only remember us trying sheep one year. It just did not seem worth repeating’, said Hilda.


Wartime life was busy and Hilda had little time for social activities. ‘I sometimes went to Hitchin (The bus cost 2d.) and  I would cycle the fourteen miles home to my parents at Cottered’. But as the war entered its final years Hilda really came into contact with Pirton. On Friday evenings she  attended the Old Tyme Dances at the village hall and there she met Phil Handscombe whom she married in 1950 and lived for many happy years at Woodbine Cottage. (Next to The Fox).

Hilda lived here at Woodbine Cottage.

In between the end of the war and marrying, Hilda had more farming experiences. ‘In 1946 I moved back to Cottered and worked with my brother on a smallholding with a dozen cows. Two years later I moved back to Hexton Road farm until I married’. After marrying, Hilda still worked on the land.. ‘I worked for George Burton. He had the Live and Let Live in the High Street (now the home of Fran and Tim Manning) but  farmed at Burge End.

1950s The Live and Let Live at 31 High Street was originally a thatched cottage, but was turned into a beerhouse. It is easy to see the extension of the 17th century building with a brick Victorian bakery, shop and new clubroom. Farm buildings such as the pig sties, granary and large barn show that the Throssels were typical “multi-tasking” landlords – bakers, smallholders and beer sellers.

Seven years ago Hilda moved to her present house in Crabtree Lane, on a site previously occupied by two or three cottages (one the policeman’s)  and close to the old Middle Farm. Nearby was Docklands Meadow and Hilda remembers well the fetes that used to happen there. ‘ I can also picture in my mind  the long black  shed, originally the cowshed used by Jack Burton to mix and sterilise soil and store seed  trays and so on’. It disappeared when St. Mary’s Close was built; it having stood near to the site of Michael and Marian Goddard’s present house.

Middle Farm in Crabtree Lane

Working near Pirton Cross for all those years Hilda remembers well the very rough lane that led to the Hitchin-Luton road. It now bears the name of Carters Lane with the sign saying  ‘ formerly Wibbly Wobbly Lane’. ‘ But I always remember it as ‘Oojee Lane’ ,although I don’t know how you spelt that! (Nor does the Editor!) But best of all in those wartime years are Hilda’s memories of her years as a proud member of the Women’s Land Army.

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