Meet the brave women who kept the world running during WWII… 23

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Muddy Boots and silk StockingsI love history and have always considered Edmund Burke’s quote, “Those who don’t know history are destined to repeat it,” an edict by which we all must live. That we fail to heed his words (repeated by Santayana but without attribution) is no reflection on Burke; it is, perhaps, proof of his acuity. The Second World War is a case in point.

A few years ago I read Stuart Antrobus’ book, We Wouldn’t Have Missed It For The World: The Women’s Land Army in Bedfordshire 1939 – 1950.’ Interesting reading, it put a historic perspective on how women kept farms going in Britain through the dark years of WWII. Women were enlisted to perform everyday farm tasks, thus releasing men for combat duty. At first it was voluntary but, by 1941, it was compulsory for women aged 19 to 41 years to register.

And thus to Muddy Boots and Silk Stockings by Julia Stoneham: as a novel, it gives the reader an insight into wartime farm operation; the landowner; the responsibility of the manager, or warden; and the lives, the hopes, the aspirations of the girls, as well as other introduced characters. 

Alice Todd and her husband have been separated by war. The husband is in an undisclosed job, flying a desk at the Air Ministry, and must spend his time in London while Alice remains behind in Devon. A transfer to Oxford looms for the husband but he entertains no plans to take his wife. He has begun an affair with his secretary.

With a son to maintain and to educate, Alice finds herself in straitened financial circumstances. Unsure of herself or her capacity to manage, she attends an interview for the position of Land Army Warden. Despite reservations on the part of the interviewer, she is accepted.

Thrown in at the deep end, Alice must learn from the very first day how to care for a disparate group of young women. A derelict stone farmhouse is provided, crude, damp, cold and uninviting, with Rose, her assistant, little better. With a lot of scrubbing and scouring and the setting of fires in every fireplace, it is made slightly more hospitable. They develop systems to help them cope and, as they establish themselves, it seems even Rose gains a grudging admiration for Alice.

Although rather naïve and not at all worldly-wise, Alice grows into the position, her confidence developing as she becomes a friend, advisor, protector, mother-confessor, psychologist, all rolled up in one. She discovers life skills that had erstwhile lain dormant within. The girls’ backgrounds and experiences make for an interesting story. Life on a farm in wartime provides every gamut of human emotion, including love, laughter, anger, disappointment, tragedy and, on occasion, great pleasure.

Muddy Boots and Silk Stockings was developed by Stoneham from a series of radio plays she wrote, based on real life experience. Her father left her mother, Doris, and the seven-year-old Julia. Out of necessity, they found themselves in a damp, draughty old farmhouse where her mother took on the task of being warden to ten Land Army girls. I found Stoneham’s dedication touching: “To my mother, who provided me with the blueprint for Alice Todd.” 

This is easy reading, something I needed after a couple of recent ‘heavy’ reviews. Muddy Boots and Silk Stockings is the first book in a series, each covering about one year. It ends quite abruptly, with no rounding out, but I found that piqued an interest in following on with the next title.

Although written several years ago, all remain popular and are available from Dymocks.

PS – I thought this fact relating to rates of pay interesting. The average wage for a male farm hand in 1939 was 38/- (about $A3.80 as a modern, if inaccurate, conversion) but enlisted women were paid 28/- (about $A2.80). Some things evolve slowly, indeed.

Muddy Boot and Silk Stockings by Julia Stoneham is available in paperback and ebook formats at Dymocks.

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John Reid

  1. Thank you for this review. I just purchased the book for my IPad for $4.99. Can’t wait to settle down to a great read!

  2. Then they were thrown away when the men came home. Told to pack away their brains and become walking wombs.

  3. My beautiful Mother Molly Malone was recognised by the Government in 1995 for her war effort. There is a tribute to mum in the Barcaldine Heritage Centre. My dad at 37 joined the army and went away to war for 6 years. Mum was left with 5 children under 6 on a dairy farm in the Monto Area in Queensland. She had no running water, no electricity, and the only transport was horse or horse and sulky. When Dad returned after the war, mum had managed to buy a small car and make a profit. Dad was shot during the war and never worked again. I was born after the war as was my sister. They left the farm, and my beautiful mum cooked in pubs, outback stations and nursing homes till she was 65 to ensure her children had every opportunity for Education that she didn’t. She told me that a lot of women did it tough in the war, but at least they had food in the country, unlike the cities. Mum passed at 93 and her favourite saying was “hard work never hurt anyone”.

    1 REPLY
    • What a beautiful memory Maureen and how wonderful your mother was finally recognised for her service. When we say to servicemen, “Thank you for your service”, we tend to forget there was a woman at home who also served, albeit in a different way.

  4. My mother was a diatrict midwife in London throughout the war and frequently had to don her tin hat and jump on her trusty push bike during air raids to attend deliveries. The Daily Mirror once had a front page photo of her emerging from an air raid shelter carrying a new born baby. She also did duty with the air raid wardens and emergency services getting casualties out of bombed buildings – one particular part of the war she was never totally able to forget.

  5. Not heard about this book … my mum was inthe land army before she married my dad in 1950 … not sure when sh and her twin sister joined , they both worked in
    Drayton in oxfordshire … all mum said about it , that it was run like the army !!!

  6. CFan’t wait to buy this book, sounds like a great read. Have read three of Kate Morton’s books and they are wonderful would recommend them to anyone who likes going back in history. So many books and not enough time to read.

  7. This is still relevant today. While there will always be armed services and unfortunately armed conflicts, servicemen and woman will leave loved ones behind and go wherever they are needed. Spare a thought not just for the woman in the book but all past and current military families. Yes, I am an ex serviceman and yes I did leave my family whilst on overseas duties.

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