What was life like in the Land Army at Peasenhall?
PUBLISHED: 17:29 30 April 2018 | UPDATED: 17:29 30 April 2018
When ex-Land Girl Alice Piotrowski turned 90 she gave her family of 'bucket list' of things she wanted to, including returning to the former Land Army hostel in north Suffolk she hadn't seen since she was a teenager. Sheena Grant reports
In the summer of 1946 Alice Piotrowski joined the Land Army. The Second World War was over but women were still needed to tend the fields, and 18-year-old Alice, who had been working in the rag trade at Phillips and Piper in Ipswich, thought it would be an adventure.
So along with her friend Jean Baker she went to the recruiting office, hopeful of becoming a lumberjack and getting to wear the green beret she preferred to the regulation brown trilby of the Land Army. But it was never really an option.
Alice Butcher, as she then was, weighed little more than seven stone and the smile on the recruiting officer’s face when she stated her preference confirmed they thought her frame too slight for such a job. Instead, she was handed that old brown trilby, a pair of khaki jodhpurs and a green pullover, and put on a train to Peasenhall.
Alice stayed in the Land Army just six months. It wasn’t long, but her time as a Land Girl made a life-long impression. So much so, that before she turned 90 in October she gave her family a ‘bucket list’ of things she wanted to do to mark the milestone birthday.
They included fulfilling a lifetime’s ambition of holidaying in the west of Ireland, holding some barn owl chicks and returning to the Peasenhall Land Army hostel she had not seen since she was a teenager.
The first two wishes were easy to sort out – a holiday was booked and Alice’s eldest son, Steve, director of the Suffolk Community Barn Owl Project and a licensed bird ringer, had no trouble in finding some young barn owls.
But the return to The Hall, at Peasenhall, now a privately-owned house, proved more difficult.
“We got a number and phoned but no-one answered, we called at the house and I put notes through the letterbox but they weren’t answered either,” says Steve. “We were getting quite desperate because we wanted to arrange it before Mum’s birthday.” Eventually, through the parish council, the family managed to make contact with the owner, who was working abroad, and a visit was arranged.
Alice, who grew up in Ipswich and now lives in Felixstowe, says despite the passing of so many years the village and house where she and the other Land Girls were billeted was instantly recognisable.
“The building hadn’t changed so very much in a lot of ways,” she says. “There was still the big hall where us girls used to get together – we had a gramophone where we used to put records on and do dancing and I remembered looking across to the kitchen and the room where we all had our meals.
“From my bedroom I used to watch horses out in the fields. It was so different to everything I had been used to growing up in Ipswich.”
Alice believes she is one of the last surviving Peasenhall Land Girls – at 18 she was one of the youngest there. And despite her youth, urban roots and small frame, she was a good worker.
“It was a very lonely life, especially for me, coming from the town,” she says. “You couldn’t see another house. Some of the only people we saw were Italian prisoners of war working in the fields next to us.”
Alice and Jean shared a room with two other girls in the former servants’ quarter and before long Alice struck up a friendship with a girl called Betty, who came from Lowestoft. Betty, however, soon left to get married before emigrating to Australia, though she and Alice are still in touch.
The 10-hour working day started early. Despite being issued with extra gloves, Alice’s hands would ache with pain in winter. “I remember my first day’s work, which started at 7am,” she says. “We all climbed into a covered truck, with packed lunches, and when we arrived in a very large field we were shown how to hoe sugar beet.
“There wasn’t a house or farm in sight and I felt I was in another world. I got stuck into the work and when the forewoman blew her whistle we sat down to eat. Thinking it was lunch I began tucking in, when Jean said, ‘You’d better save some for your dinner – it’s only 10 o’clock’. It seemed like the longest day of my life.”
But she adjusted and soon jobs such as muck spreading, pea picking and harvesting became second nature, though she never got used to farm hands chasing and killing rabbits that bolted from the cover of the wheat and barley fields at harvest time.
“One job I was never asked to do was rat catching. I was terrified of rats, but some of the girls had to do it.”
The days may have been long and the work hard but the girls were well fed at the hostel. They got £1 12 shillings a week, from which payment for their board and lodgings was deducted, leaving them with little to show for their labours.
Eventually, the work took its toll and Alice developed a bad back, which made it impossible to continue. She was also tiring of Land Army life and, after being spooked by other girls, who told ghost stories and tales of the murder of servant girl Rose Harsent in the village in 1902, Alice resolved to leave.
Her last job was clearing long grass and thistles from Parham Airfield, ready for the arrival of a contingent of Polish airmen.
“The girls were talking as they worked and were hopeful they would meet a few of the men in the pub or dance hall,” says Alice. “I remember thinking, ‘I’ll soon be out of the Land Army so I certainly won’t be meeting any Poles’.” Little did she know, however, that she would marry one of those Polish airmen just five years later. Alice met Henryk Piotrowski not at Parham, the pub or a dance hall but after she returned to Ipswich.
By then Henryk, a tailor by trade, was working at clothes maker Glazebrook’s – with Alice, who had returned to live at Hadleigh Road with her parents.
“There was a works outing to Yarmouth and people were asking Henryk if he was going,” recalls Alice. “He said he would go if I went. I learnt later that Henryk went to Parham Airfield to collect his discharge papers from the Royal Air Force, so not only was I to eventually meet one of those Poles from Parham but I was to go on marry one of them.” The couple had eight children and were married 63 years, until Henryk’s death in 2013.
Alice received a medal in 2009 and looks back on her time at Peasenhall with affection. “The recruiting officer was not too pleased when I left and tried very hard to persuade me to stay, as our forewoman had sent a letter saying I was a hard worker and willing to do any work that came along,” she says.
“But I’m pleased I was never asked to do rat catching.”
For more information about the Women’s Land Army, the Timber Corps (‘Lumber Jills’)and the vital role they played in Britain’s war effort visit www.womenslandarmy.co.uk