by Emily Ashworth
Emily Ashworth tells the story of her grandmother's time in the Land Army
In the tapestry of family history, some threads stand out vividly, weaving tales of resilience, sacrifice, and the unexpected turns that life often takes. Such is the story of Vera May Whyte Ashworth, a woman whose life unfolded in ways she could never have anticipated when she was just 18 years old. Her journey, like many others of her generation, was shaped by the tumultuous era of World War II, a time when young women like her were called upon to embrace roles far removed from their dreams.
Honestly? My Grandma was a beauty. She had smooth, porcelain skin as pale as fresh milk. The auburn hair that once fell around her perfectly formed cheekbones burned brightly, much like her character, I guess.
Born Vera May Whyte Flemming on 26 April 1926, my grandma was a fiery Liverpudlian, and even after living in Lancashire for most of her life, every now and then her accent, that slight twang, would appear mid-sentence.
She received her call-up papers for the Women’s Land Army in 1944, aged 18, having just finished her apprenticeship in fashion. She was sent to Somerset to begin her journey as a Land Girl.
She was not totally unaware of the workings of the countryside, often reminiscing of her much-loved family trips to Ireland, but to go from the bustle of Liverpool to Low Moor, the quiet, picture-perfect village where I have found myself back living, was surely a shock. The sound of the countryside still fills the air, and we are still woken by local donkeys braying and morning bird song.
I asked her once if she resented the fact that she never got to work in the fashion industry, the chance pulled from right under her like so many other wartime women.
“The fresh air and the outdoor life suited her well, and it was how she met my grandad, James.”
I know she was stylish; I could just tell. She had an eye for design and material and always read the style pages in the Sunday magazines, discussing the latest trends with me or briskly unleashing her opinion about what ‘girls these days wore’.
Would she have led a life in fashion? One can never say, but these women were needed regardless of personal ambition or status, and grandma, shall we say, was not the sentimental type; she held no grudges or bitterness, instead pondering perhaps that had she entered the fashion industry her life may not have been as ‘colourful’. And, of course, I would not exist.
The fresh air and the outdoor life suited her well, and it was how she met my grandad, James – or Jim as everyone called him – a twist of fate that led her to spend the rest of her days as a dairy farmer (which was also true of many other former WLA members).
Low Moor farm covered about 57 acres, running a mix of Holsteins, Friesians, Jerseys and Albions, bought by my great-grandad, James. Interestingly, it was originally owned by the Garnett family, who owned the infamous Low Moor textile mill. My grandad began a milk round from the farm, which was then taken over by my dad and his brothers in the 1970s.
It is funny how writing her story makes me feel connected to my home in Lancashire. I walk past the farmhouse most days, with its cherry blossom tree that flourishes each year and brings our small village to life, reminding me that she is still around.
Grandma was well known in our village for her sharp tongue and naughty wit, but her bark was worse than her bite. I do wonder whether her stint in the Land Army made her believe she always had to be a tough cookie.
There were countless conversations in which she would recall outshining any man working on the farm with her, suggesting that she had to strive to prove her worth. The farm was also frequented by Italian prisoners of war, most of whom she found quite pleasant.
Certain stories stick with me, though, from the snapshots she gave me of her time in the WLA, and it saddens me that I never took pen to paper more when she was living. But the following stands out, from one of the very first articles I wrote on the Land Army:
We were out threshing kale in the middle of a freezing day in November. My hands were all blistered, but the girl working next to me started to cry and sat down right where she stood. She said she could not do it anymore, so I just took my own gloves and coat off and gave them to her.
“Grandma had forgotten where she was, rolled over and fell with a thump onto the floor!”
I actually enjoyed it and found myself quite toasty once I had finished. It is these moments which, to me, say everything that needs to be said, not just about my own grandma, but about the silent promise these women seemed to make to each other. It brings to life the many anecdotes of friendships formed between these women and the support they gave to each other.
She also told of how scared she had been after riding her bicycle too fast around the winding Somerset lanes, carting a tray of milk on the front of her bike. Turning too sharply, her balance went and, along with it, the milk. But her first thoughts were of the farmer and how angry he was going to be when he found out how she had spilled the milk. I could not imagine her being scared of anyone, I said.
Then there was the time she and some other Land Girls managed to find a bag of cigarettes, charmed no doubt out of the hands of local American soldiers. Once back at their hostel, they had to creep in through a window and hide their stash from the warden. They hid them in a water tank and went back to find there had been a hole in the bag and their cigarettes were wet and ruined.
There was also her rather bumpy introduction to life in the Land Army. On her first night, she had been allocated the top bunk in a cold barn where the girls slept. Grandma had forgotten where she was, rolled over and fell with a thump onto the floor!
“Could she have made it in fashion? Was it a cruel twist of events?”
When reading back through all these stories, you can feel the kind of innocence that only young people have. And that is what many of these women were – young and carefree, but bound by duty and making the best of their situation.
Grandma’s life turned out very differently from what she could ever have imagined when just eighteen, and to sit and look back over ninety years of her life must have been a strange conversation to have. Could she have made it in fashion? Was it a cruel twist of events? Whatever it was, I am just so blessed that she was my grandma, and I want her to know that I am so proud of what she did. And if there is something I would like to live by, it is her parting statement from that very first interview: ‘I have always made the very best of situations.’
NorthernLife Nov/Dec 23
Taken from The Land Army’s Lost Women £16.50. Published by Pen & Sword.