Quickly browse the internet for images of “land girls” and you’ll find that, like many images of women from different eras, they’ve been romanticised, possibly even fetishized by the vintage boom. I was thrilled when my Mum uncovered these photographs of my Nan – a genuine Land Woman. Neither the women nor the work was glamorous – it was really hard, back-breaking, dirty and trying. I doubt they worried about putting on lippy when there were more pressing matters, like where to wee! There were no posh portaloos, only dikes and open fields – particularly unpleasant when on your period, and there were no handy hand sanitiser gels back then, either. And of course, with it being piece-work, the pay was variable.
My Nan worked on the land her whole life, from being a teenager to an old lady. She only stopped working aged around 70 because of heart problems. In Lincolnshire (my family are from Boston) land and factory work was always something you could rely on, regardless of your age, skills or education (or lack thereof). Most of my family worked on the land at some point, as well as jobs on market stalls, in supermarkets and cleaning (which my Mum still does, despite hitting retirement age). I wanted to go to college after school to get some O Levels, maybe even A Levels – the sort of thinking that was unheard of in my family, and it didn’t go down too well initially. College led to University, and my Nan was there with me at graduation, super-proud.
As a child I’d often go to work with my Nan during school holidays. The ganger would pick us up very early in the morning, and we’d sit along a mud-caked bench in the dark back of the van, passively smoking everyone’s endless fags as we travelled to whichever field needed harvesting – potatoes, daffodils, etc. As a child it was fun, particularly if my cousins came too. We’d help Nan out, picking tates, chucking them on the riddle, bagging (the contraption that twisted the wire to fasten the sack was fascinating to me) but we’d also play, as kids do. As a teenager I did the work for real and absolutely hated it, particularly the factory work, which was more repetitive and incredibly boring. Marigolds, warm squash, wind burn, black nostrils, blisters, flower-rash, RSI, and images of the conveyor belt on repeat when you closed your eyes at night…
It was also exploitative. I worked for one ganger during the holidays when I was at college and was baffled by the huge cut she took from our pay each week. She claimed it was for tax and national insurance (and they naturally took money for petrol and pick-ups), but as I was earning below the taxable threshold I spoke to her about claiming it back from the tax office (not my idea – I was pretty ignorant, someone else had advised me). Anyway, the panic was visible across her face as she told me not to make a claim, that she’d sort it out with me. (She never did, and the tax man never saw a penny of it either – no surprise!). And working for LMO Onions was my initiation into the realities of gender inequality in the work place, as before then I had no idea that men got paid more than women for doing exactly the same work. This was the late 80s and “Thatcher’s Britain”. No wonder I started reading Spare Rib.
You covet the “better” jobs doing this work – wrapping the cauliflowers in cellophane was better than the cabbage line, because it demanded different skill and concentration, helping the day pass a little quicker. And when batches of onions came in rotten and maggot coated it was impossible to earn a decent days’ pay on piece-work. Instead, you dreamed of being in the fruit section, sticking labels over apple spots and bruises (as instructed). Many of my school friends did this work too, and I remember when we first got jobs as sales assistants in shops one Christmas – it felt luxurious in comparison. And we got paid the same rate every day!
These days working on the land in Lincolnshire is generally associated with immigrant labour – people from Eastern Europe who are doing this work because the locals are now allegedly “workshy”. I don’t know how true this is, it’s a long time since I lived there. My brother worked in a factory for a few years and saw the benefits (i.e. things such as time and a half for working a bank holiday) being stripped away. He once queried this and was told that if he didn’t like it his job would be given to a “fucking foreigner” (definitely not my words). The tensions that existed/exist between Bostonians and immigrants were no doubt fuelled by attitudes and changes like this, so a spot of capitalising on cheaper labour really wouldn’t surprise me. And I feel very sad when I hear stories of over-crowding, exploitation and even trafficking. Honest work isn’t always that honest, is it?
I only did this sort of work on and off over a few years, but my Nan did it solidly for around fifty, and well into retirement age. She wanted me to grow up to be “a secretary” – that seemed glamorous and freeing to her. She once said she’d have loved to have run a café (whilst making jam tarts, with a fag in her gob), but I don’t know what her real dreams were or if she had any. She worked with one ganger, Charlie, for a lot of years and I can still picture him crying at her funeral. She was a genuine, unrelenting, hard-working woman, always providing for her family.
These pictures, the land, the women are not glamorous.
But they are beautiful.