The remaining original Women’s Land Army service record cards for England and Wales are held by the Imperial War Museum but facsimiles are made available to the public, in the form of microfiche copies, by the The National Archives at Kew, Richmond, Surrey, TW9 4DU. Record cards for 1939-1948 can be consulted online on Ancestry. They are in alphabetical order of surname, almost always maiden names.
What’s on the record cards?
WLA record cards provide the following information:
- Age on entry
- Occupation prior to entry
- Full home address
- County where enrolled (in top right-hand corner)
- WLA membership number
- Date officially enrolled (in bottom right-hand corner)
- Any transfers to other counties (next county and transfer date given),
- Date when officially leaving WLA (known as ‘release’)
- County in which last employed, reason for leaving.
Acceptable reasons the WLA included:
- medical grounds
- compassionate grounds
- transfer to another war service
- being pregnant or married
- completion of contract (for post-war ‘land girls’)
- demobilisation (‘demobbed’ following the end of the war, for those who joined for the ‘duration’ of the war).
- ‘Resigned’ does not mean that members had written a letter of resignation; it means they have left the WLA and been put on an official ‘Resigned’ list (either willingly or against their wishes) and a reason is, or is not, given for this on the card.
- Sometimes the terms “Willing release” or “Unwilling release” are used. A “willing release” would be given for one of a number of acceptable reasons, including the examples given above, whereas an “unwilling release” informs us that the member left the organisation without seeking approval and probably refused to return.
- “Dismissed” means forced to leave. Sometimes, a reason is given such as “Refused to return” or some form of “Unsuitable behaviour”.
- “Immobile” merely implies that they have got married and are no longer regarded as being able to be “mobile” in the sense of being transferred to wherever the organisation wishes.
What the cards don’t tell you
They unfortunately do not give any details of who employed individual ‘land girls’ or where in a county they were placed (although they do tell you which county or counties they were based in, with dates).
More information on what they do tell you
Surname: On enrolment in the WLA, in almost all cases it is the maiden name of the person which is recorded, since most recruits were young women aged from 17 years up to 30 years (the majority in their late teens and occasionally, when they lied about their age, slightly under the minimum age of 17 ½). In the few cases where the person was married at the time they enrolled, this is revealed by the presence of the word Mrs. In that case only, the maiden name of this person is not usually given.
Christian name: The first names of each person are given but beware that, occasionally, the administrative assistant who recorded the information may not have spelled the names correctly. It is also known that some land girls took the opportunity (their first time away from home and parents) to only give the name/s they preferred to be called and so the name may not be exactly as given on their birth certificate.
Mrs: (As stated above) in a small percentage of cases land girls were married at the time they enrolled or, in more cases, just before they left. Where this happened before they actually left the WLA then a new card was made out with their married name given, saying ‘Mrs’ instead of the usual ‘Miss’, so there will (or may) be two WLA service record cards to consult (so look them up by both their maiden surname and their married surname in case one card gives additional information which is not given on the other. [See below for more information about subsequent marriage, during or after WLA service.]
Married name: The WLA service record cards only record the subsequent married name of a member when they get married just before leaving the organisation. Marriage was an acceptable reason to allow a “willing release” as they were no longer what was termed “mobile” – which it was regarded that married women should not be. Being able to be sent wherever in the country they were required was one of the conditions of membership of the WLA. Since most young women married after they had left the WLA, after being demobilised at the end of the war or when granted a ‘willing release’ for health or other acceptable reasons, the married name/s of most land girls are not able to be ascertained, except by questioning relatives or acquaintances.
Date of birth (DoB): The date of birth is given in the form of day-month-year and the year is to be read as being prefixed in all cases by 19 (as all were born in the twentieth century), for example 10.1.23 is to be read as 10 January 1923.
‘Joined’ date: The date given is the date on which they were officially enrolled as a member of the WLA, having been successful in their interview. It is not to be read as the day on which they commenced work as a land girl, which would usually be some weeks, sometimes months, later. Where a member was transferred to another county from the one in which they enrolled, then that transfer date can be read as a starting date for work in the new county [which can be seen on the record card]. Where a person was successful in interview and accepted but subsequently failed to satisfy a medical examination or withdrew or was dismissed within, say, the first six weeks, during the initial training period, that person may be regarded as not actually having served in the WLA, despite the existence of a record card.
‘Finished’ date: This is the official finishing or ‘release’ date and sometimes was a few weeks after the actual leaving date. In a few cases where a land girl’s card is not found in the WLA archive, it may be that their card was lost on one of the moves of the archive during and after the war. Former land girls, or their relatives, may have kept their official WLA Release Certificate which gives their starting and finishing dates and this is to be taken equally as official evidence of their service as land girls (as may certain other official letters from, say, their WLA county headquarters). Similarly these dates could be found on a Congratulatory Letter from the WLA’s patron, Queen Elizabeth (wife of King George VI), which some land girls received after leaving the WLA, which is also proof of service.
WLA No: Each member of the Women’s Land Army was given a unique membership number on entry, issued consecutively, which as well as identifying one ‘land girl’ from another (particularly useful when they have identical names!) also gives some indication as to when in the eleven year life of the organisation they actually joined, for example a number in the low hundreds will be from 1939 and a number over 200,000 will be from late 1948 or early 1949, the last year in which enrolments were made before disbandment of the WLA on 30 November 1950.
Address: The place given on the record card is the town, village or settlement given as their address at the WLA joining date. It may or may not be their place of birth, but a family historian may well like to look there at the start of their search to try and confirm the place of birth. If in any doubt as to the part of the country they came from, you should be able to find the place listed in the Ordnance Survey Gazetteer, which will then give the name of the nearest town and the county.
County: The county given is the county of their address on enrolment. Some women will have as their county of origin, the old county of Middlesex, which was later absorbed in to Greater London. Recruitment in that area was under a county headquarters which the WLA termed “London and Middlesex”. Apart from this anomaly relating to London and Middlesex, old counties (now no longer in existence and absorbed into other counties) are obviously listed as they were at the time in the 1940s, for example Rutland and Huntingdonshire. For the large county of Yorkshire, addresses were subdivided into one of the three ridings (or administrative areas), for example North, West or East Riding. Boundaries have changed a number of times since the 1940s and researchers may need to check where a particular settlement in a border area of a former local government now lies in terms of modern authorities.
Women’s Timber Corps:
Initially at the commencement of the Second World War (3 September 1945) there were young women, of minimum age 21 years, employed by the WLA in a Forestry Section but a separate Women’s Timber Corps was later established in April 1942. These ‘lumber jills’, as they became popularly known, were (unlike land girls) directly employed by the British government, by the Home Timber Production Department of the Ministry of Supply. Their records are thought to have been destroyed after the war. Lumber Jills who decided to transfer to the Women’s Land Army when the Corps was disbanded on 31 August 1946 will show up on their index card where their previous employment will be given as ‘Women’s Timber Corps’.
© Stuart Antrobus, Bedford, July 2013. Thank you to Stuart for sharing this invaluable guide with the website.