“To be honest, it is one of the most inspirational things I’ve ever done” said 17 year old Josie of her experience meeting and interviewing 94 year old Bettie Baird. Bettie and Josie both come from Carlisle and the former was aged just 17 when World War Two began. Hearing Josie say that (spontaneously) was one of the highlights of this project for me and it reminded me why I love my job at The Devil’s Porridge Museum: it is a place where amazing history and people meet.
Our oral history project began with a good idea from one of our volunteers. “I know an inspirational woman” said Robin, “Read this!” he said handing me a photocopy of a book called ‘A Landgirl’s Tale.’ I read it with great interest. One of the things that stood out was the poem, written by Bettie in 1945, called the ‘The Landgirl’s Lament’. It was almost as though Bettie was calling out to us to do this project.
The Landgirl’s Lament
Who is this brave and happy band?
They are the girls who work upon the land.
They dig and sweat in wind and rain,
And backs very often ache with pain.
But still they carry on and on.
The Landgirl, the unknown one.
And yet they ask of no praise.
Only that God’s crops be raised.
Perhaps when years have come to pass.
Britain will raise her eyes at last.
And bless the Landgirl for all her toil.
To feed the Land and reap the soil.
Convinced that enough time had passed without Bettie’s story being shared, my work began. The team at The Devil’s Porridge Museum assembled a group of interested young people to travel to Carlisle to meet Bettie and film her with Haltwhistle Films. We spent about four amazing hours listening to Bettie’s tales of her time in the Women’s Land Army (WLA) in Cumbria. Her accounts of cow milking, tattie picking, looking after geese and lambs, hedge laying, dry stone walling, threshing, draining, scaling lime and burning bracken gave the young women interviewing Bettie an insight into the diverse and difficult tasks undertaken by members of the WLA but it was her liveliness and humour that made the stories shine and linger long in the memory.
In the WLA, Bettie volunteered to be a rat catcher and she told us how she climbed high in the rafters to lay poison and retrieve dead rats. In one account she told us of doing this at an RAF base. As she arrived, one of the young men at the base mocked her – saying something to the effect – that ‘a girl like her’ wouldn’t catch any rats. When they came to retrieve the dead rats, she and her friend smuggled in bags full from other properties. They dragged the full bags past the young members of the RAF who were playing football. The play stopped as the players stared in amazement at the WLA dragging bags and bags of dead rats from the base. It tickled Bettie to challenge their perceptions and to demonstrate her abilities. We feel this project is also part of that ongoing process: changing perceptions of women in the past and demonstrating the abilities of women then and now.
Some of Bettie’s most memorable accounts are not for the squeamish! She told the young women interviewing her how she became a mole catcher and would hunt and clean worms, lace their bodies with poison and use them to kill the moles. She also used to skin the moles for their pelts and took delight in showing us the 1940s mole trap she still has in her possession! Another account involved her throwing a rotting rat carcass at a cheeky boy which promptly fell apart all over him! All of the young people involved in the project enjoyed hearing a 94 year old woman cackle with glee remembering her youthful mischievousness.
After filming the interview, young people then worked with the film production company to edit the accounts and create a film from the hours of oral history footage. Working with the professional company, young people learned the basics of film editing and production.
Each of Bettie’s anecdotes was then animated by young people at a stop motion animation workshop weekend at the Museum. The mother of one local young boy sent this to us after the workshop, “My son absolutely loved every minute and is still talking about the workshop…he was in his element! …a huge thank you doesn’t even seem to be enough.” It was wonderful to be able to involve him in a project which he felt so passionate about.
We premiered the film days before the first lockdown in the local cinema with an audience of over 60 people including Bettie, her family, all the young people involved, and members of the local community. The film was a big success and appeared on local TV, in newspapers and on the radio. The story of a Land Girl is now on display every day in the Museum’s World War Two gallery next to objects connected to women’s efforts in the local area during World War Two.
Sadly, Bettie has recently developed dementia but she uses the film as part of her treatment: helping with her memory and reminiscing about the past. That development confirms to me the importance of projects such as this: we need to gather these testimonies and share them while we can. This was a brilliant project to work on with so many great outcomes for Bettie, for the young people and for the Museum and I would encourage anyone who thinks they know a person who ‘deserves’ to be interviewed to do it. We’re so pleased that Bettie is lamenting no longer and that her work, and that of the Women’s Land Army more generally, is getting the attention it deserves with The Devil’s Porridge Museum.
You can watch Bettie’s video here. You can also hear Judith speaking about projects run by The Devil’s Porridge Museum in a talk entitled ‘Sharing Stories of Women in War’ for the Imperial War Museum’s Subject Specialist Network here:
Judith Hewitt is the Manager of The Devil’s Porridge Museum. She studied for a BA in History and MA in Local and Regional History at the University of Nottingham. For many years, she was a Secondary School History teacher and Head of Department in Lincoln before moving to work in museums first at the Museum of Witchcraft and Magic in Boscastle, Cornwall and in her current role at The Devil’s Porridge Museum.
Image: Bettie as a Land Girl.