Life on the land

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

EADT Suffolk - - Inside -

Alice Piotrowski re­calls Land Army days at Peasen­hall

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

‘There wasn’t a house or farm in sight and I felt I was in an­other world’ “PU Pul­lquote small (Uss OS for text wrap) aut quis id eost et et am, sed­i­cab idit voloribeaque pori tem es­tota ape­les nonese”

Alice Piotrowski in her Land Army Uni­form. Alice and Hen­ryk (left) on their first date - Glaze­brooks out­ing to Great Yar­mouth . Ar­chive photos cour­tesy of Alice Piotrowski

Alice Piotrowski and her daugh­ter, Rachel, dur­ing her 90th birth­day year visit to The Hall, Peasen­hall. Alice and Rachel are in the draw­ing room, for­merly used as a com­mon room by the Land Girls sta­tioned there when it was a Land Army hos­tel in the...

Alice Piotrowski hold­ing barn owl chicks. Photo: Kathy Piotrowski

Alice Piotrowski and her son Steve at the for­mer Land Army hos­tel in Peasen­hall. Photo: Kathy Piotrowski.

The Peasen­hall Land Army group. Alice Piotrowski is on the back row, sec­ond from the left.

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