I love reading about the Home Front in WWII. Some of my favourite books have been diaries & letters of the period because they offer such an immediate response to challenging times. Jambusters is a narrative history but very much based on interviews & diaries of the women who were members of the Women’s Institute, the WI, during WWII.
The WI began during the Great War. Based on a Canadian model, it was an organisation that brought rural women together to learn new skills & share their experiences. It also became a support to isolated women & a social outlet away from farm & family where they could have a voice. It was also remarkable in being fairly classless. Rural life in Britain in the early 20th century was still quite class bound. The local landowner & his family either employed many of the local population or took the lead in social & community activities. The WI wasn’t structured around class at local level & it was a robustly democratic organisation for the time.
When war was declared in 1939, the government soon realised that food production was going to be a vital part of the war effort. Food imports had been disrupted by the war & they knew that every available resource would have to be tapped. The WI was the perfect organisation to spread the word about government programs & they took on this role with enormous success. I hadn’t realised that the WI’s constitution was based on non-sectarianism & was very strongly anti-war. This meant that there were many discussions at the National Executive level about just what the members could do for the war effort. They decided that they could be involved in food production & the reception of evacuees from the cities & these two areas became the focus of the WI during the war.
The government took full advantage of this vast volunteer workforce although red tape made it difficult for the WI to always be as involved as they wished. The image of WI members making endless pots of jam is a cliché but it is based in truth. The first harvest at the beginning of the war was a bumper one & there was an enormous amount of fruit to be preserved if it was not to go to waste. WIs all over the country mobilised to turn the fruit into jam although they had trouble getting extra supplies of sugar from the government. This is the kind of irritation (along with the endless forms to fill in) that frustrated women who just wanted to get on with the job. However, in spite of this, the jam was made & distributed or sold to keep the WI going because as well as all their charitable endeavours, the WI had to be self-supporting. When the Dig for Victory campaign was in full swing, excess produce was sold to bring in much-needed funds. I loved this quote from Cicely McCall, educational organiser for the National Federation of WIs,
Jam-making was constructive and non-militant, if you liked to look at it that way. It accorded with the best Quaker traditions of feeding blockaded nations. For those who were dietetically minded, jam contained all the most highly prized vitamins. For those who were agriculturally minded, the scheme saved a valuable crop from literally rotting on the ground, and it encouraged better fruit cultivation – thought not, one can only pray, of plums only. And for the belligerent, what could be more satisfying than fiercely stirring cauldrons of boiling jam and feeling that every pound took us one step further towards defeating Hitler?
In August 1941, an editorial in Good Housekeeping summed up the role that women were expected to take on,
Yours is a full time job but not a spectacular one. You wear no uniform, much of your work is taken for granted and goes unheralded and unsung, yet on you depends so much. Not only must you bring up your children to be healthy and strong, look after your husband or other war workers so they may be fit and alert, but you must contrive to do so with less help, less money and less ingredients than ever before.
Of all the stories in this book that exemplified that statement, it was Edith Jones whose organisation & industry just amazed me. She was a farmer’s wife living near Shrewsbury. Married in 1914, she & her husband Jack were tenant farmers at Smethcote. Apart from running the farm with Jack, she grew vegetables & fruit, preserved what they couldn’t eat, kept chickens, made & mended clothes & anything else that was needed. Edith was determined to keep up with her reading & her diary intersperses daily farm news with the latest political drama & the fears of the coming war.
There are so many great stories in this book. I loved the mobile canning vans that were given to the WI by the American Federation of Business and Professional Women. These vans made it possible to preserve the harvest in all sorts of areas that couldn’t afford the equipment. The skills that women learned were also important. Not only in food preservation but sewing for evacuees, knitting for the troops & skills in accounting & good business practice that were essential to account for every penny earned from the sale of goods. As rationing continued, the make do & mend ethos took on great importance & many of the women would have carried on these ideas into their post-war lives. In fact, the WI’s members had considerable input into that post-war world as a result of the surveys they completed on topics such as housing conditions, the availability of sewerage & piped water in rural areas. I had no idea just how primitive conditions were in many parts of rural England in the 1940s & was even more amazed that so much was achieved without the mod cons we take for granted.
Jambusters was the basis of a drama series, Home Fires, that has been shown in the UK. It’s been released on DVD here & I’m looking forward to seeing it. I read Jambusters in just a couple of days & felt quite exhausted as well as full of admiration for the women who did much more than their bit in keeping morale high & the country fed during WWII.