Text by Di Stiff, Surrey Heritage.
A fascinating insight into the role women played in rural communities in Surrey during the First World War can be seen in a contemporary film featuring women war workers at Cross Farm, Shackleford, Godalming. The film shows the women demonstrating their ploughing skills, and is part of a 16mm, black and white, silent newsreel produced by Gaumont British News, which was originally shown at Godalming Picture Palace, owned by Mr W G Fudger.
The focus of the film is an inter-farm competition, which took place on 18 April 1917, where women from the area demonstrated their newly acquired ploughing abilities. It underlines the greatly expanded role that women came to play after the outbreak of war, because of the demands of a wartime economy and the absence of so many men who had been conscripted into the armed services.
The women, members of the Women’s Land Army (WLA), are seen dressed in large coats and hats, and wear numbered arm bands. They pose with shire horses in the farmyard and adjust their ploughs in preparation for the competition. A group of dairy maids from Cross Farm’s dairy also pose for the camera, while a large crowd gathers about the farmyard to watch the event. The land girls are filmed taking part in a ploughing match in the fields (called ‘Blacksmiths’), working the horse-drawn ploughs, with judges checking their performance. In a field at Home Farm, a hoeing competition takes place where a group of WLA and women in civilian dress use hoes to turn over the soil. At Cross Farm farmyard, a crowd watches the cart handling competition, as women lead horses and carts through and one is reversed into a pole barn. The final shot shows a young girl sitting on a horse with a saddlecloth bearing the Red Cross emblem.
The Women’s Land Army was formed in January 1917 and by the end of that year had around 260,000 members. Like their counterparts during the Second World War their task was to help farmers grow more food in constrained wartime conditions. 127 entries competed on the day at Cross Farm, which was owned by Sir Edger Horne, local MP and chairman of Prudential, of Shackleford Hall Place. The farm’s tenant at this time was E V Stovold. The planning of the event is documented in the following Surrey County Council committee minutes:
SCC Reports 1916, p.820, report of Surrey Education Committee, 14 Nov 1916
Arrangements are being made for a demonstration of women’s work on the land to be held in western part of the county in April 1917.
SCC Reports 1916, p.1035, 2nd report (26 Oct), of County War Agricultural Committee (CWAC), for SCC 14 Nov 1916
Women’s Demonstration Committee established in Guildford under auspices of CWAC and Surrey Women for Farm Work Committee and demonstration is fixed for 18 April 1917 on Home Farm, near Godalming, of Mr W E Horne, MP.
SCC Reports 1917, p.115, Surrey Education Committee report for a meeting of the Council, 13 Mar 1917
At request of Joint Committee of CWAC and WAC, the Committee has agreed a grant of £10 towards cost of prizes at Women’s Demonstration and Competition, 18 April 1917.
SCC Reports 1917, p.287, 3rd Report of CWAC for SCC meeting, 13 Mar 1917
Demonstration of Women’s Farm Work to take place at Cross Farm, Shackleford, by permission of WE Horne, MP, on 18 April, organised by Surrey Women’s Agricultural Committee. Several competitions with prizes. Conveyance from Godalming Station organised. WAC members urged to attend.
SCC Reports 1917, p.941, report from Surrey Women’s Agricultural Committee, North Street, Guildford, 28 Aug 1917, to CWAC
Demo of Women’s farm work at Cross Farm, Shackleford, attracted 127 entries. Very successful as ‘a proof to the farmers of the practical value of women’s work’.
Watch the film:
‘Surrey Women War Workers’ (SHC ref F/44; SASE ref 1291/198).
It can be viewed online, along with the newsreel compilation by Mr Fudger, on the Screen Archive South East website.
Related material at Surrey History Centre:
Published Surrey County Council reports, 1916-1917 (dates as cited above), on open access.
Photographs of Cross Farm, Shackleford, May 1971 (built in the 17th century, with later additions by Sir Edwin Lutyens; SHC ref CC1101/3/70/593-609)
File of research material labelled ‘Village: School, Hall, Farms, Houses’, 2011, featuring Cross Farm, Shackleford (SHC ref. no. 8807/4)
Sale particulars of the Hall Park Estate, Shackleford, including Cross Farm, 1939, (SHC ref SP/687)
Records, including the printed regulations, of Surrey County Council’s ‘Music and Dancing, and Racecourses, and Explosives Licensing Committee’, detail the approval, transfer or rejection of Cinematograph licences throughout the county, 1910-1970s (SHC refs CC231, CC278, CC122, CC129)
Sagar, Peter. “Godalming Cinema History.” Mercia Bioscope. 55 (May 1995): 1-6. A brief history of cinemas in Godalming.
‘Surrey Women War Workers’ film originally comes from the collections of Godalming Museum.
For information about the WLA during the First World War, including a research guide, see the Women’s Land Army website.