Sarah Boyce joins the Women’s Mission to French Farms in February 1916

Sarah Boyce

Title: Sarah Boyce
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This story has been written by Sally Clark, local historian, Windlesham.

Sarah Boyce was a resident of Windlesham from the time of her marriage to Henry Boyce in 1883. They lived in accommodation¬†on the site of Messrs Boyce and Son, Henry’s fish, game and poultry shop in School Road, Windlesham.

Messrs Boyce and Son was a very successful business. According to the Country Magazine of London, they were a “Country Business of Repute where the stock of poultry and game is carefully selected due to the long experience of the proprietors according to the season and the fish freshly selected, thereby offering reliable goods at reasonable prices.”

In 1909 Sarah Boyce was appointed to the then Windlesham Urban Council where she was to serve for 13 years. She is reported as having a natural aptitude for expressing her political convictions and consequently was often in demand as an able speaker.

With this ability and her background in agricultural matters, she was appointed during World War I¬†by the Board of Agriculture and Fisheries as Overseer of the Women’s Land Army (WLA) for the cultivation of land in the Berkshire, Surrey and Hampshire areas. She was one of the six women on the Women’s Mission to French Farms which travelled to France in February 1916 to report on the condition of the women as land workers.

The expedition took two weeks and visited over a dozen villages, most of which were behind the French Army lines and therefore within the military zone, obtaining special permits and permission for the use of a camera to record their findings. Conditions were extremely difficult as the great battle of Verdun began just at the time of their arrival. Travel was slow and difficult, civilian trains almost entirely suspended and roads flooded with the transport of war munitions.

The size of the farms varied but the greater number were small holdings of 40 to 120 acres. Most possessed cows, albeit that they were kept permanently stabled together with rabbits and poultry and every household made its own butter, cheese. Machinery was in short supply, most having been destroyed by the Germans.

However, despite the essential differences between conditions in England and France, the team was able to clearly discern that women could perform much of the agricultural work that in England had been thought impossible, including learning to plough and sow crops.

The French women showed wider resource and greater economy than in England, making more use of garden and vegetable produce, not only for human but also animal consumption. The Mission saw that careful storage of dried beans and peas and the use of wild salads could be imitated in the villages of England. Another interesting observation was that in some districts provision was made to relieve working mothers of the care of children of school age for the entire day during the busiest agricultural seasons.

The Mission on their return used their findings to arouse ‘the patriotism and imagination’ of the women in England who previously had taken a very conservative approach to working the land. The Board of Trade and Agriculture issued a patriotic challenge to women to meet the effort by the French women and in an attempt to present the work in terms of equality, Lord Selbourne, President of the Board of Agriculture, devised a certificate emblazoned with the royal arms in colour, to be issued to women land workers:

‘Every women who helps in agriculture during the war

Is a truly serving her country as the man fighting

In the trenches, on sea and in the air’

The Women’s Land Army ultimately came into being in July 1917, some sixteen months after Sarah Boyce and her colleagues returned from France to report their findings. The WLA succeeded in placing 23,000 women to work on the land before 1919.

Sally records her thanks to Bunty Richings for giving access to original papers in respect of her late husband’s family, particularly the original Report of the Women’s Mission to French Farms published by the Berkshire Committee on Women and Farm Labour in 1916.

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