Womens Land Army hostel
- Heritage Category:
- Listed Building
- List Entry Number:
- Date first listed:
- Location Description:
- approximately 60 metres east of Rose Cottage, Back Lane, Smallwood, CW11 2UN
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The building or site itself may lie within the boundary of more than one authority.
- Location Description:
- approximately 60 metres east of Rose Cottage, Back Lane, Smallwood, CW11 2UN
- Cheshire East (Unitary Authority)
- National Grid Reference:
Women’s Land Army hostel, built in 1942 to a design probably by the Ministry of Works and Planning.
Reasons for Designation
The Smallwood Women’s Land Army hostel, a purpose-built hutment hostel of 1942, later altered for agricultural use, is listed at Grade II for the following principal reasons:
* for its strong associations with the vitally important wartime work of the Women’s Land Army.
* as an unusually intact example of this rare building type, retaining much of its plan-form, original joinery, distinctive glazed entrance and wartime paint scheme;
* manifesting its wartime associations strongly in the utilitarian nature of its materials and construction details including hollow-tile block walls and lightweight roof trusses, and in the surviving remains of blackout arrangements.
Smallwood is a typical purpose-built hostel for the Women’s Land Army (WLA, better known as the land girls), housing women who travelled up to several miles to outlying farms. Its construction exhibits ‘utility’ principles, for example in the use of timber jointing methods not requiring carpentry skills, in the use of bricks on edge for the inner skin of external walls to reduce the overall number of bricks used, and in the minimal heating via pipes without radiators, and coke stoves. The hostel was built in 1942, but due to damp problems the first girls stationed here soon had to move out. Few returned when the hostel was ready again, and replacements moved in. It was occupied until at least 1946. It was described by Nora Wright (a 14-year-old orderly in 1942, who later joined the WLA) as ‘a new built brick barrack with cold concrete floors. Coke stoves and a coke boiler provided heating but there was none in the dormitories. It was my job to supply the large barrowloads of coke’.
In the late-C20 the dormitory and ablutions block was converted to pigsties. This involved adding dwarf walls inside the original bedroom partitions, with embedded iron railings enclosing the front of the former open bays. Only in the north-east of the dormitory block does an internal partition appear to have been removed, indicated by the broken ends of the hollow-tile blocks which are still keyed into the north wall. In the ablutions area, the former toilet area has had its wall taken down to one metre high, and the doorway filled in to create another pen. Washbasins have been removed from the walls although at least two of these are still (2019) in the building, and the dividers between the showers have been removed from the wall. The rest of the hostel has been used for storage and for raising chickens with little physical alteration. The cubicles in the south end of the dining block have been removed, as indicated by the scars of their walls in the concrete floor and western wall, and the mixture of surviving battens for shelves and witness marks of the same in the paint on the same wall. Their doors however appear to survive, stacked in the kitchen. The small fireplace on the east wall of the dining room has been removed, and some areas of the fibre-board ceiling have fallen.
The WLA was first formed in 1917 and disbanded in 1919. It was re-formed on 1st June 1939 in anticipation of the Second World War, dividing England and Wales into seven regions (and also operating in Scotland), with one or more committees in each county. Many of those staffing the volunteer administration were also members of the Women’s Institute (WI); Lady Gertude Denman, the director of the WLA, was also chair of the National Federation of the WI, and made good use of this existing network of contacts. In 1941 the WLA was made semi-independent from the Ministry of Agriculture, and Queen Elizabeth (later the Queen Mother) became its patron. By December 1943 there were over 80,000 members, carrying out the full range of farming tasks, as well as forestry (which from 1942 was the province of a subsidiary called the Women’s Timber Corps). They were producing approximately 70 per cent of Britain’s food requirements, compared with 70 per cent imports in 1939. After the war, the work continued, including contributing to eradicating the Colorado beetle. The WLA was finally disbanded in October 1950. Nearly 250,000 women had served in it, mostly in their teens or early twenties and with no prior experience of farming or the countryside.
Land girls generally worked on their own and lived in lodgings, or were billeted on the farms where they worked. However, to counteract isolation and occasional poor treatment, hostels were also established in pre-existing buildings, ranging from country houses to stables. From 1942, new ‘hutment’ hostels were built, like the one at Smallwood, and housing up to 48 women. They were staffed with orderlies and a warden or matron; many were run by local YWCA (Young Women's Christian Association) or other volunteer services. There were some minor variations in plan, but all consisted of inter-linked ranges with a cruciform, H, or T-plan, comprising a dormitory, dining and common room, kitchen, matron’s room, sick room, bathroom and showers, toilets, and a boiler room, with a header tank tower. In addition there were often lean-to stores and outbuildings to house bicycles, tools, farm machinery and tractors.
By 1944 there were 696 WLA hostels (requisitioned and purpose-built), accommodating about 22,000 land girls. The hostels also acted as places for billeted girls to socialise. The numbers of hutments which were built and survive are not known, but in the south-east of England only one complete surviving example is known, at Brenzett (Kent), which has been converted to an aeronautical museum, also with WLA displays. Another partially survives in farm use at Bolnhurst (Beds). These examples are not listed. Wales has one listed example, in Flintshire.
Women’s Land Army hostel built in 1942 to a design probably by the Ministry of Works and Planning.
MATERIALS: brick and hollow-tile block walls, asbestos-sheet roofing, steel and timber windows, concrete floors.
PLAN: T-shaped, with a dining block aligned roughly north to south, and a dormitory and ablutions block aligned approximately east to west, a small link-block, and a small outshut to the west of the dining block.
EXTERIOR: standing in a small field to the north of Back Lane, and at the time of inspection extremely overgrown.
The building is single-storey, with duo-pitched roofs of asbestos profiled with widely-spaced ridges with flat valleys between. The walls are of plain brickwork in stretcher bond, with header-brick sills and concrete lintels to the window openings. Windows are generally of Crittall-type in steel with three horizontal panes and a timber casement above, or non-opening with four horizontal panes.
The principal entrance (accessing the dormitory and ablutions block) is on the north wall, to the right of centre, with three brick buttresses to its right. The entrance is recessed with brick returns to the porch sides. The central door is half-glazed with three horizontal panes and vertical boarding. Side panels flank the door, with horizontal lap-boarding below three horizontal panes aligned with the door glazing, topped and tailed with more slender horizontal panes. An overlight spans the whole, with three lights matching the width of the door and side panels. To the right of the north wall is a small set-back coal bunker. Also visible at the right, set back behind the roof ridge, is the north wall of the boiler-room tower. At the left is a small eastern outshut which is walled in flat asbestos sheeting. Between the windows of the dormitory block to the left of the entrance are wall vents at high level.
Returning to the left, the eastern outshut spans the width of the north range and has asbestos walling and a lean-to roof, with the brick gable of the north range above. To the left of this and set well back are the east walls of the dining block and (further recessed) the flat-roofed link between the two principal blocks. The link has a single timber door with vertical boarding in its top panel, the bottom panel being missing. The dining block has a small chimneystack towards its northern end. A round vent stands towards the centre of the ridge, with the flashing for another to its north.
Returning to the left, the southern gable is blind. Set back to the left is the south wall of the western outshut of the dining block. This is also blind, and partially-collapsed at the left. Above this can be seen the boiler-room tower. Set back at the right is the south wall of the dormitory block, with windows and vents like the north wall.
Returning to the left, the western wall is similar to the eastern. Central within the wall of the dining block is the blind wall of the western outshut. This contains a porch which is open to the north, and protects the warden’s or matron’s entrance. At the left the link-block is obscured by a lean-to shelter for vehicles which is attached to the south wall of the western end of the dormitory and ablutions block. Its roof is beginning to collapse. The western end of the ablutions block comprises the gable end with a small brick coal-bunker attached, and a square brick tower to the right of the ridge, with a wooden door into the boiler room, set slightly below ground with steps accessing it from the south.
INTERIOR: the interior walls are unplastered and largely retain their wartime paint scheme of a blue or green dado defined by a dark dado line, with cream above. The inner skins of external walls generally use bricks laid on their sides. Most walls have a low skirting of cement. The ceilings are mostly fibreboard, painted white and fixed to the soffit of the purlins. Roof trusses are extremely simple, with scissor-braces tying the principal rafters together using bolts. Floors are concrete with no sign of having been painted. Most doors and architraves survive and most windows retain timber borders relating to blackout arrangements. Much of the electrical system and heating system survives. The original plan-form is mostly intact.
To the left of the northern entrance hall is a dormitory. The principal room is divided into four open-fronted bays to each side of a spine corridor, each partition being aligned with a truss, and having an end-post rising to the scissor-brace but appearing not to be fixed to it. The partitions only rise to eaves level and are constructed of square hollow-tile blocks laid on edge. Later whitewash is peeling to reveal the wartime paint beneath. Later dwarf walls and iron railings have been installed next to the original partitions. Wall vents are visible close to the window tops in each bay, surrounded by a rectangle of original paint not covered by the later whitewash, suggesting that they originally had some sort of control cover, removed after the conversion to pigsties. A heating pipe runs along the foot of each external wall. The fourth bay on the south side is fully enclosed with its side partition rising to the roof, and a front wall also of hollow-tile block. This room has a later cement animal trough installed. The corresponding bay on the north side has the broken stubs of hollow-tile blocks keyed into the north wall, indicating that this bay was formerly two half-size bays.
The east end of the corridor is closed by a full-height cross wall with a central doorway. Beyond this is a single room to each side of the corridor. The door to the south room is painted with the word ‘STAFF’. In these rooms the heating pipe rises up the inner face of the cross wall to ceiling height, where it runs along the outer wall and returns along the eastern end wall. This allows for an eastern external door, which opens into the asbestos-clad outshut, which has a ledged and braced south door.
To the right of the entrance hall is the ablutions area. Brick walls to full height and eaves height define areas for baths, showers, washbasins and toilets. The wall to the toilets has been reduced in height and its doorway infilled to create an animal pen, and a railing has been installed across the washbasin area. Some plumbing survives and the heating pipe runs around the foot of the external walls. At the western end a full-height cross wall has an open doorway with rounded jambs, leading to what was probably a laundry/drying room. Off this room is a small room containing a hot water tank, and in its south-western corner is the blind north wall of the boiler room (accessed externally).
The entrance hall leads to a flat-roofed link block; unpainted areas of brickwork indicate that a former screen into the link has been removed. The link has a door in each side wall, and a vertical-boarded door at the south end, accessing the dining block.
The dining room is at the north end of this block, occupying the full width. The flue opening for a small fireplace is central in the east wall. In the south wall are the open servery hatch and the door to the kitchen. The kitchen retains a solid fuel heater with header and hot water tanks, but the location of the sinks is only legible through an unpainted area beneath the western windows and an associated water pipe. The kitchen windows are all timber. Other witness marks in the paint indicate former shelves and the location of the cooker.
Beyond the kitchen are a cross-corridor accessed from the matron’s entrance, and an axial corridor. Cubicles to the right of the axial corridor (probably larders and possibly including a sick-bay) are legible only by scars and paint witness marks on the walls and floor. The northern window in this corridor retains a roller for its blind. To the left of this corridor are the matron’s three rooms, probably a sitting room, office and bedroom. The walls are of hollow-tile block, except for a brick chimneystack central in the wall between the sitting room and office. Within the sitting room this projects and retains a tiled original fireplace with grate. The office had no fireplace, and retains a roller blind.
The boiler-room tower retains two boilers, header tanks and a large rainwater tank, reached by iron rungs set across the angle.
Books and journals
Kramer, Ann, Land Girls And Their Impact, (2008)
Tyrer, Nicola, They fought in the fields, (1996)
Letters from Dorothy Owen (nee Pugh) and Nora Wright relating to their time at the hostel, from the People's War project, accessed 26 July 2019 from http://www.bbc.co.uk/history/ww2peopleswar/stories/31/a3851831.shtml
This building is listed under the Planning (Listed Buildings and Conservation Areas) Act 1990 as amended for its special architectural or historic interest.
End of official listing