The photo of Helen Bentwich on her motorbike, organising the Women’s Land Army in Hertfordshire, has always intrigued me. Finding some typed extracts from her diaries for 1912-20 in our archives, describing episodes in her Land Army life during WWI, led to a search for more about her.
She was born into a prominent Jewish family in Notting Hill, London in 1892, educated at St Paul’s Girls’ school and Bedford College. Her uncles were already active in politics, and her brother Hugh was an active suffragist (imprisoned and force-fed in 1911).
With the outbreak of WWI she first served as a VAD nurse at a hospital in Cairo from 1914-15. She married Norman Bentwich in 1915 and then served as a forewoman at the Woolwich Arsenal in 1916. Here she fought for the rights of women workers and tried to form a trade union. Forced to resign, she became an organiser for the Women’s Land Army.
Her diary notes were published posthumously in 1973 as ‘If I forget Thee – some chapters of an autobiography”, and include these extracts:
Chartridge – 19 August 1917 “…. there was a telegram telling me to go to Welwyn, right the other side of the county …. I’d first to call on the Countess of Cavan at Ayot St Lawrence, near Wheathampstead. It’s lovely country round there, completely rural, although so near London. It’s quite near Lamb’s Mackery End. The Countess was very unconventional. She lives in a small house and apparently without servants. Her nephew of fourteen opened the door, and I went into a pretty drawing-room, where there was another boy and an old lady. Then the Countess and another woman came in, and everyone was very friendly. I was in my waterproof outfit, with a sou’wester, caked from head to foot in mud, and sat in an armchair in this elegant room while the Countess perched on the arm of my chair, and gave me directions about the farmers I was to go and see in the district.”
Hatfield – 9 September 1917 “I am back at the Hatfield Hostel ….I had a gruelling time getting here, as went to see farmer of Harpenden and Wheathampstead and Hertford and other places on the way. It’s funny how I find out what farmers to visit. I was in the post office in Harpenden, and the telephone girl told me she had heard a certain farmer say over the ‘phone that he wanted some Land Girls. So off I raced; he lives in a lovely sixteenth century farmhouse, and wanted three trained Land Girls to live in a cottage he had, and someone to look after them. I reported this to Hertford. Then I went to see a farmer at Wheathampstead whose two daughters, dressed as Land Girls, worked for him. His wife took a great fancy to me, and urged me to go and live with them, but I don’t think she’s all there. The husband has a name for being very bad tempered and disagreeable – even to thrashing his daughters – but he was very gallant with me, and I’ve risked his bad temper by placing two girls there as starters. He didn’t want a gang, as he’d engaged a gypsy and his wife for the harvest. They live in a tiny tent made of a few hoops and a blanket stuffed inside with straw, which they wheel about in a push-cart, and pitch in the field where they’re going to work. They are an interesting looking pair. Then I went to see Lady Cavan again, and with her help and that of the man at the post office, found billets for all the girls the various farmers wanted. Lady Cavan goes off next week to Paris to see her husband – lucky woman. She was very nice to me, and asked if I’d had lunch – it was then about 4pm. I said yes – though actually I’d forgotten all about it. She asked what I’d had, and when I said some milk the farmers had given me, she went and got me a meal herself in the dining-room, and made a most elaborate salad, and was extremely kind, but I felt rather like a tramp.”
Knebworth – 21 May 1918 ….”In the Harpenden area, I’m taking over the ‘kennels’ [at Kinsbourne Green] and arranging straw mattresses for the girls to sleep on. Six girls and their gang leader are already there. One night, to try it out I slept there alone, and found the mattress very uncomfortable, as it had been filled tight with straw, which was all wrong – it has to be loose. So I spent the night painting a big board with ’Land Army Hostel’ on it in our colours, green and red, to put up outside. Next day, two friends arrived from the Hertford Office, and we remade the mattresses.”