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Hinwick - Flax

Rushden Echo, 9th August 1918

Flax Gatherers at Hinwick
College Girls Having a Right Royal Time
Appreciation of the Town of Rushden
Valuable War Work

Yesterday, having a strong desire to inspect the flax pickers’ camp between Wymington and Podington, and to gain some particulars about the unique industry which has been started there, I cycled over from Rushden, and, seeing the tents in the distance, left the main road and made my way to the camp. As I approached the field, the tents reminded me more of an Indian wigwam than the orderly array of canvas which one is accustomed to see in a military encampment, as they seem to have taken all the colours the rainbow, and, in addition, I found that the feminine occupants had designated their temporary abodes with fancy titles, conspicuous amongst them being “Earwig Lodge,” “Windy Ridge” – no misnomer, by the way, as the camp is perched on a breezy eminence – “Ye Olde Horseshoe,” “Ye Packed Sardines.” I do not want to offend the ears (or eyes) of the readers of the “Rushden Echo,” but I could scarcely help noticing one title, namely “The Dam(e) ’Ole.” Possibly the latter was christened during one of the terrible deluges of rain which the girls experienced during the earlier part of their encampment.

Having permission from the genial and efficient Lady Commandant, Miss Blackburn who, by the way, is a daughter of the Rev. P. Blackburn, Wesleyan minister at Raunds, to inspect the camp, and having had placed at my disposal as conductor one of the cheery Girl  Guides, of whom there are five in the camp, I first visited the hospital, which I was glad to learn had but few occupants, and ailments were of only a minor character, the patients being mainly sufferers from the heat. Then I inspected the field kitchens, the splendidly-equipped bath tent, the mess tent, the Y.W.C A. marquee, with its piano and library. I was fortunate in seeing some of the new arrivals come on to the scene yesterday and I was struck with great contrast between their orderly travelling costumes and their untanned complexions and, the working costumes and the sunburnt aspects of those who had experienced the “joys” of flax-picking for the last few weeks. Those new arrivals greeted some of the old stagers with cries of “Do you belong to K gang?” “You look splendid” “You look fine!”

Retracing our steps to the tea tent, I questioned my Girl Guide, and I was informed that the whistle is sounded each week-day morning at six o’clock, and that breakfast is served at 7a.m., and at eight o’clock the workers are taken by lorries and other conveyances to the flax fields. Lunch is partaken of at 11.30, and both food and rest are appreciated to the utmost. Then work is resumed until 2.3-p.m., when there is a welcome interval for tea. The flax-pickers leave off work at 5 p.m., dinner is served at six o’clock in the mess tent.

“Is the food of a good quality?” I enquired, “and do the girls enjoy their meals?”

“Rather!” was the emphatic reply. “We have all sorts of nice things, and the dinner at night is awfully well-served. For tea we have as much as we want—jam, and often cake, tomatoes, and other good things.”

Thanking her for her information and courtesy, I bade her farewell and wandered into the mess tent. An uninitiated visitor might have though she had stumbled by chance upon a huge picnic party. At the wooden tables were seated bonny girls thoroughly enjoying the liberal spread before them, the orderlies waiting upon them efficiently. At the tea there seemed to be a battle royal between the girls and the wasps who had come after the jam, and the flax-gatherers were having great fun in fighting and trying to banish their unwelcome winged visitors. Soon the whistle sounded, and the girls went off to resume their work, which yesterday happened to be in a field near the camp. Speedily the crowds of merry girls ............

I asked if they liked the life, and one of them replied: “Rather!” though we don’t always like the work. But we are always ready for our meals, and we do enjoy them. We like the town of Rushden very much, and come in nearly every night if we are not too tired.”

Amongst the notices in the tent I saw one which requested the workers to extend their stay if possible, and adding: “Unless we can supply fresh recruits to keep the camp going, the flax will not be pulled. It is urgently necessary for every bit of available flax to be harvested. It is unthinkable for us women to let it rot, and allow our Army supplies and aeroplanes to be short of material.”

As to the origin of the camp, I was informed that Lieut-Colonel Rouse Orlebar had devoted about 200 acres of his estate to flax production, and several farmers in the locality also decided to grow flax. The soil in the neighbourhood of Hinwick is said to be well suited for flax cultivation, and as far as I could judge the crops I should imagine they are extremely good ones. The flax gatherers comprise about 300 young ladies direct from college, and one of the party told me they practically all came from the North of England. I gathered that the girls work in gangs, under a gang leader, each gang comprising 17, including the leader. Some of the leaders were first sent into the South-West of England, where flax-growing is not a new industry, and there they were trained in the art—for it really is an art, a good deal of skill and knowledge being required. These leaders, on returning, trained others, and so the work is carried on. All the girls live under canvas. There is an excellent supply of water from the Higham and Rushden Water Board’s mains, and I was told that several cattle were kept at the camp to supply the flax-gatherers with milk. Generally speaking the girls “sign-on” for a period of either three or six weeks. It is expected that the flax harvesting will be completed at Hinwick by the end of August. I was informed that the girls work in steps. Right across the field the work is carried on in patches of three yards wide or so. One party works from one side of the field and the other from the opposite side. Seven workers start the first “steps” down to twenty yards. The flax is grasped near the roots and pulled up from the left to right and placed on the ground in little bundles with the heads facing right. When the girls have done the twenty yards they go back and proceed to tie up the flax in bundles, with flax, and then place it in heaps, and then the flaw is placed in ricks.

I gathered from my informants that through the war our principal sources of supply of flax have been cut off, and we have now to depend upon ourselves. Flax is essential. The cloth of our aeroplane wings is made from flax. We require 18,000 tons of flax to make aeroplane cloth alone. The Germans control the most important flax-growing centres of the world. For war purposes alone flax is a necessity. The soldiers’ equipment, Maxim and machine gun belts, breech covers for guns, nose-bags for the horses, canvas covers of the transport wagons and hospital cars, railway wagon covers, Army boots, harness, and saddler, and leather equipment for the Army: tents and marquees, not only at the front but in this country, all are made from flax. The need for more aeroplanes, too, makes the growing of flax a war-time necessity, and I came away from the encampment absolutely convinced that the girls who are spending their holiday vacation in the camp near Podington are doing extremely valuable war service.

Rushden Echo, 16th August 1918

Airman’s Accident Near Hinwick
The Flax Pickers Alarmed
Podington lady Injured

An alarming accident occurred at the Flax Camp on Monday, the victim involved being a lady named Mrs. Brawn, who resides at Podington. It appears that at about 7 p.m. an airman who, it is understood, has a relative in the camp, descended in a field nearby. About two hours later he decided to re-ascend, and instructed some of the men spectators who were in the field to hold the machine whilst he started the propeller.

As soon as the engine started, however, one of the men let go, and apparently the others could not control the machine, which started to run across the field on its own account, much to the alarm of the spectators, who scattered in all directions. Before the aviator could get into the machine to stop it, Mrs. Brown had been knocked down, and lay unconscious for some time. Mr. Jack Smith motored over to Rushden to fetch Dr. Davis, who was quickly in attendance, and later the injured lady was removed home by Mr. Bernard Coe in his trap.

The aviator, who expressed his regret at the accident, immediately ascended to   return to his aerodrome. Mrs. Brown is making good towards recovery.

Rushden Echo, 16th August 1918

The flax pickers-Sir Samuel Bigge, on behalf of the Board of Education visited the flax pickers' camp yesterday. The pierrot troupe of the Royal Engineers gave a concert in the open air on Tuesday evening. Miss Garnett, one of the organisers of the Y, W.C.A., who is an Italian opera singer, gave some delightful songs on Wednesday night.  The flax pickers are leaving off work at   midday morrow, in order to attend the fete at Hinwick House.

‘Britain needed aeroplanes’: First World War Flax-Growing at Podington, Bedfordshire (UK)
by Paul Stamper - published online 21 November 2019

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