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Activating The Henry Ford Archive of Innovation

The Land Girls of Boreham

March 2, 2015

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In reference work you never know where your search might lead you. Simply looking for information on Fordson tractors for a patron one day, I came across some amazing photos of women riding, repairing, and learning about tractors and I wondered what the story was behind these photos. So, armed with subject information gathered from our collection database EMu, I dug into our archival holdings of publications, articles of association, and corporate papers to see what I could find out about these Land Girls of Boreham.

In 1930, Henry Ford was traversing the English countryside by train, when one morning, as he, Clara, and Lord Perry stopped to breakfast, he noticed an old estate near Chelmsford, Essex.  Taking a keen interest in the land and buildings, he bought Boreham House and the 2,000 acres of land surrounding it. Things being in a dilapidated condition, he immediately set about to fix the place up in characteristic Ford fashion, bringing it into usable condition, fixing houses, and making the land profitable once again.

Lord Perry was put in charge of the estate, renamed Fordson Estates Ltd., and in 1937 the Henry Ford Institute of Agricultural Engineering was established on the site. Edsel Ford was on the Executive Committee and handled the school from the American side of things. Henry Ford’s goal, both in America and abroad, was to design mechanized farm equipment to ease the load on the farmer and produce higher yields, and the institute at Boreham Hall followed this idea closely. Among its objectives stated in the Articles of Association (Articles of Association, Acc. 13 Engineering Library Vertical File for Henry Ford Collection, 1870-1945) were:

  1. “To stress the need of Training in Agricultural Engineering,
  2. To demonstrate the use and care of machinery on the Farm
  3. To illustrate the theory and practice of agricultural machinery.”

The school was designed to teach “farmers, their sons, and farm workers” (Ford News, v.17, n. 8) how to use mechanized farm equipment, focusing especially on Fordson tractors. In 1939, however, with the declaration of war, groups of young women took over the campus to be trained for the Women's Land Army (WLA).

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The Women's Land Army had been around since World War I, and now with the outbreak of war and young men being called off the farm to serve in the armed forces, women volunteered for the WLA by the thousands.  Hundreds of agricultural schools trained these “Land Girls” in farming techniques and knowledge, but the Henry Ford Institute focused specifically on mechanized farming. So when the Ministry of Agriculture “asked the Institute to provide courses in tractor driving and handling of implements for members of the Women’s Land Army,” the Institute readily agreed. (10 Years Romance: An Agricultural Experiment, Acc. 591, Fordson Estates, Inc. records, 1931-1948.) The women learned not only how to operate tractors and mechanical farming implements, but also how to care for and repair the machinery.

Normal courses at the Institute lasted a fortnight and consisted of subjects including: “The tractor as the main source of power for cultivation. Tractor design and construction. Practical operation of the tractor-speeds, choice of gears, efficient loading, choice of implements, etc. Lubrication and care of the tractors. Detection of faults and running repairs. Ploughs and cultivators-correct hitching and loading, sett ploughs, etc. … Students will divide their time between lecture rooms, workshop and farm.” (Courses in Agricultural Engineering, Acc. 951, Ford Motor Company Non-Serial Publications Collection) It is likely that the WLA women received the same basic instruction. Boarded at Boreham Hall, the women received both lectures and practical education in the hall, workshops, and surrounding acreage. There were even tractor contests to determine skill level and expertise. Each woman received a completion certificate for the coursework then they were shipped out to farms all over England to work the land.

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The Institute started training women in the fall of 1939. Class sizes averaged about 16 students and over the next year, 150 women completed coursework through the program at The Henry Ford Institute of Agricultural Engineering at Boreham Hall.  After that, the official program “had to be abandoned,” according to Lord Perry, for reasons unknown, but the Ministry of Labor continued to send small groups to the institute for instruction. The Henry Ford Institute of Agricultural Engineering provided many women of the WLA with specialized knowledge of tractor equipment which they used from 1939 to 1950, when the WLA program was discontinued, providing a vital service for a food-rationed country at war and virtually ensuring the survival of those on the home front.

To learn more about The Henry Ford Institute of Agricultural Engineering check out the following resources at The Benson Ford Research Center:

Kathy Makas is Reference Archivist at The Henry Ford.

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