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Lady Denman, a Woman of Action

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Today’s Pioneering Women of Sussex blog is written by Museum Assistant Lisa Hinkins. Lisa celebrates the incredible Lady Denman, director of the Women’s Land Army during the Second World War, and President of the Women’s Institute from 1917 – 1946. She also reflects on the role of ‘women in action’ during our current crisis.

Gertrude Mary Denman (née Pearson), Lady Denman, by Bassano Ltd, 21 March 1918, (c) National Portrait Gallery

Raised in an openly feminist and politically active house, Gertrude Mary Denman (1884-1954) recognised very early in life that her family wealth and status in society must be used to serve the greater good of the community. Her home, Balcombe Place, near Haywards Heath would become the Women’s Land Army administrative headquarters through the duration of World War II. She was given the house by her father, Weetman Pearson, 1st Viscount Cowdry as a wedding present in 1905. 

Gertrude, (known as “Trudie” in close circles), was married to Thomas Denman (1874-1954), 3rd Baron Denman and fifth governor-general of Australia (1911-1914). During her time abroad she held many national and international leadership roles within women’s organisations. She represented a growing exchange of progressive ideas regarding women’s place and roles within society. 

In Britain, after serving as chairman of the subcommittee of the Agricultural Organisation Society, Lady Denman helped found the Women’s Institutes (WI) in 1916. The institutes became self-governing when under Lady Denman’s supervision the National Federation of Women’s Institutes (NFWI) was formed in 1917. She was elected its first president and was re-elected to this position every year until her retirement in 1946. 


“Trudie” was no ‘Lady of Leisure,’ she was a true non-conforming woman, ignoring society expectations. As president of the NFWI and then assistant director of the Women’s Land Army (WLA) during World War I, she worked hard to demonstrate to women of all classes what it meant to be “women of action.” 

Recognising the importance of maintaining food supplies during wartime, Lady Denman and these organisations urged housewives both urban and rural to conserve food, can fruit and vegetables and sell surplus produce. During WWI, the Women’s Land Army provided the much-needed labour on farms as young men were sent to fight on the front-line. This multi-level action aided food production for the nation. It also served to heighten female political and social activism. Utilizing labour shortages by assigning women these jobs demonstrated their abilities and gave momentum for the need for global female suffrage. In 1933 Lady Denman was made a Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire (DBE).


Lady Denman making a speech at Arundel Castle Land Army rally (May 1943) Garland N22143

With the advent of World War II, a Register for Employment Order was issued in England for women aged 18-45 to sign up for jobs. At this point the country had been importing 70% of its food. Once again, the Women’s Land Army was called upon to help feed the nation. These hard-working women became affectionately known as the Land Girls. Lady Denman was elevated to director of the WLA and arranged Balcombe Place as its headquarters. Up until the end of WWII, over 200,000 women served in the WLA. Many made life-long friendships with one and other. They supported each other during a period of uncertainty and upheaval – numerous women left urban homes to live in WLA hostels in rural areas or live on the farms where they were employed.

A land girl operating a tractor on a site near Brighton, probably in Woodingdean, 1941

Once demobbed after the end of WWII, these audacious women felt ignored. They received letters of thanks from the then Queen Elizabeth but received no economic support in recognition of their contribution of service from the British Government. In gratitude for its members tireless service the WLA held a Christmas party, where Lady Denman received rapturous cheers and applause. She later resigned as the WLA director in protest and disgust for the disrespect her members received from the government. Despite this, in 1951 she was made a Dame Grand Cross (GBE). 


Women’s Land Army commemorative badge

In 2008 the Women’s Land Army was finally given the official recognition from the Government of their service and contribution to the war effort and awarded a commemorative badge.

In 2020, women are at the forefront of tackling the climate crisis, peace and social discrimination. Women of action are  needed more than ever. Role models such as environmentalist Dr Jane Goodall are inspiring all ages with their message of hope, environmental responsibility and to care for both fellow humans and all life on earth through their social media platforms, during this lockdown period.

Organisations such as Sisters on the Planet Ambassadors, launched by Oxfam in 2008 bring together women of action. I got involved with promoting this in my previous role within Recycling and Sustainability at a local authority. Sisters on the Planet work in partnerships together around the world to fight discrimination against women and girls that is still pervasive. In 2020, women still carry out the bulk of unpaid domestic and care work. This adds trillions to the global economy, of which they are not seeing the benefits. 

During our own period of uncertainty and upheaval in lockdown, my female friends have been busy keeping connected with their WI groups by making scrub bags for NHS staff. Many have turned to their gardens, growing vegetables, sharing the produce and seeds.

To mark the VE Day 75th Anniversary, I shall be hosting a specially themed family pub quiz via Skype. We shall be decorating our homes with bunting and tucking into afternoon tea while quizzing through cyber space.  And while we carry out our own DIY celebrations, I will think of all these courageous “women of action” past and present who work tirelessly to protect us and the natural world on.

Written by Lisa Hinkins, Museum Assistant