Influential women of the British countryside

Saturday 8 March is International Women’s Day and to celebrate we look at some of the fantastic things women have achieved in the British countryside.

Women's Land Army lifting a crop, World War II, 1940

Beatrix Potter

The popular children’s author set many of her stories, which featured loveable characters such as Peter Rabbit and Jemima Puddle Duck, in the Lake District. She was incredibly fond of the area and her writing enthused young people about wildlife and the countryside, from her active years in the late 19th and early 20th century, to this day.

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Born in 1866 in London, Potter always had an interest in the outdoors, in wildlife and history. She would often collect fossils, study archaeological artefacts from excavations in the city and in later life came to examine insects and fungi. She would always draw and paint the items she collected and studied, a skill that would help her in later life.

Often holidaying in the Lake District or Scotland, Potter fell in love with the British countryside. As a result of her income from her books and an inheritance from an aunt, she bought Hill Top Farm in Near Sawrey, a small village in the Lake District.

She was extremely happy in her time in the countryside, visiting the tenant farmer at Hill Top Farm from London as often as she could before moving to the village with her husband-to-be William Hellis in 1913. She brought in Herdwick sheep to the farm and became passionate about preserving the traditions of fell farming.

In 1923 she bought an old deer park in the Troutbeck Valley and restored the land with another herd of Herdwick sheep.

She became one of the major sheep farmers in the region and was well respected by the shepherding community for her prize-winning herd and pioneering use of science to treat sheep diseases.

She was elected President of the Herdwick Sheep-breeders Association in 1942, the first women to ever hold that post. However, sadly she died before taking office.

Farmhouse cottage on Yew Tree Farm

She was a big supporter of Octavia Hill’s National Trust and in the early thirties she worked with the organization to purchase Lakeland farms in the Monk Coniston Estate. She became the estate manager for several years, before the Trust could buy the land back from her once it had become wealthy enough.

Upon her death in 1943, she left almost all her properties and her illustrations to the National Trust, ensuring her conservational interest would be carried on in the Lake District. Her assets consisted of 4,000 acres of land, sixteen farms – including Yew Tree Farm (above) and vast herds of sheep and cattle. It was the largest donation the Trust had received at that point.

Octavia Hill

One of the founding members of the National Trust, Octavia Hill is ultimately responsible for the conservation of some of Britain’s most beautiful and iconic lands.

Born in 1838, she was a social reformer and political activist who worked from the age of 14 to improve the lives of London’s poor.

After years working with people living in some of the worst conditions in the country, she came to the realisation that green sites were vital to people’s mental and physical wellbeing. She said the residents needed “a few acres where the hill top enables the Londoner to rise above the smoke, to feel a refreshing air for a little time and to see the sun setting in coloured glory which abounds so in the Earth God made”.

With many of the built-up, industrial conurbations treeless and devoid of any real access to rural surroundings, she campaigned for the graveyards to be open to the public, for Parliament Hill to be protected from development and eventually set up the National Trust for Places of Historic Interest of Natural Beauty in January 1895.

She believed that the capital’s poor had just as much right to the city’s fast disappearing green spaces as the rich and that is an attitude that took hold and spread throughout the country.

Now thanks to the work of the Trust and other similar bodies, much of the British countryside is open to the public and protected from blanket development.

Octavia’s work is continued by Dame Helen Ghosh, current Director General of the National Trust, Dame Fiona Reynolds before her and of course the thousands of women who work for the trust, from volunteers to board members.

Land Girls

While men were fighting for Britain on the battlefield, the women were fighting for Britain in the fields and factories.

Without their fundamental contribution to the war effort, Britain would have ground to a halt.

In both World Wars the efforts of women around the country helped to break down some of the barriers that faced them in everyday society, forcing a male dominated society to accept that women were just as capable, intelligent and determined as themselves – and in many cases, more so.

Starting in 1915, The Women’s Land Army set to work in the fields, threshing, ploughing, harvesting crops, tending cattle and doing much more to keep the nation fed as enemy troops tried to cut supply chains to the islands.

Towards the end of the First World War there were over a quarter of a million women working as farm labourers, around 20,000 of those were in the WLA.

The WLA was resurrected in 1939 in order to protect Britain against starvation during the Second World War. 80,000 women joined as volunteers and later, conscripts.

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These women carried out vital work that got Britain though some of the darkest periods in its history. They not only shaped the countryside during those times of conflict, but helped shape a better society.