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Second World War - The Home Front
New 11/06/23 Marjorie Pearce, Poultrywoman - HERE

During both world wars, Somerset willow growers and basket makers were very busy. In World War II the making of domestic baskets was for a time, forbidden, and many women were recruited to make the willow airborne pannier baskets used for dropping supplies of ammunition and food to the troops. One such basket maker was Doreen Loveridge.

Doreen Loveridge

    Doreen (Det) Loveridge was born in 1912. She left the village school in 1926 aged 14 having been taught by Mrs Hector (Nigel’s mother). Doreen was a keen Girl Guide and enjoyed the things you could learn by being part of the movement. Her close friends where Kath and Con Hearn, and Kath Barnett (Hazel Patten’s sister).

    Doreen worked for her father stripping withies. They lived at the Old Angel, Woodhill, which her Great Grand Parents had run as a pub. She enjoyed the work but wasn’t struck on the employment package her father offered. She basically worked for her keep and the only way to get some money of her own was to pick blackberries during the summer months. The more you picked the more you got paid. Doreen liked to save her money although there were temptations in the early 1930’s. A chap with a light aircraft used to tour around offering flights at a cost of half a crown (12½ p). This would have been a wonderful treat but she decided to hang on to her money. Brother Ken however was up there like a shot!

In 1930 Doreen moved to Middlemoor, Curload, to take a job as a live in housekeeper. Mrs Hearle had died and Sid and Winnie needed looking after. This worked quite well because she could keep the garden going and still do some withy work which paid for her cigarettes. Doreen smoked 4 cigarettes a day.

When the war came Doreen worked for Gilbert Musgrave in one of the sheds behind Withygrove House. She trained to make panniers and then all types of baskets. Doreen now had two jobs and was earning very good money, up to £3 a week on piece work. She continued to save, and bought Woodbine Cottage in Woodhill for £300.


Doreen at Musgrave’s Workshop During the War


Women Basket Makers Enjoying a Welcome Break

Being a keen gardener; vegetables were always plentiful so the family didn’t go hungry. Clothes were purchased from Stoke shop and the groceries from Arthur Patten’s shop in Curload. She loved the songs that Gracie fields and Vera Lynn sung and generally had a lot of fun during the war years.

She remembered the G.I.’s from Westonzoyland cycling along Curload. They were always keen to give the young ladies sweets and chocolate. Unfortunately Doreen didn’t manage to obtain any nylons. The young Americans were heading for the village pubs and the dances that were regularly held in the village hall. The G.I’s used to park their bicycles outside and while they were inside dancing the night away the local kids would be taking it in turns to ride around the village. She also remembered the terrific bang and how the house shook when land mines were dropped in Northmoor. She and a group of friends cycled over to see the craters the following day.

After the war Doreen continued making baskets for Norman Upham. In her spare time she enjoyed her garden and continued teaching Sunday School at the Parish Church completing over 40 years service. When Jean Hembrow and Brian David married they lived with Doreen. Jean died in 1985 so Doreen stepped in and cared for Brian and his two children Jonathan and Janice.

The Airborne Pannier

    This was by far the most important basket developed in World War 2. It was used to drop supplies by parachute, and each basket could hold up to 500 lbs, which made it suitable for use with the Mk1 parachute. Most were dispatched from the side door of a Dakota, the Douglas C-47 Skytrain, often in pairs that separated when dropped.

    One half the basket fits inside the other, and can be expanded from 18” to a height of 30”. Dorothy Wright, basket historian, suggests that it was based on the ‘Pilgrim Basket,’ the ancestor of the expanding suitcase made of cane and palm in SE Asia.

More about WW2 Baskets HERE


A Pannier from Coates Basket Museum


Panniers ready for loading on the Train at Athelney


    Whilst many of the farming community joined up in the various armed forces, a core needed to be in the village to keep up the drive to feed the nation at a time when overseas supplies were being disrupted by the enemy. One such was George Hearn.

    George lived at Watts Farm, Woodhill. He had been considered a sickly child - his parents had been told that it was unlikely that he would live past his 15th birthday. He was unable to go into the Royal Navy, and the Army decided they could manage without him as well. This suited George because he was quite happy to stay at home and carry on working as a farm contractor. His work varied as to what the ministry decreed necessary at the time.


    He worked for Tommy Patten who ran a contracting business alongside his withy growing. They worked between Langport and West Hatch ploughing and preparing the ground.

    George recalled dances, called hops, held in the village hall on Saturday nights and get togethers in the Royal Oak, which was run by Alfie Nicholas (Pete Nicholas’s father) at the time. These used to attract the Americans based over at Westonzoyland.

    George’s other contribution to the war effort was to be a member of the Home Guard. Leslie Hembrow and Percy Woodland were in charge of the platoon.

George in his younger days. The car was built for George and his brother Frank, who saw service all through the War, including three days and nights on the beach at Dunkirk, waiting to be evacuated.


Don Boon was also a member of the Home Guard, but he and his wife Dorothy were still busy working at Dykes Farm.


    Una Middleton (Hembrow as was) lived at Churley with her parents Arthur and Ginny. Una’s wartime work took place at what is now known as the United Kingdom Hydrographic Office in Taunton. In those days it was called the Admiralty and was surrounded in a shroud of secrecy as the establishment had been moved from London to Bath and then to Taunton to avoid the bombing of Bath. The building was built into the side of Creech Barrow, which was then an isolated site. No road to the Great Mills Roundabout, no ASDA. Local people were convinced that a secret chamber had been constructed under the barrow which housed secret bombs. Una’s job was correcting printed charts by hand with additional information so that when they arrived with the fleet the charts were as up to date as possible.


The Admiralty

Marjorie Pearce

Marjorie Challenger’s parents ran the London House Stores, North Curry, in the first quarter of the last century. She married William Pearce, a small farmer of Stoke St Gregory in 1926, and lived there for the rest of her life. Some of you will have read her book - No Time To Spare, The Story of a West Country Farmer’s Wife. In it she covers many aspects of rural life but for those living here she brought to life events that we have heard of but did not experience - the floods of 1929; electric and mains drainage coming to the village; and life during the Second World War. Following the recent anniversary of VE Day, it is this period we’re looking at on this page.


In her book, Marjorie remembers the outbreak of war: “Storm clouds had been gathering over Europe for some considerable time. I well remember that September morning when at eleven o’clock the Prime Minister announced, ‘We are at War’. Many people thought it would be all over by Christmas.”


Before the war Marjorie had built up a national reputation as a poultry breeder, winning many cups and trophies, but the trials and competitions were all stopped with the onset of war. The bird business itself also became more difficult, as rationing came in for pig and poultry feedstuff. Luckily her husband Bill kept pigs, and he gave these up so that Marjorie could use the available food for her birds. Even so she had to reduce her flock to a third of the pre-war numbers. Somerset egg producers were able to supplement their feed through a household waste processing scheme in Bristol. A producer owned egg packing station collected this in 1 hundredweight (50kg) galvanized dustbins and distributed them to its members.


Marjorie and her husband Bill lived in Willowdene, Windmill, and they had been planning for a while to extend the house, collecting various materials in preparation. It was generally thought that they would have to wait for the war to end before they could achieve their dream, but they were not put off. The old cob wall was pulled down in February 1940 and the new extension of lounge, utility room and larder was nearly finished by the end of the year. Upstairs was a large bedroom and bathroom.

Marjorie was a keen member of the WI. As the Williams Hall had been commandeered as a school room for the Barlby Road evacuees, Lano Coward, offered the use of the church School Room for meetings. She writes enthusiastically of the contribution the local WI group made to the war effort. “One of our members undertook to collect National Savings. The villagers were urged to save every scrap of paper and I was one of the collectors who took full sacks to a central point. We also made jam. Hundredweights of it!”


Despite rationing, the government made an allocation of sugar to organisations who would make jam, and Stoke WI was given five hundredweight - a quarter of a ton, or 250kg. They made the jam at Willowdene in 28 pound batches, 80 pounds in an afternoon. Before the jam could be sold it had to be inspected and passed. The jam had to be set enough for the jar to be turned upside down without the contents moving. Each batch was numbered so that each pot could be traced to the person who made it (no bar codes then!).


“That autumn we made half a ton of jam and it all passed first grade. I stored it in a spare room until it was sold to the shops just before Christmas. The following year plums were scarce so we made half a ton of blackberry and apple. The result was a very nice flavoured conserve which also passed first quality.”

Yet another wartime activity of Stoke WI was knitting. The Somerset Comforts Fund was established in November 1939, and the the knitting of comforts for men serving with the Forces had become a well-established rural industry. Somerset Comforts supplied the wool, which Marjorie distributed to WI members. They knitted socks, gloves, balaclava helmets and pullovers. When they were given oiled wool they knitted long sea-boot stockings. One member made 25 pairs of gloves in a few weeks. By July 1941 over 74,000 articles had been forwarded from Somerset to men in the Forces.

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