I dreamt Blarney did die
And to heaven did go,
Where do you come from?
They wanted to know.
She said: Sadberge hostel,
They didn’t half stare
And said: Pop in quick,
You’re the first one from there.

Joy Hartshorne, WLA Sadberge, 15/3/49

To you dear Joan,
one wish I give
That you may be happy,
as long as you live.

Elsie Langmate, Sadberge 1949

My heart is like a cabbage
Divide it into two
The leaves I give to anyone
The heart I give to you,

Rita Workman, Sadberge, March 15, 1949

Kind hearts are the gardens
Kind thoughts are the roots
Kind words are the blossoms
Kind deeds are the fruits

S Underwood, Sadberge hostel

Little dabs of powder
Little dabs of paint
Makes a girl’s complexion
Look like what it ain’t

E Welsh 15-3-49, Sadberge

AS you fly east out of Darlington on the A66 dual carriage way to Teesside, you immediately pass the collection of dereliction which is the remains of the Grade II listed Little Burdon farm. Next come some tumbledown brick sheds, hidden behind a metal fence, which are the remains of the Second World War Women’s Land Army hostel.

Opposite the sheds is a line of bungalows called Beacon Hill, which follow the former course of the road as it rises up into Sadberge – “the settlement on the flat-topped hill”.

Joan Birtle, of nearby Norton, lived and worked at the land army hostel in 1948-1949, when she was aged about 18, and her family still has the autograph she compiled as her days there were coming to an end.

The Women’s Land Army was formed in 1939, under the directorship of Lady Gertrude Denman, a formidable character who was the first president of the National Federation of Women’s Institutes – the WIs’ Denman College is named after her.

Initially, the army was for volunteers, but conscription kicked in by 1944 and it had 80,000 women working on the land.

At Sadberge, the hostel was behind Beacon Hill Cottage, which was a farmstead built beside the road in 1897. As traffic grew on the road, the farm was converted into a filling station in the 1930s, and it remained as such until 1967 when it was demolished so the dual carriageway can whizz its way around Sadberge without going through the middle of the village.

At its peak in the late war years, there were 80 young women staying in the hostel, assisted by staff and ruled over by a warden.

Kathleen Cooksey, of Newton Aycliffe, was stationed there from April 1945 to August 1948. She told Memories in 2003: “The hostel consisted of two dormitories, a common room, ablutions block, kitchen and staff quarters. It was all very basic: Iron bunk beds, coke stoves for heating, stone floors."

She said that the girls worked on farms between Stockton and Darlington. "We had to be back in the hostel by 10.30pm unless we were working overtime," she remembered. "Lights out was 11pm, after which the warden would come around with a torch to ensure we were all in bed.

"We were issued with one late pass each week, which ended at midnight. We used it to attend dances at Goosepool aerodrome, or at the hops in Sadberge Village Hall."

For many of the land girls, this was an exciting, and formative, period in their lives. A couple of the rhymes in Joan’s book hint at what was going on. One says: “Don’t make love in the fields. Remember potatoes have eyes.”

At least five of the WLA girls married Sadberge lads, and a couple married Canadian airmen stationed at RAF Middleton St George (known locally back then as Goosepool; now known as Teesside airport). Another couple are understood to have married Royal Navy sailors, and one even married a German PoW who was imprisoned at Windlestone Hall, Rushyford, but allowed out to work on the land.

Joan, whose nickname was Blarney, might have entertained similar hopes. One of the rhymes in her book reads:

Blarney for now
Blarney forever
Birtle for now
But she hopes
Not forever

Bette Liddle, Sadberge 17-3-49

Another rhyme even gave her a few tips as to handle married life:

When you are married
And you husband gets cross
Lift up the poker
And say I am boss

Rosa Rigby, Sadberge 1949

But for her it was not to be. The Land Army was formally disbanded on October 21, 1949, and the messages in Joan’s book are dated mid-March 1949, which suggests that that was when the Sadberge hostel was closed.

Joan returned to her parents’ home in Norton, and looked after them while working in Woolworths in Stockton. A very intelligent lady, she never married, and perhaps sport was her great love – as her autograph book shows.

She regularly went to watch Middlesbrough FC, and one of her few footballing autographs is that of Andy Donaldson. A striker, he had started his career at Newcastle in 1943, but had failed to dislodge Jackie Milburn from the first team. Middlesbrough were flirting with relegation in February 1949 when they bought him for a record £17,000 – the club’s first five figure transfer fee – and playing alongside Wilf Mannion, he scored six goals in the last 14 games of the season which was just enough to keep Boro up by one point.

Sadly, a few months later, he snapped an ankle in a pre-season friendly and was never the same player again.

Joan also loved cricket. Her brother, Tom, was a professional with Nottinghamshire and Durham before playing in the local leagues, and her book contains the scribblings of players from seven county sides in 1963. One of the more legible signatures is that of HD Bird, of Leicestershire. He, of course, was Harold Dennis “Dickie” Bird, who went on to become legendary as a cricket umpire.

Joan’s last job was as chief cashier in the new Woolco shop in Thornaby, and she died in the mid-1990s, aged 70.

With many thanks to Joan's nephew, Martin Birtle of Billingham, for his help

WHEN the Land Army girls left the hostel, it was Robinson’s builders’ yard for 40 years. In 1989, there were plans to turn it into a 24-bed motel, but these were rejected because of the access dangers on the A66. Since then, every attempt to do something with the land – a bulldozer sales yard, a transport depot, a house and stables – has fallen foul of the same concerns, and so now the hostel lies derelict.

The Northern Echo: The Grade II listed farmhouse at Little Burdon – it has deteriorated even further since this picture was taken 18 months agoThe Grade II listed farmhouse at Little Burdon – it has deteriorated even further since this picture was taken 18 months ago

ABOUT 100 yards from the hostel is the remains of Little Burdon Farm. The 18th century farmhouse was until fairly recently surrounded by an interesting collection of agricultural outbuildings, but since the last elderly residents left in the mid-1990s following a violent burglary, its condition has deteriorated.

In fact, the only thing it hasn’t been striped of is its Grade II listed status, and now, understandably, it is on the at-risk register. A measure of its decline is that it was on the market in 2013 for £175,000 whereas in 2018, it came to market for £40,000. In between, in 2018, Darlington council rejected an application to build nine homes on the site, again because of the dangers of access onto the dual carriageway.

IN 1934, the planning authorities gave permission for retired farmer Arthur Shepherd to build "four blocks of semi-detached temporary dwellings" beside Beacon Hill, which was then the main road into Sadberge. Somehow, Mr Shepherd managed to build five blocks at £80 each which must be classed as permanent by now, as they are still there.

Originally, he built wooden homes – perhaps they were leftovers after the Royal Agricultural Society show at Feethams in 1920 – and since the 1960s, they have been bricked around to create homes with at least an air of permanence.

But why “beacon”? Sadberge is on the site of a Roman fort on Rykeneild Street, which ran from Thirsk to Chester-le-Street. It is the highest hillock in the flat Tees Valley plain at the foot of the Cleveland Hills, and on a clear day, you can see up to 20 miles in all directions.

The village church is built on the highest mound, with a moat around it, so it must be on the heart of the Romans’ fortification. Next to it is a little estate called Beacon Grange and the old reservoir. This is said to have been the site of a Roman signalling station – one of a line of beacons sending fiery messages.