Reading the first few pages of book Lumberjills – Britain’s Forgotten Army by Joanna Foat I experienced a feeling of déjà vu.
Some of her first statements were: –
“In the 1940’s people did not believe women could work in forestry” …. or be strong enough to fell trees. “They were laughed at, they were ridiculed, and their competence was questioned.”
It was not acceptable for women to wear trousers, which was thought to be “provocative” and “promiscuous”.
They were regarded at the “fairer sex” expected to be genteel, polite, quiet, coy and feminine.
In the 1940’s Society generally accepted the view that women were less intelligent, and more incompetent than men.
Why educate women they were only going to get married.
Why was this déjà vu for me?
In 2017/18, on the centenary of the First World War, I had written a series of Blogs about Women in World War One including The Social Standing of Women PreWW1 and Women’s War Work and the Women’s Forestry Corps.
Why déjà vu? Because these were the very assumptions made in the First World War, which I had written about in my Blogs.
The Women’s Timber Corps. may have been the Forgotten Army of the Second World War but the evidence of the efficiency of the Women’s Forestry Corps. of the First World War seems to have disappeared from peoples’ minds in the matter of a few short 11 years.
Had men not learnt anything from the experiences of the First World War?
I expect there were many veterans for the First World War and mothers of young men who expressed the same sentiment about the futility of War.
In the case of the adversity of men to working women, had women not overcome this prejudice to prove that they were equal in intelligence, competence and not afraid of hard physical work?
The Formation of the Women’s Land Army
Britain’s food supply chain depended on 70% imported goods and to feed a nation, needed a massive increase in ploughed acreage.
By 1941 the loss of men in the workforce to the Armed Forces, was reaching crisis point so the Government conscripted all single women between the ages of 19 and 40 for war work. Unlike the First world War it was no longer voluntary, in fact, women in that category not undertaking war work could be sent to prison.
The need for preparation as the outbreak of war became increasingly apparent was recognised by Lady Gertrude “Trudie” Denman.
She was the daughter of W. D. Pearson, Viscount Cowdray, a Newspaper Baron, engineer and Oil Magnate. She believed the justification of inheriting great wealth was service to and improvement of the Community. Along with her mother she had been a member of the National Liberal Federation promoting Women’s Suffrage. Later she was the Director of her father’s engineering company S. Pearson and Son Ltd and newspaper empire Westminster Press.
She was a woman of great vision and a formidable organiser. During the First World War, she had been involved in the organisation of the Women’s Land Army, Chairman of sub-committee of the Agricultural Organization Society, which founded the Women’s Institutes later transferred to the Board of Agriculture and became the Assistant Director of the Women’s Branch of the Food Production Department.
In 1938, Lady Trudie Denman was invited by the Government to re-form the Women’s Land Army. Despite the success of the WLA in WW1, the Civil Service was against the re-establishment of the organisation to form a permanent Women’s Service. The proposals she put forward were met with derision being described as using a “sledgehammer to crack a nut”.
By April 1939 she had to issue an ultimatum to resign unless she was allowed to go ahead and to choose and appoint her staff and by June she became the Director of the Women’s Land Army.
Trudie used her experience in media to set up a publicity campaign to recruit women to the Women’s Land Army, from all walks of life and occupation, and such was the appeal, even to many urban women who had no experience of the countryside.
She set up systems to enlist, train, find placements for and ensure the welfare of the recruits.
By 1941 20,000 women had volunteered to serve and by 1944 there were more than 80,000 women in the Land Army. The women undertook all aspects of farming. Although farmers greeted them with suspicion, by the end of the war, their enthusiasm, determination and hard work had earned them respect.
The Women’s Timber Corps.
The Government had established the Forestry Commission in 1919 as a national institution to strategically increase the production of timber in Britain. Unfortunately, trees planted to replace trees felled in the First World War were still too immature to be of use.
At the outbreak of the Second World War, Britain imported 96% of its timber requirements, and held a stock of just seven months’ reserve of pit props.
If women working on the land were not welcomed, the prospect of women working in forestry was met by the Timber Trade and Civil Servants with downright hostility. It was considered “no job for a decent woman”.
Lady Denman got around this prejudice by recruiting women for forestry through the Land Army. Young women were trained to work then transferred into the Home Timber Production Department of the Ministry of Supply. In January 1940 a group of women went to train in the Forest of Dean, as Measurers,
Teams of forestry workers from timber producing countries of the Commonwealth such as Canada, New Zealand and British Honduras were utilized. They worked alongside prisoners, prisoners of war from Italy and Germany, and school boys for short periods but still more workers were required.
The German use of U boats to blockade Britain from supplies coming in from North America, termed the Battle of the Atlantic, escalated after 1940 with Germany’s conquest of Denmark, Norway and France which gave them forward bases increasing the range of the submarines.
The compelling need for timber and shortage of labour finally forced the Authorities, who previously would not accept a separate women service, to officially form the Women’s Timber Corps in April 1942, nicknamed by the newspapers as “Lumber Jills”
In 1942 with the chaos of the departments, Forestry Commission, Timber trade and private owners there was no clear picture of what was available, so an urgent survey of Britain’s standing timber including private Landowner’s woodland was undertaken by the Women’s Timber Corps.
WTC recruits were given a four week training course at four main training centres in Suffolk, Yorkshire, Herefordshire and Forest of Dean where they learnt about felling, sawmilling, measuring and haulage.
They also undertook a maths test to assess their aptitude to calculate the cubic quantity of wood in a tree, what it’s use would be suitable for, the volume of wood in a woodland, and the measurement of felled and sawn timber for the calculation of the feller’s piecework wages. Measurers received a higher rate of pay to the other WTC workers.
The women came from diverse backgrounds, rich and poor, from towns and cities, frequently with no experience of the countryside, looking for an idealistic healthy outdoor life preferable to working in munition factories. Amongst them were sales assistants, debutants, clerical workers, typists, hairdressers, university students and domestic servants. They were not necessarily tall and muscular some were only 5 foot tall and lightly built. The recruiters were looking for enthusiasm and resilience not afraid of hard work in all weathers.
Some had never been away from home and had to cope with being sent anywhere in the country, to isolated places to new billets or camps with gangs of other women or singly in digs, frequently moving throughout their service up to 80 times.
Their jobs included felling – using axes weighing between 4 and a half to 14lb on trees of 80 ft and over, two person crosscut sawing, snedding – stripping the side branches off a trunk, clearing underbrush and burning, loading, driving tractors, hauling timber out of the wood with horses, operating sawmills, and replanting saplings.
What they produced was use for pit props to keep the mines producing coal vital to keep other industries going, railway sleepers for transportation, telegraph poles for vital communications, construction of aircraft and ship, tracks for the D Day landings, and charcoal making for gunpowder, fuses and smokescreens.
The Ministry of Supply noted in 1942, that the WTC had contributed towards saving 50 tons of shipping space per year.
Through their work they not only built up skill and stamina but the gangs worked with an autonomy that also strengthened the women emotionally and mentally leaving them self-sufficient and more confident in their own capabilities.
The diverse group forged together with hardships and a common aim formed lifelong friendships.
WTC in North Devon
In Devon there were Forestry Commission units at Halwill, Haldon, Eggesford, Lydford, Hartland and Dartmoor. Many other gangs worked in woodlands throughout North Devon.
In the Imperial War Museum there is a diary of Mrs Mary Dowzell “Memoirs of life in the Women’s Timber Corps.” [IWM doc 1116] In it she mentions working in North Devon at Porlock Hill, Countesbury Hill, Lynton, Lymouth, Barbrook and on the Woolhanger Estate, Challacombe.
In Joanna Foat’s book LumberJills Britain’s Forgotten Army [Athenaeum shelves] two of the contributors are Irene Snow nee Hannam and Hazel Collins nee Hacker. Irene felled trees in Dulverton, Porlock Hill and South Molton. She mentions that there were German Prisoners working nearby on Exmoor. Hazel felled trees for Thornbury Mill, Holsworthy, worked in a sawmill in Kingston, Devon and after the war worked for the Timber Control Commission in Germany.
“Lumber Jill” by Mavis Williams is her story of four years in the Timber Corps. Where she describes her postings to Herefordshire, Cornwall and Dartmoor and Exmoor in Devon.
It has been difficult to pin down exact numbers as various current sources vary wildly, anything between 4,000 to 16,000 women in England, Wales and Scotland but from 1942-1946, worked in the WTC.
After the end of the war, the WTC was disbanded in 1946, and along with the Women’s Land Army, the women were offered no gratuity, recognition or retraining which had been accorded to women serving in the armed services. Many women had given up full time work to join the WLA and WCT and being offer no help to find peacetime work were facing unemployment and hardship. Lady Denman found the injustice so objectionable she resigned her position in protest.
Looking at the Forestry Commissioners Annual Reports of 1942 and 1943 there is little mention, virtually disregarding, the use of women workers. In 1942 they said “It becomes progressively harder to secure efficient labour for the normal forest operations and secondly, the pressure of the armed forces…become more intense in the woodlands. The labour position was partly met by the recruitment of women and by vocational employment of school boys”. In 1943 “It has again been difficult to secure male labour for normal operations and women have been largely employed. School boys have provided useful assistance during vacations”. The women’s significant contribution and the arduous work they undertook seems to be played down and underappreciated.
Apart from a letter from Queen Elizabeth no official recognition was made of the contribution the women of the WTC or the WLA had made to the war effort.
Although women of the WTC had died in service, it was not until 2000 that WTC members were allowed to join the march past of the Cenotaph on Remembrance Sunday.
A memorial to War women, by sculptor John Mills, was erected in Whitehall, just along from the Cenotaph, in 2005. It depicts women’s uniforms and working clothes which was inspired by a 1940’s photograph of a cloakroom at a dance hall.
No Government acknowledgement was forthcoming until 2007 when the Department for the Environment Food and Rural Affairs awarded former WTC member a commemorative badge.
“Better late than never” commented Edna Barton in Lumberjills by Joanna Foat. A sentiment probably echoed by many other women.
In 2007 the Forestry Commission Scotland unveiled the first national memorial to the Women’s Timber Corps. of a life-sized bronze sculpture “Salute” by Malcolm Robertson near Stirling. Scotland always seemed to appreciate their WTC in contemporary newspaper articles.
In 2012 the BBC Countryfile filmed a tribute for the work of the WTC at the Forest of Dean.
It was also the year for the first women to chair the Forestry Commission and she instigated the project to record the memories of the surviving WTC women before it was too late.
The first commemorative statue to the WTC in England was commissioned by the Forestry Commission in 2013. Called “Pull don’t Push” by sculptor Ray Lonsdale it “captures the arduous nature of the work as well as the fun lumberjills had working in the forests during the war.”
A joint WLA and WTC memorial by sculptor Denise Dutton was unveiled in 2014 at the National Memorial Arboretum in Staffordshire.
For the majority of their lifetimes the women’s dedication, resilience and hard work of crucial importance to the war had been met with derision, and condescending prejudice.
In Lumber Jill author Mavis Williams says that “People found it hard to believe that women performed such tasks at the time; they still do.
A contributor to the Land Girl Magazine expressed her disdain by quoting Shakespeare “Blow, blow thou winter wind, thou are not so unkind as man’s ingratitude”
Researching the WTC I have come to feel the utmost respect for the women for their tenacity, indomitability involved in such back-breaking work, in all weathers using basic equipment.
“The Forgotten Army of the Woods: The Women’s Timber Corps during the Second World War by Emma Vickers Agricultural History Review
A Portrait of Rural Britain 1939-45 by Duff Hart-Davis
Land Girls, Women’s voices from the Wartime farm by Joan Mant and Lumber Jill by Mavis Williams both on the shelves of Barnstaple Library.
…Sandi, Assistant Librarian