Alongside the Women’s Land Army, The Women’s Timber Corps was equal in contribution to the success of World War Two, but still its legacy remains mostly untold. Emily Ashworth looks at the vital forestry work thousands of women undertook.
It is sometimes hard to believe the sacrifice and dedication of the thousands of women who took on farming and forestry work during World War Two.
Their days were long, the work mostly done by hand, but with nothing other than defiance to do right by the country, women took to the land to join one of the most unknown branches of the women’s forces, The Women’s Timber Corps (WTC).
With home-produced timber in dire need and required urgently for railway sleepers, telegraph poles, aircraft construction and transport packaging, the Ministry of Supply (Home-Grown Timber Department) introduced the WTC in England in 1942 as an extension of the Women’s Land Army (WLA).
By the end of the war, the WTC had well more than 10,000 members; their ‘Lumberjill’ nickname borne from the nature of the work.
Girls were recruited by the Forestry Commission from the age of 17, but some who joined up were said to be as young as 14; the need for bodies so crucial that age, career and experience was deemed completely unnecessary.
The girls wore a similar uniform to the WLA, except the WTC replaced the WLA felt hat for a beret and wore the WTC badge.
Thousands of women were trained in specialist camps post-1942, establishing themselves as a highly skilled workforce producing hundreds of thousands of tonnes of timber during the war.
But although it took the WTC time and a great deal of effort to demonstrate how crucial their efforts really were, innumerable women spoke of the positive change it had on the rest of their lives.
Irene Snow, a former Lumberjill from Devon, says: “I really enjoyed my time in the WTC because it gave me a great sense of freedom and a feeling I could do anything after that.”
Initially, the Government called on conscientious objectors and British prisoners to try and sustain timber production and, as women were introduced into the corps, they were met with a harsh reception.
The WTC thrived, however, working in bleak environments and through winter blizzards, with each member striving to prove themselves.
Eventually, women who were employed in measuring timber were put in charge of wages and timber production, says Jo Foat, author of an upcoming book about the Lumberjills, to be released in 2019.
She says: “With mathematics at the heart of timber measuring, many were promoted to senior roles as supervisors and forewomen and often put in charge of the men.
“The camaraderie and joy of the girls was heightened because they achieved success against the odds.
“The isolation and hard work, with inadequate training, clothing, food and living conditions, took great toll on their health and wellbeing.”
Working as a Lumberjill was arduous and sometimes dangerous, with many suffering serious injuries.
But out of pride and in support of each other, the WTC managed to keep Britain’s timber production in full flow and acquired vital skills to carry out their duties professionally.
Jessie Mclean, a former Scottish WTC member, says the felling was competitive between pairs and ‘took long and patient practice’.
She says: “We were always motivated to try harder. We considered ourselves far better than the few men working nearby.”
With members hailing from across the country, much like the WLA, most were without knowledge prior to their induction, but found themselves mastering specialist forestry tasks, such as assessing the amount of timber in a tree, measuring the amount of timber felled, surveying new woodlands and identifying trees for felling.
Many, however, look back on their time in service with fondness and found gratitude in doing their job successfully, despite former ridicule.
Molly Patterson, a former WTC member from Argyll, says: “When I look back, I think those years I spent in the WTC were probably some of the happiest days of my life.
“We just got on with things the best we could and all pulled together to help the war effort. As a group of girls, we all got on so very well and became good friends. I am happy to be able to say I did my bit.”
Although their contributions are becoming more widely known, for too many years has their sacrifice been underplayed.
Audrey Broad, a measurer based in Sussex, says: “It was only years later I began to realise we were not appreciated for what we had done. It was a long time afterwards that I began to think we should have got some recognition. We didn’t get any money. We weren’t even allowed to keep our uniforms; I thought that was dreadful.”
Disbanded in 1946, the only sign of acknowledgement was when each member was awarded a personal letter signed by Queen Elizabeth.
It was not until 2000 that former members of the WTC were allowed to take part in the annual Remembrance Sunday parade in London and, in 2007, Defra announced that surviving members of the WTC could wear a new badge to commemorate their service.
Jo says: “These women are among the most courageous women I have ever met, with a great sense of adventure which has stayed with them into their 90s.
“They deserve to be remembered on an equal footing to the men for their valuable contribution to the war. It is time to celebrate women in history as role models for future generations.”
Despite the years that have now accumulated since taking on and accomplishing the momentous feat laid before them, women of the WTC quietly struggled through, ending their time in service feeling nothing but delight at what they had achieved.
Edna Holland, a Lumberjill from Yorkshire, says: ‘We were cutting a tree down into pit props and we would see it through from start to finish.
“In a way, there was a satisfaction in what we did because we knew how it important it was for the war. I felt really proud of our contribution.”