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Remembering the lumberjills: the Women's Timber Corps who felled trees in the New Forest

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THEY were the lumberjills: members of the Women’s Timber Corps launched 80 years ago which sent hundreds to work in the New Forest during the Second World War.

A stereotype-busting female unit of the Home Front, they were part of the Women’s Land Army and made up of between 15,000 and 18,000 pioneering women aged 17-24 who left home to fell trees with axes and saws.

The story of the New Forest lumberjills was revealed by Joanna Foat in her book Lumberjills: Britain’s Forgotten Army.

The Denny Sawmills team (photo: D.W.Bond)
The Denny Sawmills team (photo: D.W.Bond)

Their office was based at Red Lodge in Lyndhurst and their work in the district produced 12.5-million cubic feet of timber.

Britain was the largest worldwide timber importer but war meant home-grown timber supplies became vital for producing pit props, railway sleepers, telegraph poles, gun butts, ships and aircraft, as well as packaging boxes for bombs and army supplies.

Thousands of forestry workers were urgently required and in April 1942 four training camps across the UK taught women felling, haulage, sawmilling and measuring timber, before the workers were sent out to the UK’s woodland.

Diana Underwood, a lumberjill who worked in the New Forest, recalled how sometimes they cycled 20 miles to and from work a day.

She said: “Workmen were building an airfield for the Americans at Stoney Cross and they were able to pay more for digs so we were unable to get in anywhere for the recommended £1 a week and usually had to pay 25/-, sometimes 30/-.

Marjory Stark getting into the swing (photo: Joanna Foat)
Marjory Stark getting into the swing (photo: Joanna Foat)

“I must have stayed with 10 or 12 families, mainly in Lyndhurst, Ringwood and Brockenhurst.”

Orientation was made more difficult because, in anticipation of a German invasion, all signposts had been taken down in the New Forest. Getting lost was a daily hazard and the lumberjills came to rely on compasses.

Another of the lumberjills was Barbara Beddow who was promoted to forewoman and put in charge of a special New Forest project to extract a highly valuable shrub used by the military to make high explosives.

While working in the New Forest lumberjills had to move and find new billets as often as three times a week, which created problems with laundry, boot repairs and keeping up with the mail, which often arrived weeks late.

Alice Moffatt, The Women's Timber Corps on the Isle of Wight (Photo credit Joanna Foat) (56092165)
Alice Moffatt, The Women's Timber Corps on the Isle of Wight (Photo credit Joanna Foat) (56092165)

By the end of the conflict 26 sawmills had been set up within the district in which lumberjills worked alongside men, including Italian prisoners of war.

They also did charcoal burning, something the PoWs could not help with as the charcoal was used in munitions, and helped the Forestry Commission plant thousands of new trees and collect and bag up pine cones for seed.

Author Joanna said: “I was shocked to discover how the women were treated at the beginning of the war.

“They were laughed at for their enthusiasm to offer their services, regarded as ornamental rather than useful, and many timber merchants did not want women taking over the jobs of skilled men.

“In fact, the Lumberjills not only pioneered a new fashion for women in trousers, wearing jodphurs, but they also proved women could carry logs like weightlifters, work in dangerous sawmills, drive huge timber trucks and calculate timber production figures on which the government depended during wartime.

Diana Underwood (photo: Joanna Foat)
Diana Underwood (photo: Joanna Foat)

“Out in the forests away from the restrictions imposed on women by society, they realised they could sit astride a tree, smoke a pipe and fell 10-tonne trees just like the men, if they wanted to.”

At the end of the war the Women’s Timber Corps received no recognition, grants or gratuities and were not allowed to keep their uniforms or attend Remembrance Day parades since they were not part of the fighting forces.

More than 60 years later, then prime minister Gordon Brown finally presented them with a badge.

Although to their disappointment the badge bore a wheatsheaf – the emblem of the Women’s Land Army, not a pine tree or a pair of crossed axes.

Joanna added: “Many of the lumberjills I met were still upset that they remained a footnote to the Women’s Land Army, so I wanted to make sure they were remembered in history.

“Now their incredible feats of physical and mental endurance inspire women today, especially female forestry workers and arborists from across the world.

“Given the freedom and opportunity to work together in sisterhood out in the forest, naturally the lumberjills were a huge success.”

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