Scotland’s forgotten forest volunteers remembered in new book

Lumberjills: The forgotten Scottish women who felled stereotypes and saved Britain in World War Two. Picture: Forestry Commission
Lumberjills: The forgotten Scottish women who felled stereotypes and saved Britain in World War Two. Picture: Forestry Commission
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The Lumberjills, Britain’s forgotten army of volunteers who worked in forests to supply timber during the Second World War, were pioneers, writes author Joanna Foat

This is the story about the women I met who worked in forestry and the Women’s Timber Corps during the Second World War: the challenges they faced, the stigma they experienced and the incredible advances they made in eroding a view of women as substandard.

In the 1940s the Lumberjills smashed down what society thought women were physically and mentally capable of, they forced men to re-think what women could achieve, and they proved women could do things differently to men and still succeed.

This is their true story.

Molly Paterson wanted to stay on at school but her mum said she had to go out to work. So she started as a needlework apprentice in a large department store in Dundee, where she swept the floors, made tea and learnt the stitches.

Over and over again I heard stories of the young women being pulled out of education because their families could not justify the expense, when they would be getting married, having babies and staying at home. There was no need to invest in a career for women.

Enid had been working for the railways in Glasgow. She had always been a strong and sporty young woman, played golf and swam competitively. She hated working in an office, so she went home to help her mother. For her the chance to work outdoors and use her physical strength was a perfect opportunity to escape domestic chores.

It was very fitting that I met Enid not long after the London 2012 Summer Olympics, as she had just missed out on the chance to swim for Britain at the 1936 Olympics. She was a role model for young women in the 1940s to encourage them to do exercise and sport. The photos of the muscular Lumberjills reminded me so much of the female Olympic athletes that exciting summer.

On the eve of the Second World War, Britain was the world’s largest timber importing nation in the world, importing 96 per cent of its timber from countries as far away as Canada. When war was declared, there were only seven months of pit props for coalmines stockpiled. Such bulky imports of timber would soon be restricted and it was critical to the war effort: it was needed for everything from aircraft and shipbuilding to communications and coal mining. Collieries were making desperate pleas for more forestry workers but all the young men had signed up to fight in the war and so Britain was in trouble.

Meanwhile a formidable woman and feminist called Lady Gertrude Denman saw the opportunity for women during wartime: men were being conscripted and she believed that women could step into roles previously thought of as for men only, namely farming and more surprisingly forestry and timber production. She was instrumental in setting up the Women’s Land Army in the First World War and was head of the Women’s Institutes. However, to begin with it was ‘not acceptable’ to the government to have an all-female forestry service.

The government would rather employ British prisoners, dock workers, Italian and German prisoners of war, Irish volunteer workers, civil defence workers, the national fire service, military, borstal institutions, male college students, schoolboys and conscientious objectors before they would even consider women. However, women were volunteering with great excitement by the hundreds via the Women’s Land Army. They wanted to do their bit for the war like their brothers.

Reluctantly the Ministry of Supply considered women for ‘lighter forestry duties’ to work in tree nurseries planting seeds and new trees and only the most intelligent women, who were well educated with a competence in mathematics, could be trained to become measurers to calculate the cubic quantity of wood for timber production figures. Hundreds of women were sent to Forest of Dean each month to be trained in measuring. But they doubted whether women could be both clever and physically strong enough.

Recruitment was slow but a small number of women were hand selected for being good at maths or for having a ‘good physique’. Women like Enid were selected to carry out the heavier work of felling, with an axe and crosscut saw. However, 1940 was not a good year for timber production and women experienced hostility because it was seen as ‘a man’s job’.

There was difficulty in breaking down prejudice against using women’s labour, especially among the older timber merchants. But many people commented on the size of the women’s muscles after a month of felling trees and when a woman was seen working zealously in a snow blizzard, she was asked why she was working in such appalling conditions. She replied: “We want to show you men that we can do this job.”

Bella Nolan recalled one occasion when her foreman expressed some doubt regarding the ability of girls to cope with tough work. The next day she volunteered to work a crosscut saw with him. “During the day he kept asking me if I was tired and wanted to stop but I kept going despite being quite exhausted. At the end of the day we had cut down 120 trees.”

It was not until April 1942 that the Women’s Timber Corps was officially set up in England and a month later in Scotland. Hundreds of women were sent to training centres each month, like Shandford Lodge, eight miles from Brechin, and Drum Oak in Aberdeenshire in Scotland. When they completed their training they were sent to forestry camps at Alness, Strachur, Innerleithen, Dumfries, Alyth, Ethie and private firms and estates across Scotland.

The timber was pulled out of the forests by horses with chains and dragged to the roads for haulage lorries or loch side for rafting. It could be very dangerous work. There were accidents and some fatalities. The Scottish Lumberjills were among those to experience the most extreme living conditions. They lived in bothies or wooden huts out in the forests and for most there was no such thing as a water closet or somewhere to wash. So they were very grateful for the opportunity to bathe in a nearby stream.

But in the midst of war, heavy labour and all weathers, the women lived in the forest, made firm friends and had great fun together. For Molly and her friends nothing would keep them from going to dances. She walked two miles to meet her friends, another two miles to Loch Awe where they would clamber into a rowing boat to cross the half mile stretch of water to Taycreggan, walk another mile up the hill to Kilchrenan Village Hall where they would dance from 9pm till 2am. After the dance they had to do it all over again to get home. She said: “I think I must have been pretty fit in those days.”

There were between 15,000 and 18,000 women working on forestry in the Second World War. The measurers were promoted to supervisors and forewomen and put in charge of whole forestry sites. During the war more timber was produced from British forests than ever before. We supplied 60 per cent of our timber needs during war and 46 per cent of our forests and woodlands were felled by 1946. Russell Meiggs, who was in charge of timber production labour, said Britain would not have met timber targets without the Women’s Timber Corps.

But at the end of the war the women were refused the same grants, gratuities and benefits given to the women in civil defence and armed services. Their jobs were given to prisoners of war, their records were destroyed and they were not allowed to keep their uniforms. The director of the Women’s Land Army and Women’s Timber Corps, Lady Denman, resigned in protest. Finally, they were not allowed to take part in Remembrance Day parades because they were not part of the fighting forces.

At last they received recognition in 2007 when the first statue dedicated to the Women’s Timber Corps went up in the Queen Elizabeth Forest Park, near Aberfoyle, 65 years after the Women’s Timber Corps was formed. In 2008 they received a badge from the prime minister, Gordon Brown, honouring their war work.

Lumberjills: Britain’s Forgotten Army by Joanna Foat is published by the History Press, £14.99, www.thelumberjills.uk, www.thehistorypress.co.uk