Pioneering women who wore the trousers
This week marks the 80th anniversary of the Women’s Timber Corps, a branch of the Women’s Land Army, that worked in Britain’s forests during World War Two. As many as 15-18,000 young women left home for the first time, aged 17-24, to fell trees with an axe and saw for the war effort. Doing what was thought to be ‘a man’s job’, these pioneering Lumberjills brought gender stereotypes crashing down.
The government at first refused to employ ‘the fairer sex,’ who they thought would be unable to cope with the tough work. Instead they tried to employ male British prisoners, male dockyard workers, male students and even school boys. But thousands of members of the Women’s Land Army wanted to do their bit for the war like their brothers and the government’s position became untenable.
Author Joanna Foat spent many years interviewing sixty of these remarkable women, who became known affectiontely as Lumberjills, and obtained unique first-hand accounts and evocative photographs of their lives in the forest. While most of these women have now passed away, their stories are immortalised in Joanna’s book Lumberjills Britain’s Forgotten Army, an account of women’s forestry work during WW2, published by The History Press in 2019.
‘Many of the lumberjills I met were upset that they remained a footnote in history, so I wanted to make sure they were remembered. 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.’ Joanna Foat
From December 1939, as many as 1,200 women who joined the Women's Land Army worked in forestry. But the success and growth of an all female forestry corps was thwarted as it was not acceptable to the authorities. The women were ridiculed and faced prejudice until they proved they could do the job.
A cohort of highly skilled and experienced senior staff from the Women's Timber Corps went out to Germany to requisition timber from German forests to rebuild Britain. One woman took a swim in the Mohne Dam. It had been repaired after the bombing during the war.