Drafted in when the lumberjacks went off to war, the plucky girls of the Women’s Timber Corps proved they were as good as the fellers



22:35 GMT, 28 September 2012

They are the last unrecognised heroines of World War II. Today, most people are familiar with the story of the Women’s Land Army.

But the teenage girls who made up the Women’s Timber Corps have been largely forgotten.

They were known affectionately as ‘lumberjills’ – and they played their part for the war effort in Britain’s woodlands and forests, felling trees and working in sawmills.

A typical forestry land girl - she swings a pretty axe!

A typical forestry land girl – she swings a pretty axe!

Their work was crucial for, at the outbreak of war, Britain was importing almost all of her timber.

Now home-produced timber was urgently required for industry and the war effort: for pit props and railway sleepers, telegraph poles, aircraft construction, ship-building, gunstocks for the troops, transport packaging for army supplies, charcoal for explosives and gas-mask filters – and coffins.

Not only was there a shortage of timber – forestry had never recovered from World War I – but there was a shortage of labour, as male workers were called up to fight.

Step in the lumberjills in breeches and dungarees, proving that girls could shout, ‘Timberrrr…’ as well as any man. They faced sarcasm from male forestry workers who refused to believe that women were tough enough. But when 17-year-old Bella Williamson’s foreman doubted her ability to keep up, she volunteered to work a two-handled crosscut saw with him the next day. /09/28/article-2210036-15369BDD000005DC-321_306x423.jpg” width=”306″ height=”423″ alt=”It was hard work, as viewers can see for themselves when the lumberjills story is featured on BBC2s Wartime Farm” class=”blkBorder” />

It was hard work, as viewers can see for themselves when the lumberjills story is featured on BBC2s Wartime Farm

It was hard work, as viewers can see for themselves when the lumberjills’ story is featured on BBC2’s Wartime Farm. Edna remembers plenty of aches and pains; like many former lumberjills, she has suffered from rheumatism all of her life.

‘And I never had lady’s hands, never since,’ she says, holding them out. ‘We had thick gloves but our hands were calloused. Hard work I should say so… we thought we were tough. I never heard anybody moaning or wanting to go home.’

Even so, for girls from sheltered homes it was a culture shock. Peggy Conway, 17, was taken aback on her first morning on the North Yorkshire moors, when a truck of ‘wild-eyed foresters’ pulled up to collect her, swearing vociferously. ‘I thought it wasn’t the right environment for a well brought-up Methodist girl,’ she reminisced. ‘But I stuck it out – and they weren’t as scary as I thought.’

Edna’s first husband, who died, was a middle-class draughtsman and wouldn’t have been impressed that his wife was doing manual work. ‘He wouldn’t have liked it, I don’t think. He’d have thought it was common,’ she admits.

Her second husband, who she met when he was home on leave, was rather amused by his wife’s war record. ‘He thought it was funny and used to joke that I might chop his legs off.’

But she enjoyed the camaraderie of the other girls and has only happy memories of her time as a lumberjill. ‘I liked being free. They were happy days with all the girls.’ Her Bakelite beret badge, carefully preserved by her only son, Peter, still bears traces of forest soil stuck in its crevices.

Other girls were not so lucky. In Scotland, Ethel Torbet lost her life in 1942 when a tree with a twisted root fell the wrong way and killed her. Mary Broadhead (then Swannick), now 92, lost her left thumb while working at a sawmill at Chartham, near Canterbury.

It was a windy day and when sawdust blew into her eyes, she recalls, her hand slipped. She was stitched up at the local hospital during an air raid.

After the war, the 8,700 odd girls of the Women’s Timber Corps received no recognition and it was 2008 before they received a badge acknowledging their efforts. ‘Better late than never,’ says Edna Barton. But thanks to the lumberjills, who celebrate their 70th anniversary this year, by 1945 Britain was producing 60 per cent of the timber needed by industry.

Wartime Farm, Thursday, 8pm, BBC2.

Veterans of the Women’s Land Army and Timber Corps will be marching for the last time to the Cenotaph on 13 October.