Throughout the Second World War, women in Britain stepped up wherever they were needed. Many volunteered as air wardens or joined civilian organizations dedicated to providing aid to soldiers abroad. Some of those women enlisted in the Air Force, while others opted for the Women’s Land Army. Most received immediate praise and recognition for their work, except one group: the Women’s Timber Corps.
A shortage of timber
The origins of the Women’s Timber Corps dates back to World War I, when the Women’s Timber Service was formed. Shortly after the war, the British government established the Forestry Commission and tasked it with increasing the country’s timber production. Unfortunately, the trees planted to replace those cut down during the conflict were still immature.
By the time WWII broke out, Britain was importing 96 percent of its timber requirements. There was also a labor shortage, as the men working in the forests had joined the battle in Europe. To combat this, the Forestry Commission began recruiting women.
In 1942, the German occupation in Norway was causing a shortage of imported timber. In response, the Home Grown Timber Production Department created the Women’s Timber Corps. A month later, Scotland followed suit and formed its own Corps. While the work was grueling and arduous, the women were eventually accepted as being just as good as the men they had replaced.
The women of the Timber Corps
The Women’s Land Army was charged with the administration and recruitment of the Women’s Timber Corps, despite being an entirely separate branch. The Corps had a similar uniform to its counterpart, except that members, nicknamed “Lumber Jills,” wore berets and a different armband. Their badges also depicted a fir tree instead of the sheaf of wheat featured by the Women’s Land Army.
The exact numbers are unknown, but it’s estimated between 6,000 and 13,000 women signed up for the Corps. While the official recruiting age was 17 and over, girls as young as 14 also joined. Many traded city living for more rural settings, and the main requirement was that they have the enthusiasm and resilience needed for the job.
Training took approximately four-to-six weeks and occurred at Corps depots in Culford, Wetherby, Lydney, and Hereford. Once complete, the women were stationed across the United Kingdom.
Grueling and dangerous work
The Women’s Timber Corps work included a host of jobs, including crosscutting, felling, snedding, and operating sawmills. They also learned how to drive tractors and trucks and to work with horses. The most specialized skill was measuring, which had three objectives: identifying trees for felling, assessing the timber in a tree, and measuring the amount felled.
A large portion of what was produced was mining timber used to keep the country running. It was also used for pit props for the mines, crosses on soldiers’ graves, telegraph poles, gun mats, railway sleepers, roadblocks, ladders, newsprint, mobile tracking to support tanks and ships’ masts.
The women of the Timber Corps worked from 7:00 A.M. to 4:30 P.M. This created resentment between them and the Women’s Land Army, who worked longer hours and considered the Timber Corps the “soft option.” They were subjected to meager living conditions and often had to find their own accommodations. This was difficult, as many held prejudices against them for doing a man’s job.
Another point of contention was the pay. Tree fellers earned between 35 and 46 shillings per week, while measurers earned more than 50. They were paid piece-work instead of a set wage, meaning their average wage was much higher than those in the Women’s Land Army.
A long wait for recognition
The Women’s Timber Corps was disbanded in 1946. While its members received a letter from Queen Elizabeth, they were offered no other form of recognition nor afforded the gratuity or retraining of women who’d served in the Armed Forces.
In 2007, The Department of Environment, Food and Rural Affairs announced that all surviving members would be given a new badge to commemorate their service. That same year, a memorial statue dedicated to them was unveiled in Queen Elizabeth Forest Park in Aberfoyle, Stirling, Scotland.
The Forestry Commission marked the 70th anniversary of the Women’s Timber Corps in 2012, after which BBC’s Countryfile aired a tribute to the work they’d done. The most recent tribute occurred in 2014 when a statue honoring the Women’s Timber Corps and the Women’s Land Army was unveiled at the National Memorial Arboretum in Alrewas, Scotland.