The Truth About Love
Hearts Don't Lie
Martin Wainwright, Thursday 7th June 2012 10:00
Jack had his Jill to help him in the nursery rhyme, and so in the toughest days of the Second World War, did Yorkshire's lumberjacks.
'Lumberjills' was the nickname for the stalwarts of the Women's Timber Corps, forestry's section of the more famous Women's Land Army. They trucked off every morning deep into plantations such as Dalby and Cropton Forests, near Pickering, and Boltby and Kilburn, between Thirsk and Helmsley.
Their work there was hard and relentless: felling, measuring logs, loading timber on to trucks and driving huge stacks of it off to sawmills. And now it is to be celebrated by the Forestry Commission to mark 70 years since the corps was established in 1942.
But that needs Lumberjill veterans; so the commission is putting out a call to track down as many of them as it can. They want to find more people like Edna Holland, 87, from Beverley, who left home for the first time as a 17-year-old from Doncaster and spent three years working on the North York Moors from a Lumberjills' camp at Boltby.
Her work was closely supervised, not just by forestry staff but by her father who was a miner in Doncaster and wrote to her when he came across a batch of bent and badly-sawn pit props – the destination of much of the felled wood. Edna recalls getting the letter at the Nissan hut she shared with nine other girls and a fire fuelled by the logs they had cut. Here are some of her reminiscences, a marvellous window on a vanished world:
Our uniform consisted of shoes, boots, jodhpurs, dungarees, two shirts, a green jumper, coat and beret. The dungarees did not stay like that for long as we cut them off into shorts. We where sent special issue undies, which we didn't like either so we cut those off into shorts too.
The Forestry Commission men taught us everything they knew. They where going into the forces and wanted to pass on their knowledge of how to fell a tree and to make sure we knew how to do it properly so we could carry on their good work when they were gone. They where not prejudiced at all, always accepted us and treated us well. Some of the younger men that went to war had worked in the forests from the age of 14 after finishing school.
It was very hard work, but we learnt such a lot. We started off by learning to fell a tree. Then we were taught how to measure different sized pit props. My goodness we got muscles everywhere, but it made us feel really good.
We worked at Boltby and moved around all the forests in the North York Moors. We left at 7.30am in the back of a lorry and we'd be collected at 4.30pm or 5pm, home in time for evening meal at 6.30pm. Working like that all day made you very hungry. The choice for lunch was a cheese or meat sandwich, in the evening we had a cooked dinner, sometimes stew, slices of meat, very rarely fish, mostly meat, but with plenty of vegetables. For breakfast we had eggs or sausages or something like that.
I was amazed to see how trees are felled today on TV by a big machine that grabs the trees cuts them off at the bottom and runs up the trunk stripping all the branches off in one go and then cuts it into lengths. I was gobsmacked how they do it.
We went to weekend dances in Thirsk, where we did Ballroom dancing like the waltz and the quick step, which we learned at the dances. The Royal Corps of Signals was based in Thirsk and they brought a band to the dances.
If I hadn't have worked in the forests, I would probably would have had to work in munitions factories in Doncaster, but I didn't want to do that. Otherwise I would have joined the Land Army. The Timber Corps was just great, I learned so much."
I think because we were cutting a tree down into pit props and we would see it through from start to finish there was a satisfaction in what we did. We knew how it important it was for the war. I felt really proud of our contribution.
My father worked at Armthorpe Pit in Doncaster and he only ever wrote to me once. He said: 'You're not measuring the pit props properly and they are not straight enough.' It made me think if I ever had a son I wouldn't have them working down there in the pits on their belly like my dad did.
One of her contemporary successors, 21st century lumberjill Sarah Bell, 20, from Kirkbymoorside and a works supervisor with the Forestry Commission, is lost in admiration:
These days machines do a lot of the back-breaking work, but in the 1940s forestry was far more labour intensive. The only way to cut down a tree was to use a saw or axe - chainsaws still hadn't been invented. The girls were made of tough stuff and it's time their contribution was better known.
The corps mixed volunteers from every type of social background, kitted out in their green uniforms like Robin Hood's forest band and often billeted with local families. As well as pit props, their timber was used in a huge range of armaments manufacture.
Pam Warhurst, chair of Forestry Commission England, says:
The great efforts of our Lumberjills must be one of the last unrecognised stories of the Second World War. We forget how vital timber was to the war effort and yet so little is known about the women who kept the nation's forestry working. I am extremely grateful to projects like this which are striving to gather information before it slips from our collective memory.
Petra Young, the commission's project officer, says:
North Yorkshire's forests were an important source of timber. We know that Lumberjills served here until the end of the war as we have vintage photographs. But there are many stories waiting to be discovered. These memories will help us write another chapter in the history of our woods.
Are you a Lumberjill veteran, or do you know of one? If so, please contact Petra on 01751 472771 or email firstname.lastname@example.org to get yourself and your former pals or your friend/relative a deserved place in history.