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The Suffolk 'Lumberjills' who played a crucial role in the Second World War and used axes and handsaws to save forestry

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Today nothing remains of Culford Camp. An old postbox near a field entrance on a country road is the only sign it ever existed.

And yet, 80 years ago, it was where thousands of women were trained to play a crucial role in the war effort.

The camp was England’s biggest training centre for the Women’s Timber Corps which kept forestry - and all that depended on it - going during World War Two.

WTC members working at Culford. Picture supplied by Joanna Foat
WTC members working at Culford. Picture supplied by Joanna Foat

But the vital, tough and often dangerous work of the Lumberjills, as they were known, appeared for decades to have been wiped from history so completely that one veteran described them as “Britain’s Forgotten Army”.

The stories of young women who toiled through freezing cold and sweltering heat felling trees with axes and handsaws, hauling timber, and working in sawmills, seemed lost as surely as Culford Camp, which was demolished in the 1950s.

But they now have 21st century champions, including author Joanna Foat and Suffolk expert Nicky Reynolds, who 80 years after the WTC was founded are determined their contribution will not be forgotten.

Girls returning to Culford Camp after a day's work. Photo: IWM
Girls returning to Culford Camp after a day's work. Photo: IWM

The roadside postbox that survives in Culford was where recruits - many still in their teens and at first often desperately homesick - would have sent letters back to their loved-ones.

Though some were already strong and used to the outdoor life others were far from well prepared with “townies” sometimes arriving in high heels and hats with veils.

Four weeks of training including rigorous early morning exercise sessions helped build the muscles they needed to tackle the work.

“Doing what was thought to be ‘a man’s job’, these pioneering women brought gender stereotypes crashing down,” says Joanna, author of a book about the Lumberjills.

Joanna Foat, author of Lumberjills: Britain's Forgotten Army. Photo Jon Hawkins, Surrey Hills Photography
Joanna Foat, author of Lumberjills: Britain's Forgotten Army. Photo Jon Hawkins, Surrey Hills Photography

But at the time the thought of a woman wearing trousers - let alone striding into a forest and chopping down trees - could still outrage the more conservatively-minded.

The treatment suffered by early recruits was one of the things that shocked Joanna, whose book Lumberjills: Britain’s Forgotten Army was published in 2019.

“They were laughed at for their enthusiasm to offer their services, regarded as ornamental rather than useful, and many timber merchants did not want women taking over the jobs of skilled men.

“In fact, they proved that women could carry logs like weight-lifters, work in dangerous sawmills, drive huge timber trucks and calculate timber production figures on which the government depended during wartime.

“With their 80th anniversary, I hope to inspire women of all ages with the strength, courage and determination of the Lumberjills.”

WTC members working at Culford. Picture supplied by Joanna Foat
WTC members working at Culford. Picture supplied by Joanna Foat

The Women’s Timber Corps was established in 1942. But a forestry section of the Women’s Land Army was set up earlier in the war, and there were a few female timber workers in World War One.

At the start of World War Two Britain depended on timber imports because half its usable trees had been felled during the previous conflict.

With some shipping routes blocked, home grown timber became vital to produce millions of tons of wood for things like pit props, railway sleepers, telegraph poles, ships and aircraft.

In 1939 the Women’s Land Army was re-formed. By January 1940 stocks of pit prop wood were predicted to last no more than seven months, and the Land Army was asked for women to help produce timber for industry and warfare.

“The government at first refused to employ ‘the fairer sex,’ who they thought would be unable to cope with the tough work,” says Joanna. “Instead they tried to employ male prisoners, dockyard workers, students and even schoolboys.

“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.”

Bakelite WTC badge. Illustration Joanna Foat
Bakelite WTC badge. Illustration Joanna Foat

Despite their sterling service, the Land Army and Timber Corps received no post-war recognition, grants or gratuities. As non-fighting forces, they were not allowed to join the annual march past the Cenotaph in London until 2000.

More than 60 years after the war ended, when most were in their 80s, then prime minister Gordon Brown finally presented them with a badge.

But to the disappointment of the Timber Corps, their badge bore a wheatsheaf, the emblem of the Land Army, not their motifs of a pine tree or a pair of crossed axes.

Hardly surprising then that many of the 60 veterans interviewed by Joanna felt they’d had a raw deal.

“Many of the Lumberjills I met were still upset that they remained a footnote to the Women’s Land Army, so I wanted to make sure they were remembered in history,” she said.

Joanna, a mother of two daughters who has always loved outdoor activities, says had she been a young woman in wartime she would have joined the WTC.

“I liked my physical strength. I loved chopping wood and my dad gave me an axe for Christmas when I was in my 20s.”

She first heard about Lumberjills while working as a press officer for the Forestry Commission, and started researching as part of her job. By the time she moved on to other topics she was captivated enough to carry on in her own time.

“At first I could only find one website but there was nothing in it about what it was like for the women. I met my first Lumberjills and was so inspired by them I just couldn’t stop.

“There was only one folder for the WTC in the National Archives. Everything else had been destroyed.

“That’s why I had to keep going with it to make sure their story was told and remembered, because it had been literally thrown away. A lot of the women were really upset.”

One, Edna Holland, was so disillusioned she was reluctant to talk to Joanna. When, after a four hour drive and waiting all day for Edna to answer her phone, they finally spoke she said: “Don’t waste your time. No-one cares about us old people now. We’re the forgotten army.”

WTC crossed axes badge. Illustration Joanna Foat
WTC crossed axes badge. Illustration Joanna Foat

It was only when Joanna showed her a crossed axe badge - the tree fellers’ emblem that she once proudly wore - that she relented and began to share her story.

Joanna has worked with TV programmes including Wartime Farm and Countryfile to increase recognition of the Lumberjills, getting hands on experience of how tough the job was.

“They loaded lorries carrying logs on their shoulders. I lifted a piece of wood a third of the length they used to carry and it was so heavy. It really hurts your collar bone.”

Watching two women fell a 60ft conifer with a crosscut saw as the tree lashed around in the wind also brought home how dangerous it could be.

Some WTC members were killed. Others lost fingers, or were badly hurt when pulling timber with tractors that turned over.

The stress on their bodies was huge, with back strain another hazard, while breathing in sawdust caused bronchitis.

Inside a dormitory hut at Culford Camp. Photo: Catherine Proctor Collection
Inside a dormitory hut at Culford Camp. Photo: Catherine Proctor Collection

At Culford they were well fed but others, living in lodgings and moving between jobs, were often not so lucky - and it was hard to do gruelling work on meagre rations.

And variety could be lacking, as two girls in Joanna’s book found after saying they liked beetroot. They got it in their sandwiches every day for six months.

Culford recognised the girls needed good food to perform well. A typical breakfast was shredded wheat, scrambled egg, potatoes, bread and butter and tea,

Packed lunches were filling with cheese, tongue or ham sandwiches, bread pudding, and flasks of tea. The evening meal might be steak, potatoes and greens, blackcurrant pudding and custard, with cocoa and biscuits later.

Girls ate breakfast and dinner in the canteen and spent time in recreation huts before going to their dormitories at 10.30pm with lights out at 11pm.

But in other ways home comforts were sparse. Mary Broadhead recalled her first night there. “The camp washrooms felt cold. The water we used was lukewarm and the floor was made of concrete.

“Lots of the girls cried when they went back to the huts that night. Some cried with homesickness and just wouldn’t stop. I thought it was just like a prison camp.”

It is unclear how many women served in the WTC. “Records suggest between 6,000 and 8.000,” says Land Army expert Nicky Reynolds who has researched the camp as part of an ongoing project with Suffolk Archive.

Vicky Abbott and Nicky Reynolds with land army items
Vicky Abbott and Nicky Reynolds with land army items

“But they were not a military service so there was no requirement to keep records in any depth,”

Culford Camp was built before the war as a labour camp for unemployed men.

“It was used to train women in the Land Army forestry service before it became the Timber Corps,” said Nicky. “Being in the middle of Thetford Forest was ideal. It was like its own little village and even had its own hospital.

“There’s nothing there now. All that’s left, outside a field entrance, is a postbox mounted on a brick pillar. That was at the end of the drive.”

As well as trainees it would have housed others working in Thetford Forest. Some also worked in a sawmill in Bury.

In 1941, the Bury Free Press and Post described the daily work routine. “The girls get up at 6.15 am and before breakfast at 7am beds are made and huts left tidy ready for inspection.

“They work in gangs of varying numbers according to the job in hand and are transported to work at 7.30am, some by bus others by lorry and those working in the surrounding forest walk or cycle.

“The girls leaving the camp present a very active and workmanlike picture, some dressed in khaki dungarees, many of them in shorts, cream shirts open from the neck.

“Certainly the uniform of the Women’s Land Army has been well chosen and gives scope for freedom of movement and comfort.

“So well have these girls fitted into their new life that rarely does a girl fail to report for work, usually only in the event of sickness.”

WTC members working at Culford. Picture supplied by Joanna Foat
WTC members working at Culford. Picture supplied by Joanna Foat

The women worked an eight hour day. After dinner they had free time ... unless there was a forest fire when they had to turn out to help fight it.

There were clubs for hockey, netball and cricket, with occasional matches against local troops, and also a social club with billiards, table tennis, darts. and a dance floor.

Socialising outside the camp was possible with transport to Bury twice a week, and trips to local dances.

Lumberjills wore Land Army uniform with a green beret and pine tree cap badge. Tree fellers adopted the crossed axes of the Pioneer Corps as their unofficial badge, worn on jumpers and greatcoats.

Timber measuring was a vital part of the work. It required mathematical skill, and some were specially selected for the role. Measurers also faced a mountain of paperwork to monitor productivity and supply.

Women got a weekly wage, sometimes boosted by piece work. Pay was slightly higher than the WLA to reflect the complexity and danger of the job.

For a 47 hour week it ranged from 32 shillings at 17 years-old to 50 shillings at 19 and over. Experienced measurers, lorry drivers and gangers got 55 shillings.

The Timber Corps was disbanded in 1946 with members either resigning or transferring to the WLA. Lack of post war jobs in forestry forced the vast majority back to their peacetime roles.

But the spirit of camaraderie was legendary amongst land girls and Lumberjills with many making lifelong friendships.

In 2014 a joint memorial to both services was unveiled at the National Memorial Arboretum in Staffordshire.

Lumberjills: Britain’s Forgotten Army by Joanna Foat is published by the History Press. For more details visit www.thelumberjills.uk or www.thehistorypress.co.uk/publication/lumberjills