The Timber Girls Heritage Project

The Timber Girls Heritage Project

The Timber Girls Heritage Project – Celebrating the Women’s Forestry Service, WW1

The Timber Girls Project full and summary reports can be found here: 

An unique opportunity to experience first hand the hard work, and the fun, of being a member of WW1’s Women’s Forestry Service.

One -day workshop for young women (14 -25 years)

September 2016 – March 2017

‘The Timber Girls’ is being delivered by Courage Copse Creatives in partnership with The North Devon Biosphere Foundation and has been funded by £10,000 from the Heritage Lottery Fund (HLF). The award was made available through HLF’s First World War then and now programme. The project will take 60 students out into local woods to learn about and commemorate the work of women foresters during the First World War. Dr Alice Goodenough is working on the project as a heritage and action-based researcher.

Girls and young women from local schools and colleges; Petroc College, Braunton Academy, Great Torrington School, Route 39 Academy and Bridgwater College, will mark the Centenary of the First World War by learning about the women who took on vital timber management during First World War. Each young woman (aged 14 – 25 years) will be given the unique and empowering experience of learning the heritage skills used within the Women’s Forestry Corp. From felling trees with axes and cross cutting using a 2- (wo)man saw to extracting the timber using horses.

The project will also be used as a platform to research what barriers are currently preventing more women from choosing forestry as a career today.

Alongside the opportunity to gain new forestry skills, students will gain insights into how the war altered other aspects of life on the home front, with Heritage Consultant Julian Vayne, who will share stories and artefacts from private collections.

With the help of Shimnix Films workshops will be digitally recorded and a film produced which will continue to share and celebrate the experiences of women foresters and explore parallels and differences between women’s’ lives and opportunities, then and now.

WWI Timber Girls and Forestry today

Remembering and recreating the heritage of Devon’s Timber Girls will encourage local girls to explore women’s’ role in the practical management of the countryside in the past and perhaps consider the value of land-based employment today. In collaboration with Katy Lee (Courage Copse Creatives) and Kate Mobbs-Morgan (Rowan Working Horses), who will lead girls in practicing the skills employed by the Timber Girls, researcher Alice Goodenough will evaluate with those taking part the relevance of the history of female foresters during WWI to woman’s lives today.

Please get in touch or leave a comment below if you have any information about Devon’s Timber Girls in WWI or if you’d like to let us know what you think of the Timber Girls project.

What we know about female forestry in Devon during WWI

(Research undertaken by Dr Alice Goodenough supported by Katy Lee.)

THE WOMEN’S LAND ARMY IN BRITAIN, 1915-1918 (Q 30720) Members of the Women’s Forestry Corps grinding an axe. Copyright: © IWM.

The evidence in the archives suggests that much time was spent in Devon trying to establish what women could and should do on the land as part of the war effort, how national and local bureaucracy could work to mobilise women and what the consequences of putting women on the land would be for men during and post-war. Both nationally and locally advocates for female forestry initially suggested that women’s contribution would need to be limited to appropriate, less physical tasks.

It wasn’t until early 1917 that a women’s land army was formally established and female forestry accepted to be a part of their task. In this area, Devon may have led the way, women establishing a forestry camp and undertaking every aspect of timber processing, on a site in Lydford, by the early summer of that year.

‘…the women were obtained, and about ten days ago the experiment was started, not without a little anxiety it must be confessed, for the job was the first of its kind on which woman labour had been employed in Devon, if not in England. From the start however, the movement was successful, and to see the women at work one would consider they had been engaged on it all their lives. Lydford has may attractions to regale the tourist…but all her natural charms of scenery have to give place to the colony of women tree-fellers, to whose rendezvous the natives never tire of directing the curious’ (Devon & Exeter Gazette, May 25th 1917).

The ‘experiment’ in Lydford was reported by the Gazette to be ‘remarkable’ for the ‘ease’ with which women workers from all backgrounds were able to take up forestry skills.

‘Now they are experts, and talk in the phraseology of the woodman in a manner which is somewhat puzzling to the uninitiated’ (Ibid).

THE WOMEN’S LAND ARMY IN BRITAIN, 1915-1918 (Q 30703) Members of the Forestry Corps saw the base of a tree in a forest in United Kingdom during the First World War. Copyright: © IWM.

This local celebration of female forestry and the ability of women to undertake it was mirrored in the regional and national press, which also included articles about Devon’s woman woodlanders during 1917-1918. Their ability to look beguiling whilst undertaking ‘what formally was regarded as an especially masculine pursuit’ was a theme in both press photography and writing. The Sussex Express continues in an article headlined ‘Devon Women Foresters and What they Earn’:

‘By common consent there are few more picturesque figures at the present time in the rural landscape than the woman forester…At Littory Wood (Devon) some 40 women previously engaged in barking wood are now cross-sawing it for pit props. They “are giving every satisfaction” (Sussex Express, August 17th 1917).

During July/August 1917 the branch of the Woman’s Land Army that would undertake timber production, The Women’s Forestry Service, was formally established, recognising that women could be foresters.

Whilst the intermittent enthusiastic press reportage around female forestry remains, we could find little other archival evidence of Devon’s timber girls, The Women’s Forestry Service, or later celebration of their work. Estimates of the numbers of women involved in forestry nationally vary widely, with some suggesting at least 3000 female workers were employed in forests and sawmills, despite concerns surrounding the consequences of their employment.

‘However, by early 1918, demand for timber and labour both began to rise. By the time hostilities ceased later that year, the WFS had employed 2000 women who, with the help of 43 battalions of Canadian Forestry Corps, had surveyed, stripped and processed over 450,000 acres of woodland. In addition to these ‘official’ workers, there were at least 1000 other women who, while not formally registered with the WFS, were employed in local forests and sawmills.’ http://www.bahs.org.uk/AGHR/ARTICLES/59_1_6_Vickers.pdf

Despite the numbers, however, little is widely known of their experiences and despite their historic nature; their achievements are little celebrated.

Miss Sylvia Calmady-Hamlyn and Timber Girls in Devon

THE WOMEN’S LAND ARMY IN BRITAIN, 1915-1918 (Q 30712) Members of the Women’s Land Army Forestry Corps holding axes smile while leaning on a gate after completing a day’s work during the First World War. Copyright: © IWM.

One figure, who has emerged as a prominent influence upon regional and possibly national acceptance of women’s land based employment and female forestry, in particular, is Miss Calmady-Hamlyn. A prominent member of the Women’s War Service Committee she reasoned repeatedly and strongly for the inclusion of women within wartime agriculture. From a family with an estate on the edge of Dartmoor, she appears to typify the class of woman who was working to mediate between national strategies and local concerns. In her work as part of the Devon Woman’s War Committee she features in press and archival documents advocating for women workers to have fair wages and conditions and against prejudice about their abilities. She appears to have been actively involved in the arrangement of women’s tuition at Seale Hayne Agricultural College and the setting up of Bidlake Farm: experimental training and employment that demonstrated to the region the female capacity for land-based work.

As an inspector for the Board of trade and member of the Woman’s War Committee she recruited and placed women workers within Forestry, in both processing and planting, and publicised such experiments (such as that at Lydford). Miss Calmady-Hamlyn reported in the winter of 1917 that female forestry in Devon had been cited to the Minister of Agriculture as support for developing governmental policy on women’s wartime employment in forest and timber work.

Miss Sylvia Calmady-Hamlyn seems notable for her determination to demonstrate that women could work in land-based occupations including forestry, irrespective of previous experience or class, and could undertake all aspects of timber production. However, she was also clear that women ‘were longing to hand back their charge’ as soon as men were demobilised and that there should be no fear that previously male jobs would become permanent female employment (Devon & Exeter Gazette, July 14th, 1919).

Please get in touch or leave a comment if you have any information about Devon’s Timber Girls in WWI or if you’d like to let us know what you think of the Timber Girls project.