The Women’s Forestry Service

Woodland Trust Centenary Woods Project

Introduction

Prime Minister David Lloyd George famously remarked that Britain came closer to losing the war through lack of timber than want of food.  Of course, both were in acute shortage.  This article describes how women helped address the timber shortage through the formation and activities of the Women’s Forestry Service, an organisation closely associated with the Women’s Land Army. Their successes lead to the re-establishment of both organisations on a larger scale during World War II.

Background

At the start of the Great War in August 1914, Britain was the only major European nation dependent on foreign imports for food and timber. Rather than “being over by Christmas”, the war effort placed ever increasing demands on the country’s men and resources. With U-boats attacking merchant shipping, and the call up of more soldiers, food and timber were soon in short supply.

A confused and uncertain industry at the start of the war saw large numbers of women out of work.  Meanwhile, women of independent means, driven in part by patriotism, volunteered their services to the war effort in large numbers. The Suffragette Movement suspended its political action and offered its organising capacity to help meet the new demands on the nation.

Out of these rapidly changing dynamics emerged various women’s organisations to provide war-time support and services locally, nationally and sometimes abroad behind the frontline.  The Women’s Land Army and the closely associated Women’s Forage Corps and Women’s Forestry Service played important roles in the production and distribution of food, animal feed and timber products from the country’s farms and woodlands.

Members of the Women's Forestry Corps grinding an axe.

Members of the Women’s Forestry Corps grinding an axe. (Q 30720) © IWM

Formation of the Women’s Forestry Service

By 1916 the need to produce more home-grown food was urgent and considerable efforts were made to encourage women to take up employment on the land, and to persuade farmers to accept them into what was considered work for men. In early 1917 the Ministry of Agriculture started to recruit a Women’s Land Army, with appeals for recruits being issued in March 1917.

In similar vein, the need for home produced timber was also becoming acute, and the Women’s Forestry Service (sometimes known as the Women’s Forestry Corps) was also started that year, established by Miss Rosamond Crowdy as a section of the Women’s Land Army.  Prior to that, women had been employed by contractors through employment offices for the cutting and measurement of timber, but in limited numbers and without any central co-ordination.

Whilst the Women’s Land Army was under the control of the Board of Agriculture, the Women’s Forestry Service was established as a separate body under the control of the Timber Supply Department of the Board of Trade. The Women’s Land Army and the Women’s Forestry Service worked in close co-operation.

You are doing a man’s work and so you’re dressed rather like a man but remember just because you wear a smock and breeches you should take care to behave like a British girl who expects chivalry and respect from everyone she meets.
Advice for recruits from the WLA handbook

 

The Women’s Land Army did all the recruiting and selection of candidates for both farm and forestry work. In her sound archive Mrs Helen Poulter recalls responding to a rally in London calling for ‘Girls for the Land’. She was asked whether she would prefer to work on a farm or in the forest to which she answered that she “didn’t like the idea of working with cows”. She was posted to a camp near Singleton in West Sussex to train and work as a cutter.

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.

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. (Q 30712) © IWM

Training & activities

The work of the cutters was less skilled and called for physical strength. The first two training camps were started in Newstead, Nottinghamshire and Burnham, Norfolk, where women were trained in the felling and preparation of timber for railway sleepers and pitprops, and the handling of horses to drag away the felled trees. These camps were soon closed down as it was more effective for the women to be trained in gangs on site under a skilled forewoman. Around 3,000 women were trained as cutters and worked in gangs of 20 to 25 for private employers or divisional officers.

Measuring was considered a more skilled role requiring a broad knowledge of forestry. Recruits were typically educated women who had been teachers or bank clerks.  A training camp was set up in Buckinghamshire, under canvas at Penn before being moved to huts at Halton, Wendover. Here they learned how to measure and mark where a tree should be felled and how to assess the cubic content of the resulting logs. 370 women passed their training here and went on to work as forewomen of timber cutting gangs or running sawmills.

Uniforms & pay

The uniform of the Women’s Forestry Service was provided free and was essentially the same as that of the Women’s Land Army It consisted of:

  • breeches
  • a knee-length overall tunic (with a button-fastening integrated belt)
  • boots or high boots (2 pairs per year)
  • buskins, leggings or puttees (if issued with short boots)
  • a mackintosh
  • a jersey
  • a soft felt cloche hat
wide-brimmed brown felt hat with an embroidered 'WFS' badge on front.

British First World War period felt hat worn by the Women’s Forestry Service (WFS). Timber was a vital commodity during the First World War and the WFS and Women’s’ Forestry Corps played a vital role in maintaining a continuous supply for the war effort.Service (UNI 8427) © IWM.

The uniform was designed to give the women the same freedom of movement as men doing a physical task.  However, the press and postcard publishers treated the land girls and their uniforms with some amusement, some of which today would probably be considered inappropriate.

The WLA handbook advised recruits that:

‘You are doing a man’s work and so you’re dressed rather like a man but remember just because you wear a smock and breeches you should take care to behave like a British girl who expects chivalry and respect from everyone she meets.’

In her sound archive Mrs Helen Poulter recalls the corduroy breeches were of a “hard brown material” and the putties as “all hooks and eyes”.  Her boots were too small and “everyone had bad feet”, and the smock “was often tucked into the breeches”.  She was not impressed with the “terrible hat”.

The pay had been fixed by Government.  For cutters the pay was 22s 6d per week, increasing to 25s per week.  For measurers, pay started at 35s per week. Uniforms and expenses were also provided. Mrs Helen Poulter said that of her weekly wages 15s went on billeting (food and accommodation).

At the end of the war

At the end of the war, politicians and statesmen paid tribute to the various women’s organisations whose patriotism and dedication had played an important part in the war effort.

In a speech on 29 June 1918 to mark the silver wedding anniversary of King George V and Queen Mary, the King said:

“When the history of our Country’s share in the war is written no chapter will be more remarkable than that relating to the range and extent of women’s participation. This service has been rendered only at the cost of much self-sacrifice and endurance. Women have readily worked for long hours and under trying circumstances in our factories and elsewhere to produce the supplies of munitions which were urgently needed at the front and to maintain the essential services of the country.”

 

Members of the Women's Forestry Corps returning after a day's work.

Members of the Women’s Forestry Corps returning after a day’s work. (Q 30714) © IWM

With special thanks

With thanks to Woodland Trust and Keith Lelliott (Volunteer Researcher at Woodland Trust) who provided the text of this article.

The Centenary Woods (First World War) Programme is being run by the Woodland Trust. This Programme of activity encompasses a diverse range of projects including the creation of four dedicated Centenary Woods, engaging over 100 individual landowners to plant a First World War wood, providing schools and communities with free trees to tracing the Verdun Oaks.