A public plea for information on the vital role played by women who worked in Chopwell Wood, near Gateshead, in the Second World War has struck gold.
The Forestry Commission, Friends of Chopwell Wood and Groundwork Northeast want to shed light on the little known role of Lumberjills who kept Britain's forests running during those dark days and who helped supply desperately needed timber while men were away fighting.
Joanne Norman, from Groundwork Northeast, said:
"We have had a terrific response, especially after we published a 1941 photograph last month, given to us by the son of an elderly Lumberjill. It was thought to show some of the ladies we are keen to identify who worked in Chopwell. It turns out that that the picture was taken in Jesmond, Newcastle, and thanks to the number of people coming forward we have made a start in putting names and stories to faces."
Ethel Oliver, 88, from Whitburn, was a Chopwell Lumberjill, spending nine months in the 360 hectare (900 acre) beauty spot, responsible for measuring the length and girth of trees after they were cut down by gangs of men. She recalls the lads were always trying to get one over on her as her measurements helped determine their pay packet based on volume of timber felled. Keen on the countryside, she volunteered as an 18 year old for the Land Army in 1941, but switched to the new Women's Timber Corp (WTC) the following year. On duty from 7.30am to 5pm, she lodged with a school caretaker.
"It was a busy place with trees being felled and charcoal burning going on. The wood was desperately needed for pit props. I was given training in the Lake District, learning how to measure and cut down trees and peel off the bark. We also had to be able to identify the kind of tree by looking at leaves or the bark. It was hard work and I remember being cold during the harsh winters. If you could afford it you would go home at weekends for a bath, but transport wasn't great. But I loved being outside and the whole experience has left me with very fond memories. After moving around the North East I eventually finished in the woods in 1946. That left me with a bit of dilemma because after such an experience I didn't fancy working in an office or shop."
Ethel also served in the wilds of Northumberland, woods along the River Wear and near Barnard Castle. She eventually became an interior decorator and got married to her husband Randle in 1951. Although they met after the war, it is salutary to think that while she was toiling in the forests, he was on the Normandy landing beaches just a week after D Day in 1944 as part of an RAF unit building Typhoon air bases near the front line. Both ordinary people in extraordinary times.
Based on the research, project chiefs hope to apply for Heritage Lottery funding to record the stories and experiences of Chopwell's Lumberjills. Future plans could include a website with personal stories and images and the staging of open days and school visits to celebrate these remarkable women. If you or a member of your family served at Chopwell Wood during the last war please contact Joanne Norman on 0191 5672550 or email firstname.lastname@example.org
Note to Editor
- The Women's Timber Corp was set up in 1942 as an off-shoot of the Land Army and at its peak had thousands of women from all backgrounds dressed in distinctive uniforms. Women wore a distinctive green beret and WTC badge. If they were healthy and strong they would become a tree feller. Talent at maths meant they could be a measurer. Up to 7,000 women worked in the Women’s Timber Corps during the Second World War. As men were called up it meant that employment of women in the forest was vital to the war effort. Timber was needed for pit props, aircraft (ie Spitfire and Mosquito aircraft among others), wood-based mine sweepers and packaging for bombs during transit. Alder wood was also used in the production of special charcoal for high explosives.
- Groundwork North East is working with the Forestry Commission and Friends of Chopwell Wood to offer more opportunities for people to access activities in Chopwell Wood. Groundwork North East is committed to the improvement of local communities in areas of need. Through partnership we help to inspire change that will secure all our futures. Operating throughout the region, with dedicated teams based in all four sub-regions. We specialise in environmental improvements, employment and business services, green economy projects and climate change activities. Our success is based on engaging local communities, young people, local businesses and the public sector.
- The Friends of Chopwell Wood is a voluntary organisation, formed 20 years ago, to help protect and care for Chopwell Wood. Its aims are to promote and develop recreational and educational facilities for the benefit of the public, whilst conserving wildlife and habitats. The group works with the Forestry Commission and other organisations to provide opportunities for local people to be involved in the management of the wood. We organise events and conservation tasks with the support of the Forestry Commission, and raise funding for the woodland.
- The Forestry Commission is the government department responsible in England for protecting, expanding and promoting the sustainable management of woods and forests and increasing their value to society and the environment. Forestry makes a real contribution to sustainable development, providing social and environmental benefits arising from planting and managing attractive, as well as productive, woodlands. For more visit www.forestry.gov.uk/NorthEastEngland
Media calls to Richard Darn on 0750 8010411