If you go down to the woods in Dalby Forest today, you’re sure of a fascinating theatrical surprise. Over the weekend and next week, York-based Common Ground Theatre are staging an outdoor production in a woodland clearing, inspired by the invaluable wartime work of the Women’s Timber Corps, an offshoot of the Women’s Land Army.
The Lumberjills, written by Hannah Davies and directed by Tom Cornford, tells the stories of the women who worked in Britain’s forestry trade – felling trees, loading lorries and trains and sawmilling timber all over England during the Second World War.
In 2013 a large-scale steel sculpture – Push Don’t Pull by Ray Lonsdale – was unveiled in Dalby Forest to commemorate the lumberjills who worked there during the war and the Forestry Commission was keen to engage visitors further with this little-known piece of local history. Common Ground have a track record of making theatre in non-traditional performance spaces – they regularly tour their productions around pubs and village halls – and creating accessible pieces that connect with people’s lives and communities, which led to a conversation with the Forestry Commission. Researchers at Dalby Forest had gathered together archive material about the lumberjills and conducted interviews with some of the surviving women, now in their eighties, who had been members of the Women’s Timber Corps.
“We started talking to the Forestry Commission because they had gathered together all this interesting material but they weren’t quite sure what to do with it,” says Cornford. “We thought it was great. There are so many fascinating stories to work with – and they offer an interesting, quite different, perspective on the Second World War. The narrative of the war is mostly about men and powerful men – and with these women’s stories you see the war from a totally different point of view. They were young women, many of whom came from relatively underprivileged backgrounds, and the war looks very different from their perspective. It was a chaotic and quite frightening situation but at the same time the women were presented with opportunities that would otherwise have been closed to them. And they were taking on huge responsibilities and real risks – that is the stuff of drama.”
Set up in 1942, the Women’s Timber Corps recruited girls and women from the age of 17, although some of them were as young as 14, from all backgrounds and walks of life. They were given four weeks training and then sent out to forests all over the country to carry out the essential work of providing timber that was made into pit props, telegraph poles, roadblocks, packaging boxes and even crosses for war graves. Around 9,000 women worked as lumberjills but despite their enormous contribution to the war effort they received no official recognition, aside from a letter of thanks from Queen Elizabeth, the Queen Mother, when the corps was disbanded in 1946. It wasn’t until 2000 that former members of the WTC were allowed to participate in the annual Remembrance parade in London and only in 2007 that the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs announced that all surviving members of the WTC would be entitled to wear a new badge to commemorate their service. There is a reason why it is often referred to as “the forgotten corps”.
“It is a bit of a hidden story and it should be told,” says Davies, who wrote the script for The Lumberjills. “I listened to all the interviews that had been conducted by the researchers at Dalby Forest. Some of that material is delightful and it has heavily informed the events of the play.” It tells the story of three young women, Mary, Connie and Ada, who are called up to the join the Women’s Timber Corps – and together they master not only the art of swinging an axe but also of staying out late and dancing the foxtrot. It is a tough life, and the horrors of war are never very far from their minds, but they also have the kind of adventures they hadn’t dreamed of before in an exciting new world of tree felling, gramophones and tea dances.
“The writing process has been a drawing together of a lot of material,” adds Davies. “I found a book of first-hand accounts which has a whole chapter of poetry written by the women and I have used little snippets of those in the script. There were also references to the rivalry between the lumberjills and the Land Army Girls, who looked down on them, and a lot of WTC members often worked alongside Italian prisoners of war and they joked that the PoWs were treated better than they were.”
Music and songs of the era are also incorporated into the show, performed by three actors, to reflect the fact that there was fun to be had despite the challenging conditions the women were facing. “Some of the girls were just teenagers and from a variety of different backgrounds,” says Davies. “There were shop workers, hairdressers, city workers so they were not necessarily used to outdoor work. It is very hard physical work – their shoulders ached, there were midges and they were out in all weathers, working eight hours a day. By the end of it, they were very fit.
“There is a lovely poem I found by one of the women who talks about being a wartime profiteer because she absolutely loved the work; she found this deep personal fulfilment. They all had an experience they just wouldn’t have had if the war hadn’t happened.”
The Lumberjills is being performed at the end of the Ellerburn Trail, Dalby Forest, Thornton Le Dale, at 2pm and 6pm today and tomorrow and then Wednesday, July 27 to Sunday, July 31 at 2pm and 6pm. Suitable for ages 7+. For tickets and more details go to cgtheatre.co.uk