Tuesday, 8 September 2009

Research - Land Girls

I often interview people when I'm working on a book, and they readily find time to share their memories with me of the work they used to do whether in the mill or munitions, farming or forestry, war or peace. With The Land Girls on TV this week, I thought you might be interested to hear about Betty, who I interviewed, among others, for Gracie’s Sin.
Betty joined the Women's Timber Corps, which is a branch of the Land Army, because she was too young to join the WRNS. The girls were trained by foresters too old to fight, and were allowed only a matter of weeks to learn how to do the job. She recalls that her first task was to plant larch and Scots Pine, which had to be one spade length and one foot apart. Later she went into felling. She used calipers to measure the diameter and estimate the height, mark each tree to be felled with a white blaze, then take it down using a 5lb Ellwood Felling axe, or the crosscut saw. These were for pitprops. For loading logs on to the lorry they had a three legged crane with wires, which worked like a pulley. Betty would stand on the wagon and guide the logs on board, checking that they were stacked evenly and didn’t fall. She was only small, barely 5 foot, but learned the task through common sense and practice.

Betty helped to fell a stand of trees on the far side of Loweswater. There was oak along the edge of the water and larch above. She helped build a chute to send the felled trees into the lake so that they could be towed across by boat. These were probably for telegraph poles. The forester was in charge and Betty said you did as you were told or you were in trouble. The trees had to be lopped and topped, then peeled and all the knots taken off with a draw knife. Stripping the bark hurt your fingers, and it was sticky underneath, creamy with sap. A lot of swearing would go on.
Cheese sandwiches seemed to be the main fare to keep them all going. There were blisters, aching muscles and sun burn, and the skin of her hands became hard and calloused, stained by the bark. Her clothes would be crawling with small brown spiders.

Betty worked for most of the war in Grizedale Forest close to the German POW Camp, which was strictly for officers. The POWs used to march up and down the road for exercise. They’d make comments to the girls and the guard would shout at them, 'Eyes front.'
‘We are German Officers and if we say we will not escape, we will keep our word.’

There was a machine gun trained on them the whole time but, of course, escape attempts were common, particularly when they were out working in the forest. If they could reach the coast they could get to Ireland, but none succeeded. They would all be caught later on the fells in a sorry state. Trouble makers were taken up to London in a blacked out car for interrogation.

Betty remembers that she had to have a pass to walk through the camp gates to reach the forest to work. There was a sentry on guard who would say:
‘Halt, who goes there? Friend or Foe?’
‘Friend,’ she would say.
‘Advance friend to be recognised.’
So Betty would show her pass and be allowed through.

Gracie's sin, in my book of that name, was only to fall in love with a German officer, but it wasn't at all the right thing to do.

The Timber Jills, as they were fondly called, worked from eight till five and were rarely allowed a full weekend off, with four weeks a year leave. Betty sometimes got a lift to the station at Ulverston to go and see her mother who was a seven shilling widow. Betty earned twenty-eight shillings a week, less insurance. Fourteen shillings went on board and lodging at the camp and she sent her mother five shillings. She’d be left with about 5 bob, and think herself fortunate.

After the war she worked in 22 different counties in three years from 1947-49. Then stayed on with the Forestry Commission as a cartographer. She drew maps so well that they were often used for publication and she made a career of it. Her memories are happy ones and she can still wield a 5lb axe even though she is now in her eighties.

You can see Betty, first in the line of girls, pictured when she joined the Women's Timber Corps aged just 17.
Best wishes,

1 comment:

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