Remembering Sunderland’s Lumber Jills

WWII Lumberjills.  Ethel Oliver is right, backrow.
WWII Lumberjills. Ethel Oliver is right, backrow.
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VOLUNTEERS are being sought to go back to nature.

THE work of Wearside women during World War Two is at the centre of a new project.

Ethel Oliver a Lumberjill working in the wood during the Second World War.

Ethel Oliver a Lumberjill working in the wood during the Second World War.

Dozens of Lumber Jills - volunteers with the Women’s Timber Corps - helped fell thousands of trees across the North East during the conflict.

Now their memories are being gathered by Groundwork North East, supported by the Heritage Lottery Fund, and volunteers are being sought to help out.

“We must ensure that the stories of our North East Lumber Jills are not allowed to be forgotten,” said Joanne Norman, senior project officer at Groundwork.

“But we need the help of local people to make this a reality. We would like people to take ownership of the project and help preserve their heritage.”

Ethel Oliver, a Lumberjill during the WWII, with her husband, Randle.

Ethel Oliver, a Lumberjill during the WWII, with her husband, Randle.

The ‘Story of the North East’s Lumber Jills’ project has its roots in Groundwork’s involvement with the Friends of Chopwell Wood and the Forestry Commission.

Interest in the work of the women was first sparked in 2011, when The Friends were contacted by the son of a Lumber Jill who had worked in the woods during the war.

“This led to a national search for more women who undertook the often complex and demanding work of selecting, measuring, felling and sawing timber,” said Joanne.

Scores of women have since come forward to tell their stories, sparking the need for volunteers to conduct interviews and document the stories on a special website.

“If you are interested in meeting people you could become an interviewer, or you can help organise and deliver open days relating to the project,” said Joanne.

“If you are into digital media you can volunteer on a steering group to help design the Lumber Jills website, later adding any new information that is received.

“Or, if you are artistic, you could help design a booklet containing the stories of the Lumber Jills, which will be circulated to local schools and contributors.”

Ivor Crowther, head of the Heritage Lottery Fund North East, added: “The stories of the North East’s Lumber Jills are so important.

“It is great to know that work is underway to record and share them for everyone to learn from and enjoy. We are proud to be supporting this project.

“We hope that many people will want to get involved and volunteer and play their part in creating a clearer picture of what life was like during the war.”

l Anyone interested in taking part in the project can contact Joanne Norman on 0191 567 2550.

Alternativelyemail her at: joanne.norman@groundwork.org.uk.

‘You had to be good with figures and know your trees’

THE Great Outdoors has always had a special place in the heart of Ethel Oliver - and never more so than during the Second World War.

Born in Roker Avenue in 1923, the daughter of a master painter and decorator attended Monkwearmouth Grammar School until she was 16 - just before war broke out.

“I started training as a nurse but, when I turned 18, I joined the Land Army. The fresh air and chance to work in the countryside attracted me,” she recalls.

“We were given a list of things we could do, such as forestry, gardening and farming, and the work of the Women’s Timber Corps just appealed to me.”

Ethel, who now lives in Whitburn, trained for the back-breaking work in the Lake District, learning how to identify trees, measure them and peel off the bark.

She then moved back to the North East, putting her new expertise into practice at sites such as Coxgreen, Chopwell Woods, Wallington and along the River Wear.

“I didn’t actually fell the trees, I was a measurer,” she said. “I used to identify which trees to chop down, then measure their length and width once felled.

“You had to be good with figures, and know which trees were which. Part of the job was picking out trees that would make good telegraph poles or pit props.”

Ethel and her WTC comrades were issued with a special uniform for the job, including a green beret, khaki trousers and a badge with a fir tree embroidered on it.

Much of her working life was spent on the road, moving from billet to billet, but it was a job she loved with a passion - and brought her life-long friends.

“The harsh winters were very hard, having to work outside all day in snow, rain and hail, but we got through. It was a tough time, but a good one,” she said.

“You were your own boss, you had a job to do, and you did it. I loved being outside and I still remember the whole experience with happiness. They were great years.”

Ethel finally stepped down from the WTC in 1946, marrying husband Randle five years later. The couple went on to have two children and Ethel became an interior designer.

“I was invited to Downing Street a few years ago, to meet Prime Minister Gordon Brown, who gave me a badge to mark my work in the WTC - which was nice,” she said.

“I’ve still got my life-long love of the countryside - I don’t think I will ever lose that now. Those days in the WTC were happy times, and I have many fond memories.”