Untold lives blog

Sharing stories from the past, worldwide

14 October 2021

Diary of a Lumber Jill

‘Lumber Jill’ was the name given to women who worked in the oft-forgotten Women’s Timber Corps (WTC) during the Second World War, who have only begun to receive proper recognition for their service the past two decades. Initially a sub-division of the Women’s Land Army (WLA), members volunteered – or were conscripted into – working in forestry, carrying out duties previously done by men, such as sawing, felling, measuring, loading cargo, and driving tractors. This was often heavy manual labour, and could also be dangerous, but many women enjoyed it. Vera Lloyd compiled her experiences of the WTC into a diary in 1953, which found its way to our Modern Archives collections.

Opening page of diary showing Timber Corps logo

Opening page with Timber Corps insignia, Add MS 70609

Vera began her journey in Gloucestershire, with working hours typically starting at 7.45am in the morning until 6pm in the evening, with a half-day on Saturdays. During summer, work was daily and often never ending. It was not all hard labour though, early on in the service she rode her first pony, saw another give birth in the wild, and even had the time to fill in the head-sawyer’s cap with sawdust.

After nine months on the job, aged only 23, she was sent to Jacobstowe to lead a group of men at a sawmill – and here encountered some resistance to her leadership. A man named Fred was slacking on the job, often arriving late in the morning. She reflects, ‘It was, I suppose, [a] rather excusable reaction against being under a mere woman, but after a fortnight I decided to act’. Despite never sawing herself before, she worked for two hours before Fred arrived, putting in a significant amount of work. He ‘then eyed me with approval. “Shake” he said, holding out his hand’. She had little trouble from him thereafter.

Diary entry with a sketch showing Vera entering the upstairs window of the house via a ladder

Diary entry with a sketch showing Vera entering the upstairs window of the house via a ladder, Add MS 70609

In 1943 she was relocated further south-west to Baconnoc, to become sub-foreman for 80 workers, a significant increase of people under her charge. She writes a relatable experience of forgetting her keys and having to break into her house. While doing so her landlady returned, at which point she explained the ‘awkward situation with famous tact acquired since employed by Ministry of Supply, but am bowled over by information now imparted that key was under mat.’ We’ve all been there.

Of course, forestry work was perilous too. Early on, she writes that when walking through the forest a tree began to fall, which she dodged ‘with expert skill’. Worse, a few years later a boy came into her office bleeding over the floor. She explains how he had ‘placed [his] thumb too near [the] circular saw and is not the lad he was by quite a large bite’. 

After the War ended she stayed in the Corps to help rebuild, but disliked the office work she was assigned, longing for the manual labour and companionship in the fields. So she ‘rejoined the ranks of civilians, the richer by over five years of happy comradeship with the people of the West Country’. Vera received two recognitions of her service, which she kept in the diary.

Triangular red long service badge pasted into the diary, presented by HRH Princess Elizabeth, 1945

Triangular red long service badge pasted into the diary, presented by HRH Princess Elizabeth, 1945

'Personal message' of appreciation signed by Queen Elizabeth 

'Personal message' of appreciation signed by Queen Elizabeth 

Jack Taylor

Doctoral researcher at the Open University. His CHASE-funded research explores sexual violence between men in the late 18th and 19th centuries.

Vera Lloyd’s diary is part of the Life on the Home Front display in the British Library’s Treasures Gallery from 14 September until 11 December 2021. More information can be found at https://www.bl.uk/events/life-on-the-home-front.

Further Reading:

Add MS 70609 - Vera Lloyd: 'Timber Corps Diary', a calligraphically written account of episodes from the author's service in the forestry section of the Women's Land Army during World War II (6 Feb. 1941-15 May 1946).

Emma Vickers, ‘”The Forgotten Army of the Woods”: The Women’s Timber Corps during the Second World War’, Agricultural History Review 59, no. 1 (2011): 101-112.

Joanna Foat, Lumberjills: Britain's Forgotten Army (Stroud: The History Press, 2019).

 

12 October 2021

The Rational Dress Society

The Rational Dress Society was founded in 1881 in London.  The aim of the Society was ‘to promote the adoption, according to individual taste and convenience, of a style of dress based upon considerations of health, comfort, and beauty, and to deprecate constant changes of fashion, which cannot be recommended on any of these grounds’.  The Society promoted its work through drawing room meetings, advertisements, pamphlets, leaflets, and by issuing clothing patterns approved by the Committee.  There was an annual membership subscription of 2s 6d.

Rules of the Rational Dress SocietyRules of The Rational Dress Society printed in Viscountess Harberton's Reasons for reform in dress Public Domain Creative Commons Licence

In 1884 Viscountess Harberton, President of the Rational Dress Society, published a pamphlet entitled Reasons for reform in dress.  She contended that anything truly beautiful was in accord with nature and questioned how far current women’s clothing conformed to that rule.  A woman’s waist was naturally broad and flat, but dresses were designed to set off a round waist, sloping in like the letter V from under the arms.

Front cover of Reasons for Reform in DressFront cover of Viscountess Harberton's Reasons for reform in dress Public Domain Creative Commons Licence

Skirts were absurd, amounting to the hanging of a sort of curtain round the wearer.  They combined the maximum of weight with the minimum of warmth, and were the cause of many accidents.  Queen Victoria was reported to have sprained her ankle by stepping on her dress.  Women were hurt walking, trying to run, or when getting in and out of trains and carriages.  Every quick or sudden movement was dangerous.  Interference with the power of locomotion resulted in the loss of nerve-power.  A long skirt had a ‘constant liability to disarrangement’ and was difficult to keep clean as it rubbed against the heels and dipped into dust and dirt. 

Moreover, skirts were tiring to walk in – the legs had to be pushed against a mass of drapery.  Going upstairs, a woman probably raised between 2lb and 6lb of weight with her knee at every step.  Women expended maybe twice as much energy as men walking the same distance: ‘Nature gave muscles to the legs to support and convey the body, but never contemplated half the world constructing an artificial jungle for themselves to wade through as long as life lasts’.  Viscountess Harberton therefore advocated the need for women to be able to wear some form of divided skirt.

Viscountess Harberton clothed in Rational Dress - black and white image from a newspaper showing an outfit described as a navy blue jacket and skirt with a white silk vest.
Viscountess Harberton clothed in Rational Dress – navy blue with a white silk vest - from The Gentlewoman 18 April 1891, British Newspaper Archive also available via Findmypast

The pamphlet also discusses the ‘unmitigated evil’ of stays which displaced the internal organs and reduced the wearer’s ability to breathe.  The human form should not be altered to suit the dress: ‘would it not be wiser were all classes to combine to devise and adopt a dress which was both pretty and convenient? ... Our present dress sins against Art, it sins against Health, and it sins against Utility’.  A fresh start was necessary, ‘and if we are too faint-hearted to do this, we may as well give up the whole thing, with the humiliating reflection, that we have not fulfilled our duty in our generation, though seeing it clearly, but have left a grievous burden on our daughters, from which we could well have freed them, but we lacked the courage of our opinions’.

Margaret Makepeace
Lead Curator, East India Company Records

Further reading:
Viscountess Harberton, Reasons for reform in dress (London, 1884) British Library General Reference Collection 7745.bb.6
The Rational Dress Society’s Gazette
Lady Tricyclists

07 October 2021

Gunner George Fish of the Bombay Artillery Part 2

We're continuing our story about George Fish.  Two complementary sets of private and official letters spanning 30 years provide a glimpse into the life of one family separated between two continents.

On 5 April 1841 Gunner George Fish married Eliza Folkers at Bombay.  Eliza was the daughter of Albert Folkers, an East India Company Army pensioner who died in 1835, and his wife Mary.

Marriage of George Fish and Eliza Folkers at Bombay 5 April 1841Marriage of George Fish and Eliza Folkers at Bombay 5 April 1841 - British Library IOR/N/3/15 f.106 Public Domain Creative Commons Licence

George and Eliza had a son Philip Charles born on 29 November 1849.  I have been unable to find any other records about Philip.

During the 1840s George transferred to the Ordnance Department and served as Laboratory Man and then Store and Park Corporal, rising to the rank of Sub Conductor.  He died on 18 September 1850.  His widow Eliza married Daniel Sullivan, a Post Office clerk, on 14 October 1850 at Karachi.  She died in 1854.

In June 1860, George’s daughter Mary applied to the India Office in London for the value of her late father’s effects as his only legitimate child.  Mary was a silk weaver living at Pits Oth Moor, Patricroft, near Manchester, the wife of James Lomas, a striker for a smith.  It appears that someone wrote the letter on her behalf as she marked a cross on her marriage register entry and  on an India Office form.  She enclosed the first letter George had sent to his father and mother in 1830 in which he complained about his daughter being baptised as Mary because he had intended her to be named Jane after his grandmother.  Mary had fifteen more letters which she could share.  The last letter received by the family was dated 7 January 1848 in Karachi.  She said that if her father had married in India, he had committed bigamy since her mother Elizabeth was still alive.

The War Office forwarded to the India Office in February 1861 an application from Mary for George’s effects which she had sent to the Duke of Cambridge.   There is an India Office annotation that the estate was valued at Rupees 80 – 3 in the Bombay Government Gazette of 1851.

Amount of estate of George Fish reported in the Bombay Government Gazette of 1851

Amount of estate of George Fish reported in the Bombay Government Gazette of 1851 p. 1209 Public Domain Creative Commons Licence

Mary wrote again to the India Office in April 1861, reporting that her mother had drawn the sum of £2 14s 7d from the Bank of England in Manchester.  She asked when the balance of £5 9s 2d would be paid.   She hoped that her parents’ marriage certificate and her father’s letters, which she had sent as evidence for her claim, would be returned to her as soon as possible.

Letter from Mary Lomas to the India Office  June 1861Letter from Mary Lomas to the India Office  June 1861 - British Library IOR/L/MIL/2/1521 No. 2883 Public Domain Creative Commons Licence

In June 1861 Mary asked if anything more was owed above the amount of £8 3s 9d now received.  Several men who had served with her father had told her that George was a very steady man and thought to be in possession of a gold watch and chain, with more ready money than the amount paid.  The Military Department informed her that nothing was owed beyond the sum already given to her mother.

Reply to Mary Lomas from the India Office  June 1861Reply to Mary Lomas from the India Office  June 1861 - British Library IOR/L/MIL/2/1521 No. 2883 Public Domain Creative Commons Licence

In September 1861 Mary questioned whether her father was entitled to any prize money, batta, or medals for his war service. The chain of correspondence between Mary and the India Office appears to end here.

Margaret Makepeace
Lead Curator, East India Company Records

Further reading:
Mss Eur F751 Papers of George Fish, Gunner in the Bombay Army – unavailable at present, awaiting cataloguing.
Baptism of Eliza Folkers at Bombay 3 August 1828 (born 9 July 1828) IOR/N/3/8 f.267.
Burial of Albert Folkers at Bombay 29 November 1835 IOR/N/3/12 p.342.
Marriage of George Fish and Eliza Folkers at Bombay 5 April 1841 IOR/N/3/15 f.106.
Baptism of Philip Charles Fish 23 December 1849 (born 29 November 1849) IOR/N/3/23 f.229.
Marriage of Elizabeth Fish and Daniel Sullivan at Karachi 24 October 1850 IOR/N/3/24 f.279.
Burial of Elizabeth Sullivan at Karachi 16 August 1854 IOR/N/3/28 p.282.
Army appointments for George Fish in Bombay Times 10 January 1844, 11 March 1846, 24 June 1846, 21 October 1848 – British Newspaper Archive also availa ble via Findmypast.
Estate of George Fish IOR/V/11/2148 Bombay Government Gazette of 1851 p. 1209.
Correspondence of Mary Lomas with the India Office – IOR/L/MIL/5/362/3926; IOR/L/MIL/5/362/7252; IOR/L/MIL/5/363/3443; IOR/L/MIL/5/363/6989; IOR/L/MIL/5/363/8815; IOR/L/MIL/5/363/10426; IOR/L/MIL/2/1521 No. 2883.

Soldiers' References in the East India Company Military Department  IOR/L/MIL/5