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War Years in the Timber Corpsicon for Recommended story

by actiondesksheffield

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Barbara Beddow in the Timber Corps uniform

Contributed by 
People in story: 
Barbara Beddow, Frank Dennis
Location of story: 
West Riding of Yorkshire, Forest of Dean, Fearby in North Yorkshire, Swinton Estate, Markington, Middleham, Carlton, near Selby, Foggathorpe
Background to story: 
Civilian Force
Article ID: 
Contributed on: 
30 June 2005

This story was submitted to the People's War site by Julie Turner of the BBC Radio Sheffield Action Desk on behalf of Barbara Beddow, and has been added to the site with her permission. The author fully understands the site's term and conditions.

War Years in the Timber Corps

I grew up in a country village in the then West Riding of Yorkshire. I was an only child, quite bright, gained a scholarship to a Grammar School and was academically inclined, but my father, who was an electrical engineer working with a firm of gas engineers, became a victim of the 1930s depression and I at 14 1/2 yrs, left school and got a job in a rather up market shop — a children's outfitters. We catered for children going away to Prep School and sold the local Grammar School uniforms. Later I moved to a very select ladies' fashion shop. In April 1939 I married a boy I had known from school days — in September 1939 he was killed — he was in the Irish Guards, in barracks in Dover where they were shelled from across the channel.

Later in the year, my husband's sister, who was about to go to University saw an article in Punch about the Land Army and the mention of the forming of a Corps of women to work in the Forestry Commission.

Eventually with the help of someone in the BBC, we were given an address in Harrogate. We wrote off for information and within a week, we were in and had our instructions and travel warrants to go to the Forestry Training College in the Forest of Dean. (I must add at this point, that my mother was horrified and forbade me ever to darken their doors again.)

Here we were billeted in a hostel and as the male students had only just moved out, we had then tutors for lectures, in tree recognition, growth and uses. We were also taught how to measure trees, both standing timber and felled trees. We also went out on practical experience with the staff who did the felling, and re-planting, so there was nursery work experience as well. After six weeks we were allocated a place of work; we were sent to Fearby in North Yorkshire, our overseer was a Canadian lumberjack, very introverted, certainly not used to having women working for him — so he had as little to do with us as possible. Not so the local village boys, we caused quite a commotion, the wives were very suspicious and not at all friendly. We were staying on a small holding with a couple and their two young children but we were soon asked to move. We were like beings from another planet to them. We both went to stay in the village Pub. We went to bed carrying a candlestick and in the morning, washed ourselves in a basin, having carried the jug of water up the night before.

Nancy and I soon parted company, she had fallen in love with an ex Geordie miner and later became pregnant and married him much to her parents' horror. She was critical of me because I flirted with the boys, so soon after being widowed. I soon moved again to the Sawmill House on the Swinton Estate, pheasant were still being raised when I arrived and the Keepers "bothie" was attached to the Mill House. The mill was working (by water wheel) for the little Swinton estate. Viscount Swinton from the Castle brought venison round to his employees. Lady Somebody, who was President of the local L.A. branch invited me to afternoon tea — with the silver tea service, cucumber sandwiches, strawberries and cream served on the Sheraton, or was it Munton china? Very impressive. Big snow, completely cut off, down to a bag of turnips.

From Fearby I moved to Markington where I continued to do the same job — timber measuring, starting at daybreak and working until dusk or 5.30pm, whichever came first. Drinking bottled cold tea and eating doorstep sarnies of home cured bacon, or maybe ham or cheese. Sausages to roast on sticks over the tortoise stove were very tasty. We were not allowed to go home whatever the weather — we would sit in the hut and play cards or yarn.

In Markington I stayed with a family. Mum and three daughters — mum was having fun with the local army lads. Someone wrote to her husband, he came home and chased her with an axe (mine, used for chopping firewood). I moved out pretty quickly and was moved on to Middleham, after a few weeks in Wormald Green, where I stayed with the local Doctor and his wife, who adopted me and taught me to play bridge. In Middleham, I worked on Witton Fell, counting pit-props and riding the wagons to consign loads away at the station, varying it with taking the articulated lorry loaded with telegraph poles. We had many COs here, some homosexuals of both sexes and also men from the Durham pits. I lived here on the banks of the River Yore in a beautiful house which had been Middleham Vicarage, or maybe the Vicar just lived there. His daughter, a victim of sleeping sickness, was the owner. She had a cook and a housemaid, and as her war work, she was the local post lady. She was a man eater, and her men ate all our rations, but she had a boat on the river and we had many midnight parties. We used to see otters playing on the river bank.

On the move again, to Carlton, near Selby. My supervisor, a Yorkshire cricketer called Frank Dennis, asked me if I would be a forewoman in charge of operations, and as it meant better pay and a new challenge I accepted.

Ramnus frangula

I was to find and extract a shrub called Alder Buckthorn (Ramnus frangula). So off I went to the New Forest to see a project already set up and working. I stayed in a small Hotel almost filled with retired "ladies"; one was an ex Head Mistress of Girton. There was a commercial traveller who came regularly, and the "ladies" almost fought each other for who should warm his slippers and fetch his drink etc. I learnt that the gypsies worked this Alder Buckthorn in peacetime.

I settled into digs in Carlton where I was issued with a bicycle and given several possible locations to search, including small woods. The owner had then to be approached and informed. I had twelve girls sent to me, straight from home, and I had to find billets for them. I had problems with them, from bed wetting, stealing, staying out all night to dirty habits etc. I was issued with a hut for an office, and an open sided shelter for the girls to work in. Some bushman saws to cut out the branches. We bought a set of cobbler's knives — we chose to erect the huts on the bank of a stream on the edge of one wood. We soaked the branches in the water, then scraped off the bark. I managed to beg from a local farmer, some sheets of corrugated iron, which we laid over stakes in the ground. We lit fires underneath and dried the bark, then filled the sacks with the end result and sent them off to be turned into Cascara Segrada. The sticks were cut into equal lengths, labelled and bundled and sent to be used in high precision work in the making of ammunition.

Here in the village, life was fairly normal, cricket on Saturday afternoons in Summer and Carlton Feast just as it always had been. Whist Drives in the Village Hall and plays by the Drama Group in the Winter. I remember running Aid to Russia dances, helped by the baroness Beaumont and trying to skate on the ponds in the grounds of Carlton Towers. I remember rabbiting with ferrets and seeing herons fishing and watching a family of kingfishers grow up.

The agent for the company who owned all the farms where we found Alder Buckthorn, invited me to his home and he and his wife often took me visiting the farms, where we would always be given fruit or leg of pork, sausages, bacon, eggs etc.

Getting married again

I remarried during my time in Carlton — someone from my hometown that I had known over the years. The family I lived with were very good to me and I have remained friends with the children as they have grown up. My landlady taught me to bake bread and to cook Sunday dinner, including Yorkshire puddings, apple pies, cakes etc. We had no shortages, one Grandpa had a farm where they killed pigs (illegally) and made butter and cheese. The other family had an orchard with apples, pears and plums, he grew asparagus and I will always remember the slices of thick home cured ham and bundles of asparagus dumpling, with butter and home grown new potatoes. We had masses of soft fruit in the garden and had raspberries and strawberries with everything, made dozens of pounds of jam and bottled it in kilner jars. Blackberries grew down the lane, which we gathered, and the children went gleaning after the peas and beans had been harvested, bringing basket loads home to be eaten or put down in jars, layered with salt. Eggs were put in a big crock with isinglass.

The RAF boys that I knew provided the dried fruit for my wedding cake, my landlady baked and iced it. I bought remnants of ivory, shell pink and pale blue satin and we all sewed my wedding underwear and nighties. The gypsies down the lane sold me clothing coupons for my outfit, and a family in the village, whose husband was a farm labourer and had ten children, sold me butter, marg and sugar and anything else on ration to take home to my mother (who had by now quite forgiven me).

The wedding over, with a honeymoon in Scarborough where my husband's Battery was stationed, and a great party in the Mess, then back to work and another move to Foggathorpe, between Selby and Holme-on-Spalding moor. Here I rented a small cottage, sandwiched between the Post Office and the Pub. The mother who ran the Post Office, owned my cottage and had two bachelor sons. The daughter and son-in-law had the Pub — I could go out of my back door and knock on the bar window, whereupon they would open up, take my order and serve the drinks. A toad lived in the wall opposite my back door, and the Post Office had a lovely garden with a lily pond with lots of carp, and frogs sitting on the water lily leaves. A small hut with a paraffin oven and a rickety table was my kitchen. In the cottage was a stone sink with a slab and that was all — no hot water, I used to go to friends in Selby for a bath.

Here we felled two 12 acre woods, it was only small stuff, so the girls managed and we walked to work. When we arrived in late June, down the side of a bean field, which is the most heavenly perfume I know, facing us was a field of flax. If you have never seen the blue of a flax field, you have missed a treat. Social life here was very good, we had five aerodromes, all fairly near — so I wrote to ask the Station Commanders to invite the girls to their social activities, with the result that the girls had plenty of parties, dances, concerts etc. They were also allowed to use the NAAFI at Home on Spalding. I was invited to many of the Officers' Mess parties etc, where crews brought back exotic foods from visits to Africa, Australia etc. The Lord of the Manor was a disabled Army Officer; he had been injured playing polo. He still kept some of his polo ponies and a retired jockey to care for them. I learned to ride with him and enjoyed early morning trots around the village.

I had more problems when I was told that I was being sent Italian prisoners of War to work with the girls. The problems with that, I will leave to your imagination.

Eventually, my husband came on leave, my old jockey friend, as a great treat, arrived with a hen in a sack. After trying hard to pluck out the feathers, we had to pack up and take it home to mother! Not before I had given my husband a treat. I had made some jam tarts, but sadly, I had greased the tin with fat from a joint of pork, which I had stuffed with sage and onion. After that leave I found myself pregnant and so I resigned.

I feel that we were so busy adjusting to a new way of life, that the War for us only became real when it affected us personally. It was a period when my first husband died when a bomb was unloaded on a corner of Masham (2 miles from Fearby). A plane crashed in a field at Carlton, scattering bits of bodies around. I was counting the bombers out at night over my cottage at Foggathorpe and counting them back in, in the early morning. We didn't talk about the war much. I think many of us enjoyed the freedom from parental discipline and wallowed in friendships of all kinds, girls together, boys and girls, girls with older married landladies etc. I think older local people saw us as a threat, bringing a challenge to their own young people, who were still under discipline; the young ones were jealous of our freedom. We were probably seen as being a bit wild and too free.

As far as I can judge, we were not exploited, rather the opposite. We had no supervision (only a visit about every 3 months) so I was entirely free to work or not.

I loved the work, I've always had a feeling for nature and the outdoors, and I revelled in the countryside, learnt many of the birds and much country lore which has remained with me, as I have continued to be a bird watcher and walker. Living with and working with, and having to relate to such a variety of people, developed in me an interest in what makes people tick, so when I came home to start a family, I soon became involved in voluntary work: Sunday School, Brownies, Guide Commissioner, Youth Club Leader, Youth Tutor, Marriage Guidance (now Relate) Counsellor. After my children left school, they went into full time work with the Education Service, establishing Community Service with 4th and 5th Years. After retirement at 59, I went on to start and Chair the Calderdale Volunteer Bureau for ten years. At present I am British President of an organisation "Internationally Yours", and a Women's Friendship Club founded during the last War, aiming to help establish peace through interaction with women of different cultures. I also run a Probus Widows' & Wives' Coffee Club in Halifax, plus I am involved in a scheme to help young people, which is being sponsored by Prince Charles Prince's Trust and the Wakeham Trust.

Looking back, I am amazed at what I was expected to do at 21 years of age with no training in how to manage relationships or people's problems. There was no-one to turn to for guidance — no guide lines at all about employees' rights, or where legal responsibility lay. How different it is today (2005). I have a book which was published and written by members of the Timber Corps — poems, articles, jokes etc. Skipping through it again I am sure we had no idea of the variety of jobs that the Timber Corps girls were doing, and we had none of the referred to training. I was made a forewoman when I went from Middleham to Carlton, mostly by postal communication. If I had any real problems, I could contact the supervisors, but one lived in the Midlands, another up North and they seldom visited, just as long as my weekly returns were correct and my accounts were paid and the tree fellers, who were on piecework (some of them could not read or write, but knew their earnings to a penny) did their jobs. Again, I had not done any office work or dealt with finance in any way. I indented for the money I would need; it came through the Post Office — then I placed it in a Bank Account. The girls did understand the use of pip props and large timber in the mines and knew the straight trees with a circle of white paint were to be telegraph poles.

We were told that usually soft wood was used for pip props, but it was becoming short in supply, so it was hard wood being taken from the woods in Foggathorpe.

I believe we occasionally had a news sheet of some kind, but I cannot remember the format.

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