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Hauling Ass with an All-Female Moving Company

Anything men can move, the Van Girls can move better.
November 3, 2015, 2:50pm
All photos by Nell Frizzell

It is the hour of fleeces and high vis; of plaster-splattered holdalls and overstuffed Umbro bags. It is, more precisely, 5.45 AM and I am cycling through the dark and rain-wet streets of Tottenham, London to an industrial estate. To a parking lot for trucks. To be a removals woman for the day, jackknifing mattresses into a van and hauling sofas across the pavement.

Luckily, I love manual labor nearly as much as I love industrial estates, the company of women, and looking around other people's houses. So, as I pedalled past the bus stop, surrounded by a scattering of early risers, I felt I was embarking on an awfully big adventure.

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Van Girls, with whom I was to spend the day, was set up in 2011 by ex-firefighter Emma Lanman. Within their ranks of female employees they count former and current employees of the Army, Royal Air Force, Metropolitan police, Fire Brigade, and London Ambulance Service. Not to mention the electrician, carpenter, comedian, personal trainer, and outdoor pursuits instructor. This is an organisation of formidable women, doing that most prosaic, basic, and underestimated thing: Making a living from physical strength.

I wheel up to the industrial estate where Van Girls is based past a huge row of bright yellow railings; a massive canvas sign to my left screams out the benefits of self-storage to the misty air, while men in rustling green coats stand at the doorway of the Selco Builders Warehouse cafe. Cycling around the corner, past the security guard and his office lined with semi-naked calendars, I find Emma in the back of a truck, rolling up a large piece of plastic sheeting. She's dressed, of course, in a grey Van Girls hoodie and the kind of work trousers my father used to bulk buy from home improvement stores.

Emma Lanman in the Van Girls office.

Van Girls have a flank of, well, vans, sitting in the gathering dawn. There is enough space on those wheels to move every resident of my block of flats. "We're in this one today," says Emma, giving a large black vehicle a friendly thump on the side before raising the tail lift and turning off the interior light. Her name, I see, is Elle Nino. All the vans have women's names. This is a female operation from the axle upwards.

We walk up to the office to pick up our job sheets for the day, through a building that doesn't look unlike my Year 10 science block. In the corner is a set of shelves, replete with a giant Sports Direct mug, a box of green teabags, and some heavy duty fence cutters. "Let's get you in uniform," says Emma, making all my dreams come true. I pull on a black Van Girls t-shirt, a pair of steel-toe work boots and, yes, my very own branded grey hoodie. While Emma juggles keys and print outs, I read the giant white board to my left. "Ass down, chest up, that's the way we pick shit up," shouts a poster in the corner, beside a list of tools to be ordered that includes a 13 wrench, drill bits, batteries and, simply, "knife."

A woman came up to us at a trade fair the other day… Her first question, before even saying hello was, 'Can you move my massive vulva?'

"A woman came up to us at a trade fair the other day," says Emma, as we drive to a nearby gas station to fill up. "And her first question, before even saying hello was, 'Can you move my massive vulva?' She was an artist and needed to move her studio." Our job sheet for the day doesn't, alas, include any giant vaginas but as we roll through the early morning traffic Emma talks me through our first delivery. We're taking some boxes to the Design Centre in Islington, where we'll pick up Nancy. Nancy, it turns out, is a small, gravel-voiced carpenter who, despite her relative size, can out-haul almost anyone on the team.

As I heft a lecturn through the steel-shuttered delivery doors, Nancy strolls past me carrying a huge cardboard box, a large wooden shelf and a lamp. "You've got to take pleasure in packing a van well and coming home sweaty," Emma tells me. "You've got to like manual labor." And from painting and decorating to shifting enormous pieces of wooden furniture Nancy—a born and bred Cockney—loves manual labor.

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Our next job is down in leafy Chelsea and as we drive down Euston Road, I notice a few other van drivers doing a double take when they catch up with us at the lights. "People do shout 'fucking dyke' and things sometimes," says Emma. "But I just smile back at them. There's no use getting angry." The most awkward thing, she tells me, is when men at the jobs feel the need to help. The Van Girls may be the qualified removal team, but it goes against something in a few men's bones to sit back and allow them to do their job.

Emma and Nancy by their Van Girls truck.

Do they ever have to pack up weird things, I wonder, my mind sliding across the contents of my bedroom shelves? Emma and Nancy are both far too professional to give details, but let's just say that an immaculate tray of sex toys isn't unheard of. "But very quickly you stop seeing things and just see it as shapes that you have to pick up and put in a van," adds Nancy, sounding every inch the Tetris player.

We pull up around the corner for our next customer's house and look for somewhere to park. Two men in high-vis vests sit at the bottom of a huge set of scaffolding over the road and eye us suspiciously, their cigarettes hanging unsucked in their pink, calloused hands; polystyrene cups of tea cooling, undrunk, in their fists. Either they've never seen women before, or they've never witnessed parking. Either way, this appears to be a very exciting moment for them.

You've got to take pleasure in packing a van well and coming home sweaty. You've got to like manual labor.

The job in hand is to pack up the contents of a flat, to be driven up to Scotland the next day. The inventory includes something called a 'tallboy.' Visions of a young Sean Connery wrapped in a blanket fade out of view once Emma explains how to tip and lift a tall chest of drawers. After taking several cardboard boxes, a set of tables, a huge television, and an armchair down to the van, it's time to tackle Nancy's own personal nemesis: the mattress. I find myself, chin-deep in a mattress the approximate size and weight of a blue whale, trying to shimmy it into a giant brown paper protector bought by the owner. It's like trying to stuff an envelope with wet lead. Thankfully, after a lot of grunting and one swift shin to the bedframe from me, we get the mattress wrapped and zipped into a large bag, ready to be taken in the lift.

Although, of course, if it were that simple, then Van Girls wouldn't need to be there. Manouevering the mattress into the lift is one thing; what then ensues is a harp-like arrangement of bungee cords in the back of the van to make sure that each blanket-covered item is safe, secure, and unable to fall. I haven't wrestled with this much Lycra since I tried to wear a push-up bra (once and never again). But Emma and Nancy hook and pull with aplomb and, before I know it, the van is trussed up like a salami and we're ready to squeeze in one more job. The washing machine.

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Have you ever tried to lift a washing machine? Don't. Those things are heavy as sin and just as brutal. Luckily, the Van Girls have a whole array of trolleys and gurneys for the job which meant that, just a few moments after sizing up the cuboid metal beast, I had tip-and-lifted it onto a small set of wheels and was able to glide it through a subterranean car park like it was made of butter. For this small act of dynamism, we were all given a folding cash tip from the homeowner.

As we drive back through Wembley, past something called the Welsh Harp Reservoir and a terrifying inflatable clown bobbing outside a light industrial unit, I turn to Nancy and ask her what she'll do with her tip. "I think I might go to bingo," she smiles, rolling herself a small liquorice cigarette. "Yes, I'll have a shower and then go down Elephant and Castle for a game of bingo." That's the thing about strong, physical, tough, capable, spatially-aware, muscle-heavy, tenacious women: they're women. Being female may sometimes pull at your shoulders like a harness and weigh heavy on your heart. But gender is not a burden. It's just boxes. And together we can move them.