The Van Girls are London’s first and only all-female packing and moving service – mostly hired by women, but sometimes men as well. “Guys who hire us kind of think it’s quite novel… and are really surprised by how strong we are,” said founder Emma Lanman.
Lanman started Van Girls in 2011, when she quit her job at the fire brigade and decided to start a business of her own. She’d seen people get excited about female firefighters, and realised it was something of a novelty for a woman to be seen doing a ‘man’s job’. She also figured that lots of women might feel safer hiring an all-female moving service.
“I thought it might actually be a valuable service,” she said. And Lanman was right – it turns out that plenty of women who live alone or don’t live with men are a lot more comfortable hiring the Van Girls – not just for safety reasons but for that feminine touch! Like 68-year-old Jean Hewitson, who moved down the street with her daughter and granddaughter last year. “We’re an all-female household,” she explained. “I thought, yes I want women packing up my house. I thought they’d be more sympathetic to my belongings really, and I’d get on with them better.”
“Men, I thought, would be more inflexible than women. I thought a male removing company would be a load of blokes telling me how they wanted it.”
According to Lanman, other people who hired them have made similar assumptions. “They assume rightly that we’re trustworthy, they’re really happy letting us into their home, they assume that we’re delicate and they have a view that we get stuff done and don’t moan,” she said. “I have an opinion that guys often end up doing a man in a van job as a way of making money because they have run out of options sometimes, but women end up doing that kind of thing because they love it. It’s not the obvious choice.”
In the past few years, Van Girls has evolved into an organisation of formidable women who make a decent living out of using their physical strength. Employees include women who served (or are serving) in the Army, Royal Air Force, Metropolitan Police, Fire Brigade, and London Ambulance Service. They also have female electricians, carpenters, plumbers, personal trainers, and even a comedian on board. Dressed in black Van Girl t-shirts, steel-toe work boots, and branded grey hoodies, they operate with a single motto: “anything men can move, the Van Girls can move better.”
They’re all really happy with what they do, but some of them agree that the job has its drawbacks. Louisa, 29, who used to be a lawyer, says she doesn’t miss her old job, but does miss dressing up. “I didn’t want to do law as a profession – I’m much more practical and didn’t want to be behind a desk,” she said. “This job keeps me fit and I enjoy doing it.”
Others, like Ellisha, think more women should get into jobs that are perceived as traditionally male. “Men think they’re the stronger ones who just want to carry all the fridges and stuff, whereas we can also do that, but be more careful with fragile, delicate stuff,” she said. “We should be able to do whatever men can do, we should be able to do everything, so yeah, women should get into this.”
Naturally, the girls get shocked reactions from those who hire them. “People always ask if we can carry washing machines and fridges,” said rugby player and van girl Ellisha, 29. “I say, yeah we can actually, it’s not as hard as people think it is, it’s quite easy.”
And more often than not, they prove to be much stronger than the men who hire them. “When we start, if they’re struggling to move something, we take it off them and they’re a bit taken aback sometimes, so that’s the other kind of surprise reaction,” Lanman said. “We’re all quite physical girls so we’re quite strong anyway.”The Van Girls also get double takes from men who see them moving heavy stuff into white removal vans. “We have people shouting things in the street,” said Lanman.
“People driving past peer in the windows. Often men say things about how they think it’s sexist, which is quite interesting. They shout: can I work for you? Why can’t I work for you?”But Lanman is quite clear on her no-men policy. “If we’re going to make it a ‘women service’ then it needs to be all-women,” she explained. “If someone needs that as a particular service you don’t need one guy and three girls turning up, because it might upset them.”
“I’d hire men in the office though,” she added, cheekily. “That’s part of the dream; to have male receptionists.”