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Idle Women of the Wartime Waterways



A double bill of theatre, poetry and songs (including some you get to join in).

Isobel’s War (Kate Saffin) and Idle Women and Judies (Heather Wastie) are based on interviews and existing accounts of the young women who worked on the boats during the second world war.

Isobel is 23 and wants to do more for the war effort than rolling bandages and serving tea at the local infirmary. She spots an advert for the Women’s Training Scheme, applies, and is accepted…

Through Idle Women and Judies we meet some of the real women and hear their stories and experiences of the wartime trainees through poetry and song. It’s a world of coal, cocoa and occasional catastrophe.

We have taken Idle Women of the Wartime Waterways on tour to all the canals that the trainees worked on – the show is still available to book for your cruising club, village hall or waterways event. This show is currently available to book.

You can also buy the book (which contains more than we can fit into live shows!) 

Isobel’s War

by Kate Saffin

Isobel’s War is based on interviews and existing accounts of the young women who worked on the boats during the second world war.

Isobel is 23 and feels there must be more to life, and doing  your bit for the war effort, than rolling bandages and serving tea at the local infirmary while her husband goes off to win the war. She spots an advert for the Women’s Training Scheme, and without telling either her husband or her mother, applies. And is accepted.

Isobel is fictional but draws on the written accounts, interviews and conversations Everything in the play happened to someone somewhere although I have changed a few places and the order in which things happened for dramatic effect. I particularly wanted to show something of the impact these young women had on the very reserved boating community; for that perspective I drew on the many stories one of the last of the working boatwomen, Rose Skinner, told me as well as the wonderful account of life on a working boat Ramlin Rose; the Boatwoman’s Story by Sheila Stewart.

It is easy to think that the experience of training and working on the boats shaped the lives of every young woman who took it on because we have a number of written accounts by those, such as Eily Gayford, who continued to live on a boat and Susan Woolfitt who was a regular speaker about her experience (and responsible for the nickname Idle Women). In reality there were many who lasted only days, or even hours, before grabbing their kitbag and legging it to the nearest station. At least one crept away at the dead of night! And there were many for whom it was a great experience but not one that defined the rest of their lives. I met Iris who I met as a very sprightly octengenarian,  she went on to train as a nurse and talked about nursing as much as boating during my visit.

Isobel is one of those who went back to ‘ordinary’ life, didn’t write books or speak of it much – as many women didn’t, regardless of their war work. It was simply doing your bit and then getting on with whatever life served you. Until your daughter has to clear out the attic…

Kate Saffin
Kate Saffin
Heather Wastie

Idle Women and Judies

by Heather Wastie, began as an audio piece, commissioned in 2014 by the Canal & River Trust

Splashed across the Evening News
“Idle boats in need of crews”
so young girls, greenhorns
applied and went off for interviews…

It is based on the wartime memories of three women: Emma Smith (author of Maidens’ Trip, A Wartime Adventure on the Grand Union Canal), Nancy Ridgway (who worked on the Leeds and Liverpool Canal) and Daphne March (who operated her family-owned boat Heather Bell  in the Midlands). The 6-minute recording (longer in live performance) broadly tells the women’s story, from recruitment to redundancy, using their own descriptions, condensed into the form of a poem.

This piece opens the second half of the Idle Women of the Wartime Waterways show and is followed by a series of poems and songs re-telling accounts from books and articles by Eily Gayford (The Amateur Boatwomen), Margaret Cornish (Troubled Waters) and Susan Woolfitt (Idle Women). Audiences have the opportunity to join in with a bit of banter along the way as well as singing the choruses of Heather’s infamous earworm songs!

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Supported using public funding by Arts Council England

Who Were the Idle Women?

The Women’s Training Scheme started in 1942. Young women learned to handle a pair of 72 ft narrow boats with 50 tons of cargo – just another example of women stepping up to the mark and taking on jobs no one thought they could do (although generations of women from the working boat families had been doing just that for years).

As the war approached in the late 1930s the Government seriously underestimated how important the canals were going to be as part of the wartime transport services. They stopped the call-up of experienced boaters (over 25 years old), but did nothing to prevent them leaving the canal for other employment or to join up (which probably looked more exciting for many young men on the boats than working with your dad and boat loads of coal!).

National Service Badge
Eventually, realising their mistake they made several futile attempts to recruit more crew but it was only when Daphne March began recruiting women to help her run the boat Heather Bell on the Worcester and Birmingham Canal that it seems to have occurred to anyone that women might be able to do the job. The Grand Union Canal Carrying Company apparently asked Daphne to move to the Grand Union but she wanted to stay where she was. She suggested two women who had worked with her, Eily Gayford and Molly Traill, as suitable trainers. They spent some time with a working boat couple, Ciss and Albert Sibley, before starting to train others.

Around 100 women started the training – many didn’t last long; but around 45 completed their training and worked for a period in teams of three with a motor boat, an unpowered butty, and 50 tons of cargo. Estimates as to the number of pairs of boats crewed by women on the Grand Union Canal vary from 15 to 30 at any one time, but only six women stayed for the full duration of the scheme from 1942 to 1945.

And, unlike the working boatwomen who had had little or no schooling, these were often very well educated and articulate women – so they kept diaries and wrote books about their experience, leaving us a wonderful collection of stories about their time on the water.

More about the Idle Women

Here we have collated all the material we have come across in our research as we developed the stories we tell in Idle Women of the Wartime Waterways.  ‘Idle Women’ refers to the group who worked for the Grand Union Canal Carrying Company. The scheme began with Molly Traill and Eily Gayford spending several weeks with Mr and Mrs Sibley in 1942 before taking on their own pair of boats and then becoming trainers. However, they weren’t the only women. A key one was Daphne March who worked a family owned boat, the Heather Bell, from Worcester throughout the war. We know from letters that the Ministry of Transport wanted her to start a scheme on the Grand Union but she wanted to stay on the Worcester and Birmingham carrying to Tipton and then going on to Cannock for coal to take back to Worcester.

There was also a smaller scheme started in 1944 on the Leeds and Liverpool – there is evidence of a number starting training but only a handful lasted any length of time, perhaps just two boats. One was worked by Nancy Ridgway (nee Smith) who later recorded her memories and wrote a book, giving us a glimpse into the very different world of the L&L Short Boats (generally referred to as barges).

Idle Women Susan Woolfitt
Maiden’s Trip Emma Smith
The Amateur Boatwomen Eily Gayford
Troubled Waters: Memoirs of a Canal Boatwoman Margaret Cornish

There are also references to the trainees from the point of view of a woman born and bred on the boats in Ramlin Rose; the boatwoman’s story  Sheila Stewart

And on the Leeds & Liverpool Canal…
Memories of a Wartime Canal Boatwoman Nancy Ridgway (ed Mike Clarke and Timothy Peters)

The TUC Women’s History Network: Boatwomen Training Scheme
Molly Traill’s report on NB Willow’s blog
And an account of Molly Traill’s involvement with the trainees and boating by her grandson
When Evelyn died her stepson, Tom Monnington, found her wartime diary among her possessions and donated it to Stoke Bruerne museum in 2008.

There were a number of newspaper and magazine pieces in 1992 when there was a reunion at Batchworth and 2008 when the women’s work was formally recognised with the installation of a plaque at Stoke Bruerne.

The Independent – The truth about the Idle Women

The Daily Mail – The narrowboat girls

The Telegraph – Land Girls of the canals

Tim Coghlan, Managing Director of Braunston Marina… edited the newly discovered diary of Evelyn Hunt in 2010 (discovered after she died)

And wrote two articles about the truly remarkable life of Olga Kevelos

Olga’s Boat Song – Part 1

Olga’s Boat Song – Part 2

There is a collection of pictures of Daphne March working with her mother on Heather Bell on her niece’s blog (copyright Imperial War Museum).

During the war there were several newsreel films made for the cinema about the trainees.

Beauty and the Barge (British Pathe) And definitely a period piece!

Another Job For Women (British Movietone) At least the narrator of this one knows the women are on boats not barges.

Worker and War Front no 15 (Ministry of Information 1945) A wartime magazine made to motivate and inform war workers, commissioned by the Ministry of Information in 1942 and exclusively screened in factories.

There are also several recordings of several of the women talking about their experiences after the war:

An extensive (8 reel) oral history recorded with Margaret Cornish in 2004 about her childhood, teaching, her pacifist beliefs as well as her time on the waterways (Reels 7 and 8) and available via the Imperial War Museum

Sonia Rolt, one of the trainees who later married Tom Rolt talking to historian Lorna Yorke in Stoke Bruerne

Longevity seems to be a feature of these remarkable women and several lived into their nineties or beyond. At least one, Miranda, reached her centenary, dying in January 2017, aged 100.

EMMA SMITH (1923-2018)

Author of Maiden’s Trip, Emma died on April 24th 2018. All the major broadsheets carried obituaries for her:




SONIA ROLT (1919-2014)

Sonia stayed involved with the waterways after the war for the rest of her life. She married a boatman, George Smith, although sadly that ended in divorce. She then married Tom Rolt, the author of Narrowboat, and a founder member of the Inland Waterways Association. All the major newspapers carried obituaries; rather than  try to select we suggest you search ‘Sonia Rolt obituary’.

An interview with Sonia Rolt

And more about her life and work on the Tom Rolt website

Here is a link to some colour footage of Sonia working with George shortly after the war.

AUDREY WILLIAMS (nee Harper) 1921-2013

Audrey was part of the crack trio known as AudreyEvelynAnne who worked together for three years. After the war she married and moved initially to South Africa and then to Tasmania where she spent the rest of her life.