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Seeking stories from Birmingham’s canal women

Alarum hopes to step back in time once more through the memories of more women. Intern Louise Bradfield explains.

When Birmingham comes up in conversation, the first thing mentioned is normally related to Peaky Blinders, the accent, at least one of the football teams or – most importantly – the canals. The comparison to Venice is inevitably made of course and people are left to wonder “how many miles of canals and waterways does Birmingham actually have”?

Most will have some knowledge of stories of the canals during the Industrial Revolution, and about how they well and truly put Birmingham on the map. They might also have heard of their importance during both world wars, when again, Birmingham was an industrial epicentre, or they may even have recently walked along a stretch of the waterways in question, and admired their tranquillity, the abundance of wildlife and the opportunity to have an hour outdoors during the Covid-19 pandemic.

It is safe to say that many do not know of the post-war years, however, which saw the canals fall into a tragically sorry state of affairs – completely unusable in parts, full of weeds and all manner of rubbish, and sadly forgotten.

That was until the efforts of a remarkable group of people began, to petition, appeal for and even restore the canals themselves!

As with most of history, the stories of some of the men involved have been shared and can be read about when one investigates the time period in question (late 50s to early 80s) but the voices of the women who contributed have never really been sought.

That’s where Alarum comes in! Following the great success of our 2019-20 project, ‘I Dig Canals’, which saw a team of people collecting, researching and promoting the stories of the women involved in the restoration of the Black Country Canals in the 60s and 70s, we want to do the same again – but this time in Birmingham!

Tina Gittings in Dudley Tunnel, discovered through the I Dig Canals project.

Our previous campaign saw us talking to women who recounted stories of trying to sell tickets on the towpath while looking after a hungry baby, entertaining visiting dignitaries on a boat that suddenly runs aground, or simply keeping the family safe and fed amidst all the digging and debris. Not only did we get a fascinating insight into the work that went into keeping our now beloved canals open, but it quickly became apparent that it wouldn’t have been possible without the women in question. Most of these women downplayed their contributions and needed some convincing to speak, but their stories were poignant, funny and riveting, and Alarum has since gone on to tour with a live theatre production of the very same stories, as well as producing a whole series of podcasts and a book (available on this website no less)!

So, with all that in mind, can you help us with the next step?

Do you know a woman involved in the restoration of the canals in and around the centre of Birmingham? Or do you know someone who worked in an industry based on the canal during the 60s and 70s (or even the 50s and 80s)?

If so, we’d love to hear from you! You can email us (at nadia@alarumproductions.org.uk), write to us or even reach out through social media. The choice is yours, and, not only would you be helping us begin our new project, you would also be preserving the voices of the women from the past for the future generations.

Birmingham’s history is rich and diverse, and full of joy and humour, but it’s often only the men narrating those stories. Let’s give women a chance to shine!

*I Dig Canals: Birmingham is supported by The John Feeney Charitable Trust, and Alarum thanks them for their support.

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