Far From ‘Idle:’ The Women Canal Workers of the Second World War – The British Newspaper Archive Blog

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Far From ‘Idle:’ The Women Canal Workers of the Second World War

Nicknamed the ‘Idle Women,’ although they were about as far from idle as anybody could possibly be, the women canal workers of the Second World War performed vital war work which is all but forgotten today, some seventy years later.

Some of the ‘Idle women’ arriving at a canal dock | The Sphere | 15 April 1944

The curious name of ‘Idle Women’ came from the badges that these pioneering women wore, with the initials ‘IW,’ which stood for ‘Inland Waterways’. This moniker, given to them by the boatmen they worked beside, stuck, even though the work they did was notoriously hard, and deemed to be so difficult that there were some who thought women could not undertake it.

But the women who worked on the canals throughout the Second World War and beyond proved their doubters wrong, as we soon discovered by delving into newspapers from the time. So join us in our journey as we explore how women working the canals went from being purely a notion, to a necessity of the war effort. Along the way we will meet the characters of the canals, the women who volunteered, and the men and women who trained them.

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Women Want Canal Work

In April 1941 an article appeared in the Hartlepool Northern Daily Mail, which ran with the headline ‘Women Want Canal Work.’ ‘And why not?’ came the answer from M.P. Mr. A.P. Herbert, who saw ‘no reason why they should not make a success of the job.’

He told the Associated Press:

In my opinion women would be quite strong enough to undertake this work – why, they are already doing it.

Indeed, ‘Adventurous women with a desire for an open-air life’ had already been offering to work on the barges, transporting vital supplies like coal across the country. But in the spring of 1941 there were some who thought that women were not able to take on this work, one such naysayer being an official of the Grand Union Canal Company.

Hartlepool Northern Daily Mail | 2 April 1941

The Hartlepool Northern Daily Mail reports him as saying:

 We do not consider that the average woman would be fit for this work; this is why we are having to turn down the large number of applications from them. We doubt if women would be strong enough.

Meanwhile an official from the Transport Ministry went one further, imagining a situation where women canal workers would have to open a lock gate. Instead of being able to do it themselves, they would ‘just have to sit down and wait till somebody came along to help them.’

Old (right) and new (left) locks on the Grand Union Canal | The Sphere | 10 November 1934

The official from the Grand Union Canal Company did have to concede, however, that ‘If a great shortage of men for this work should develop later on we may have to see how the job can be adapted for women.’

Vital and Important Work

And so it proved that by October 1942 women were indeed needed to work the canals. Speaking in the House of Commons, Mr. P. Noel Baker (Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of War Transport) stated that ‘his department had made every effort to increase the use of canals for the carriage of goods in the Birmingham area and elsewhere.’

The Birmingham Mail reveals the vital role that women were playing in this increased use of the canals:

The principal difficulty had been the shortage of labour for canal wharves and crews, but women had been trained and several women crews were already at work.

And in case the public were not aware of the ‘great importance’ of ‘the maximum use of canals,’ Brigadier-General Sir Osborne Mance, Director of Canals Division in the Ministry of War Transport, was on hand to explain it to them.

Aberdeen Evening Express | 4 November 1942

In an interview published in the Aberdeen Evening Express, November 1942, the Brigadier-General describes the vital ‘power of the canals,’ through their role in ‘saving petrol, rubber and rolling-stock,’ all three ‘precious’ commodities in wartime. But who was harnessing the potential power of the canals? Women!

The Brigadier-General relates how:

Quite a number of women have shown an interest in the canals and we are now following a system which may prove very useful when every hand is needed. On the Grand Union Canal women are being trained as an interesting experiment. They are all keen – very keen, I might add – but it is too early to say that they will all hold down the job.

Although unsure of women’s staying power in their new roles on the canals of Britain, the Brigadier-General went on to say that ‘all those who travel the canals can assure themselves that they are playing a vital and important role in the victory drive.’

The Regent’s Canal at Maida Vale, London | The Sphere | 10 November 1934

Tough But Jolly

And so, would these women recruits survive the waterways, or founder, as many seemed to suspect they would? Indeed, far from simply surviving, these early women recruits thrived, and so by March 1944 more women were needed to work Britain’s canal boats.

The Scotsman, 28 March 1944, relates how ‘More women volunteers are needed for training to operate canal boats,’ giving a potential recruit an idea of what they could expect from the work:

If found suitable, trainees are given control of a pair of boats, consisting of a motor-boat with a ‘butty.’ Earnings accruing from the tonnage are shared by the three members of the crew, and are subject to a minimum wage of £3 per week. Canal boat workers are entitled to extra rations of tea and sugar. Only women of robust constitution are advised to apply.

The Ministry of War Transport added that the main qualifications for the role were ‘grit and the spirit of service.’

The Scotsman | 28 March 1944

So who were the women who volunteered for canal life? Mea Allan, writing for the Daily Herald in March 1944, met a few of them, having gone ‘boating yesterday on the Grand Union Canal in a canal boat ‘manned’ by women.’ These women were part of a group of eighteen, who were engaged in ‘taking valuable cargoes from London to Birmingham and Nottingham as their war job.’

The scheme had proved so successful that the Ministry of War Transport wanted ’50 more girls for the service.’

The women already working the canals came from all walks of life, and variety of places too, hailing from New Zealand, Australia, Patagonia, and Mexico, as well as closer to home. One of them was Anne Blake, 29, who came from Devon. She told Mea Allen how:

The life is tough…You’ve got to be prepared to lump it. But it was obviously the life for me because I like the open air.

So what did working the barges entail? First up, it involved an early start, ‘getting up in the morning at 6 o’clock, cooking your breakfast and probably steering the boat at the same time, opening lock gates every 10 minutes or quarter of an hour and not tying up until dusk.’

Daily Herald | 31 March 1944

The women would undertake two trips over the course of five days, all the while ‘living, eating and sleeping in a cabin 10 foot by 7 foot,’ and then receiving three days’ leave after the completion of their last trip.

But Mea Allen noted how the women seemed happy, some of them having been ‘at the job for 18 months now, sufficient proof that life on the cut is a good one.’

Working alongside Anne Blake was Evelyn Hunt, from Hammersmith. A ‘former camouflage research worker,’ she was pictured in The Sphere in a spread entitled ‘Scenes of Activities on the Home Front.’ Shown with her is Audrey Harper, 22, a former nurse and ‘daughter of a Birmingham estate agent.’

Audrey Harper operates a barge-pole, as Evelyn Hunt looks on | The Sphere | 15 April 1944

And in November 1944, the scheme was again extended, as reports the Nottingham Journal:

The scheme for training women’s crews for canal boats is being somewhat extended, and there will shortly be vacancies for a limited number of additional trainees, states the Ministry of War Transport. A form of application and particulars of service can be obtained from the Inland Waterways Division of the Ministry of War Transport, Stratton-street, W.1.

One of the ‘principal trainer of women crews for the canal boats‘ was even named in the New Year’s Honours of 1945. The Suffolk and Essex Free Press reveals how Miss Eily Tolley Gayford had been awarded an M.B.E. for her work in training women for canal work. The newspaper notes how there might be ‘difficulty in contacting her to express congratulations,’ given that she lived aboard a canal boat, but sent its warm wishes all the same.

The ‘Barge Belles’ of Leeds and Liverpool

It was not just the Grand Union Canal that women worked upon during the Second World War. In January 1945 the Liverpool Evening Express advised that ‘Women volunteers to work barges on the Leeds and Liverpool Canal should apply at 74, Pall Mall, Liverpool.’

Liverpool Evening Express | 27 January 1945

In a Ministry of War Transport backed scheme, women were invited to undertake a two month long training course:

The first part of the training will be given in a school ashore, where models of barges will be explained and the geography of the canal studied. Later the women will receive their practical instruction on a motor barge.

After having successfully completed their training, new recruits could expect to be given ‘control of a barge, transporting essential cargoes.’ New recruits, according to Mr. Robert Davidson, chairman of the North-West Regional Canal Committee, should be ‘between the ages of 20 and 35, and…physically fit and strong.’

The Liverpool Daily Post, in a ‘Daily Post Special,’ goes on to report how authorities had been ‘inundated by requests from women in all parts of the country to whom the silent surfaced canals have whispered their invocation, and to whom the occupation of maneuvering a barge has appeared as novel.’ College students, domestic servants, factory workers, nurses, office clerks and housekeepers, had all applied, but who were the lucky four (out of 300 applicants) who were picked?

The four chosen [were] Mrs. Ruby Greenwood of Halifax, whose Merchant Navy husband is a prisoner of war in Japan, and who says she wants to become a barge ‘belle’ in answer to the call of the sea; Miss Elsie Blackburn, a Burnley munitions worker who ‘got fed up of the factory’ and craves the more spacious atmosphere of canal life; Miss Barbara Gray, pupil of Edinburgh Art College, who hopes to combine a useful war job with an opportunity for drawing book illustrations; and Miss Nancy Smith, of Northwich who, because she has lived seven years in a houseboat, and because her fiancé is in the Merchant Navy, thinks it is ‘the natural thing to do.’

Liverpool Daily Post | 13 February 1945

Guiding them through their training, which involved ‘theoretical and practical lessons in such complex subjects as navigation, engineering, rope-handling, and the use of lock-gates,’ was Mr. William Baldwin, who was possessed of ‘over fifty years’ experience on the northern canals.’ He told the Daily Post:

‘There is no reason in the world why women shouldn’t do the job just as well as men,’ he said. ‘They are very adaptable, and a few weeks’ practical work will soon harden them.’

So with ‘bottles of hand lotion and a boundless amount of optimism,’ the four women set about their work. Meanwhile, The Daily Post was on hand for their scoop, reporting on the ‘first barge to sail the northern canal with an all-women crew,’ as the barge Edith left Wigan, manned by women for the first time in history.

Winter Campaign

And even after the war ended, women were still working the canals, shipping vital supplies across the country. In October 1945, The Sphere reports on the opening of the ‘winter campaign,’ as women continued to bring coal to London:

Many of the Londoners who will be able to purchase coal this winter will owe it to the hard work of a gallant band of women volunteers who bring coal to London in canal barges.

Mrs Helen Skyrme at the tiller of her barge, bringing coal to London | The Sphere | 6 October 1945

Not only had these women proved their doubters wrong, succeeding in what was deemed to be a completely male sphere, something they would be unable to undertake at all, they had played an important and necessary role in the war effort, and continued to support the nation’s infrastructure even in peacetime.

So whilst these women’s stories might largely be forgotten today, the newspapers in the British Newspaper Archive help to illuminate them, and ensure that they are told, and retold, over seventy years later, enabling these pioneering women to once again inspire us.

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