4 January 2017

The women mariners who worked on British waterways during WW2

'Idle Women'  -  Recreating The Journey

This is the story of the women who worked on the canals and waterways of Britain during WW2. It is written by Heather Wastie and Kate Saffin of the the Alarum Theatre Company and it appears on their webpage.

During the Second World War there was plenty of work for the working boats on the canals, but not enough good crews. So the Women’s Training Scheme was born – young women who took on 72 foot boats and 50 tons of cargo.

This year, Alarum Theatre have been touring a double bill ‘Idle Women of the Wartime Waterways’ along the canals of the West Midlands. We have been whisking audiences in pub gardens, historic dry docks, cafes and marquees back to the 1940s to hear the stories of those women.

Next year, we plan to celebrate the 75th anniversary of the start of the scheme, when trainer Eily (Kit) Gayford began her learning with working boaters Ciss and Albert Sibley, before going on to train many others as part of the scheme. We will recreate the regular journey (London, Birmingham, Coventry, London) made by the trainees who, shortly after the war, became known as The Idle Women, a nickname that has stuck ever since. We’ll be performing the show in venues along the route, plus, in Milton Keynes and Birmingham offering some extra events such as writing or reminiscence workshops – all linked to the stories of the canal around the war.

And to make the journey a little more special, and to give women a chance to experience something of the life of the trainees, we're going to make the journey with an historic narrow boat, NB Tench. Her skipper and crew will all be women and we need your help to cover the running costs (diesel, insurance and additional boat safety requirements) as well as travel expenses for the skippers and crew. They will be experienced boatwomen. As well as moving the boat we hope they will welcome and support women from the communities we visit (and perform in) who come to visit the boat and experience something of the life of a trainee. If we achieve more than the £1600 running costs we'll be able to extend our activities on the boat and invite more women from the local communities we're visiting to come and experience some time on the boat. Details can be found at the Idle Women crowd-funding website

We're planning to make the journey over 3-4 months from April-July and we'd love your help. As well as contributing to our fundraising you can sign up to join us for a stretch of the journey to help crew Tench. Find out how the planning is coming along and join our mailing list for updates on our website

If you have suggestions for venues or would like to discuss other ways you can join in, please contact us via our website. The show is also available to book for your local cruising club, IWA gathering or waterway festival.

Thank you for your help. Look forward to seeing you at one of our shows next year!

Heather Wastie and Kate Saffie

This tale of 'History on the Move' was brought to our attention by the Heritage Hub's Fabian Hiscock.